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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Tory war veterans batter May over defence spending cuts

A band of former soldiers-turned-MPs have united in a public push to demand more resources for the armed forces

Tobias Ellwood, the veterans minister, has voiced discomfort at plans to cut back the British army further. Matt Dunhan / AP
Tobias Ellwood, the veterans minister, has voiced discomfort at plans to cut back the British army further. Matt Dunhan / AP

The British government faces a rebellion among military veterans in politics, who have risen up against the prospect of further cuts to defence spending.

In recent weeks, Johnny Mercer, Tobias Ellwood and a band of former soldiers-turned-MPs have united in a public push to demand more resources for the armed forces.

Post-Brexit Britain should be spending more on defence, not less, they argue, with Mr Ellwood, the serving veterans minister, even threatening to resign should further cuts be made.

Newly appointed defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, sought to suppress the rebellion as he made his debut appearance at the House of Commons despatch box this week.

Vowing to do “everything I can to deliver” for the armed forces, he promised to take the fight over defence funding to chancellor Philip Hammond. He also insisted that he viewed the current two per cent of GDP being spent on defence “as a base, as against a ceiling”.

But Mr Williamson's olive branch wasn't enough to quieten the dissenters within his own party. One rebel warned after a one-on-one meeting: “Tough times ahead”.

The rebellion comes as the country awaits the completion of a major national security review, which was ordered by Prime Minister Theresa May in the wake of a series of deadly terror attacks in the UK.

Defence chiefs have already been warned not to expect any new funding as a result of the review, which is expected to be completed early next year. Fears are now growing that the review could be used as an excuse for further deep cutbacks in the army, navy and air forces, as the Ministry of Defence is forced to live within its £36 billion budget.

Such cuts would be completely unacceptable, according to Conservative MP Johnny Mercer.

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Mr Mercer, who rose to the rank of captain in 2008 and served three tours of Afghanistan during his military career, told the BBC that a "campaign" was under way to "get defence back to where it should be".

He added the public did not want to UK's army to be "the size of Belgium's" – a country with just over 11 million people, compared to the 66 million living in Britain.

As a member of the defence select committee, he is now leading a group of backbench colleagues to force the chancellor to take the rising costs for Britain’s nuclear deterrent, Trident, out of the defence budget.

“I am determined that as the party of defence, we as a team will get it right,” he told his 23,000 followers.

Another former army officer, Tobias Ellwood, is believed to have threatened to resign as defence minister if the proposed squeeze on the armed forces go ahead.

The 51-year-old was hailed a hero for attempting to save the life of PC Keith Palmer during the terror attack at Westminster Bridge in March this year. His “deep concern” over proposals to slash full-time army numbers to 70,000 as part of cost-cutting plans leaked late last month.

Before entering politics, Mr Ellwood served in the Royal Green Jackets from 1991 to 1996 with tours in Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Kuwait, Germany, Gibraltar and Bosnia and is now in the Army Reserve.

Whitehall sources dismissed talks of personnel cuts, pointing to their official target of increasing the size of the army from around 78,000 to 82,000.

But behind the scenes, the government is said to be furious that details about planned defence cuts had emerged in the media.

According to Sky News, the country’s most senior military officers were recently summoned to the Ministry of Defence for a “dressing down” over the leaks. An unnamed source, speaking to Sky News about the meeting, described the furore as “a homogenous bunch of public schoolboys just trying to get attention”.

Mr Mercer, for his part, insisted: “It’s not about a rebellion, it’s not about individuals, this is about making sure we arrive at the right answer when it comes to defence.”

He also expressed support for Mr Ellwood’s stance, telling the BBC: “He’s a principled guy” and “he clearly sees what’s going on in the Ministry of Defence”.

Tom Tugendhat, Tory chairman of the foreign affairs committee and a former army officer, also tweeted support for Mr Ellwood.

Mr Tugendhat left the British Army in July 2013 after a career in which he served on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and, most recently, as the military assistant to the chief of the defence staff.

On Twitter, he said he was “proud” of his friend Mr Ellwood and called the cuts to defence spending “a false economy”.

Joining the calls to abandon further cuts, Sir Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill, tweeted: “The Conservative parliamentary party has a duty now to unite against further defence cuts to capability.”

Sir Nicholas, who served in the army between 1967–1975, is one of 24 Tory MPs who have written a letter to Mr Williamson, warning against the potential loss of HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion. The letter said such a move would “dangerously limit the array of options” available to the navy.

International trade secretary Liam Fox, who previously served as defence secretary, tried to play down the Tory rebellion. He said: “I think we should wait and see exactly what sort of compromise we reach – because that’s what it will be – and remember that the UK is the fourth biggest military budget in the world and is one of the very few Nato countries actually fulfilling promises to spend and help protect our partners.”

But his comments failed to contain the rebellion, which has spread across the benches. Opposition MPs have attacked the Conservatives for "broken promises", while Labour MP Dan Jarvis, who is also a war veteran, said Tory MPs should be "embarrassed" by the damage their party has done to Britain’s armed forces.

Last week, one of the UK’s most sophisticated warships, the HMS Diamond, was forced to abandon a mission to the Gulf after breaking down. To make matters worse, it appears there are no other ships ready to sail which could replace it – reflecting the state of the UK navy after years of cuts.

The incident is the latest in a series of embarrassments for the Ministry of Defence, and is just one example of the devastating effects that the cuts are having, at a time when post-Brexit Britain needs its reinforcements more than ever.