Defence cuts provoke protest by Tory backbenchers

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The Independent Online
MALCOLM RIFKIND, Secretary of State for Defence, was warned last night by Tory backbench MPs to draw the line at further deep cuts in defence, after announcing pounds 2bn in savings over three years, with the closure of bases across Britain and the loss of 18,700 jobs.

The cruellest cut came with the loss of 700 jobs at Rosyth in Fife, which will cease to be a naval base, although 900 jobs will remain associated with the 'support establishment'. The mine hunters and fishery protection vessels at Rosyth will move to Faslane or Portsmouth.

Apart from Rosyth, the main closures are three RAF bases: Laarbruch in Germany, Scampton and Finningly. Others include two service hospitals, the RAF Staff College, MoD buildings in London, the Royal Marines base at Deal, three ammunition testing ranges and 17 armament, stores and fuel depots.

As expected, the RAF is to take the brunt of the 18,700 job losses, losing 7,500 by the year 2000.

Some senior Tory MPs wrote to the Prime Minister to reinforce the message, given to Mr Rifkind at a meeting with backbenchers, that they will resist any further deep round of defence cuts by the Treasury.

The announcement of the cuts, called Front Line First, won the support of Tory MPs in the Commons with substantial orders for equipment - including plans to buy cruise missiles - as 'sweeteners'. But privately they left ministers in no doubt that they regard it as 'so far, and no further'.

'We want stability,' said one member of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee executive.

Mr Rifkind refused to give a guarantee of no more deep cuts in defence when he was challenged in the Commons by Sir Nicholas Bonsor, Tory chairman of the cross-party Commons Defence Select Committee.

Tory MPs are concerned at the loss of morale in the armed services caused by the first round of cuts in Options for Change followed by Front Line First. They fear further unrest among the troops over a fundamental review of pay in the armed forces, which could lead to some ranks being scrapped. 'It could be like the rows with the police over the Sheehy report,' said a senior Tory.

Mr Rifkind said the strategy behind Front Line First was to enhance Britain's fighting capability by redeploying savings from the 'top-heavy' support services into fighting equipment and men.

But Conservative MPs said the 'devil was in the detail'. There were immediate protests by Tory MPs with constituency interests, such as the closure of the Royal Marine music school at Deal, bombed by the IRA in 1989, and RAF Scampton, the base made famous by the Dambusters.

Labour attacked the partial closure of Rosyth as a 'betrayal' and the Liberal Democrats called for the RAF to be withdrawn completely from Germany.

Details, reaction, page 9

Inside Parliament, page 6

Leading article, page 17