SAS man wins Britain's top military post

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A former Special Air Service officer takes over the country's top military job in April, when Britain's last field marshal retires. General Sir Charles Guthrie, head of the Army, will become the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) when Field Marshal Sir Peter Inge retires.

His appointment, after a prolonged contest with the head of the Navy, Admiral Sir Jock Slater, marks a striking victory for the Army over the Navy and Royal Air Force, which for much of recent history have been more glamorous and seen as more crucial to British strategic priorities.

The Ministry of Defence said it had not decided who would be the new head of the Army. General Sir Michael Rose, former United Nations commander in Bosnia and also an SAS officer, is in the running, but service sources said the less flamboyant General Sir Roger Wheeler, head of UK Land Command, was more likely, because he was "a safe pair of hands".

Sir Peter became CDS in March 1994 after Marshal of the RAF Sir Peter Harding was disgraced in a sex scandal. Unlike previous holders of the post, General Guthrie will not be promoted to "five-star" rank, which was abolished last summer. He will remain a general, though first among equals, a reflection of the shrinking of the armed forces.

Abolition of field marshals and the equivalent in peacetime was the only recommendation of the report on the armed forces' pay and conditions, chaired by Sir Michael Bett, which the Government has implemented.

General Guthrie, 57, will be the senior service officer in charge of the Navy, Army and RAF. His appointment follows a battle with the head of the Navy, Admiral Sir Jock Slater, although Sir Charles has been the favourite for some time. The head of the Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon, has spent longer in the job than normal because of the early death of his predecessor.

Sir Charles joined the Welsh Guards in 1959 and the SAS in 1966, serving for four years in Aden, the Gulf, Malaysia and East Africa. After staff college and service in Cyprus and London, he became commander of the Welsh Guards in 1977, serving in Berlin and Northern Ireland.

He commanded 4th Armoured Brigade in Germany in the early Eighties and 1st British Corps from 1989-92. He was appointed Chief of General Staff in March 1994.

Last night Navy sources said they were disappointed, and that they believed the Government under-estimated the importance of the maritime dimension of strategy.

The appointment of another soldier reflects the Army's particular experience in increasingly complex peace-keeping and humanitarian operations involving cooperation between many countries.

MoD sources said that General Guthrie was selected on the basis of operational experience, leadership, "international acumen" and "qualities of impartiality" in dealing with matters affecting all three services.

n Left-wing Labour MPs signalled the imminence of a general election by failing to rebel in last night's annual Commons vote on defence spending. Although 21 had signed an amendment calling for a cut in spending to the average of other West European countries, they did not vote against the Government for the first time in years, writes John Rentoul.

"You can't screw on your tin hat and take on the general every time," said one habitual rebel last night, referring to Tony Blair. Traditionally, the Labour leader orders MPs to abstain in a vote to approve the Defence Estimates, while leftwingers vote against. Last night, the rebels did not force a vote.