Tories in new defence row

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Defence ministers were threatened with a fresh rebellion over defence yesterday when senior Tory MPs warned they would oppose a Treasury move to cut pounds 400 million from the defence budget to finance tax cuts and other spending programmes.

Michael Colvin, the Tory chairman of the Commons select committee on defence warned Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, to keep his "hands off our national security" in preparing his next Budget.

"There would be a row if he tried to cut the defence budget and I just don't think he should.

"Our armed forces are at the moment overstretched. They need a period of future stability rather than further cuts."

He warned that it could backfire on the Tories. "With the election upon us the armed forces are going to see what the different parties say about their budgets."

The Cabinet will agree to keep a tight rein on public spending at a review of public spending on Thursday, but the Tory MP for Gosport, Peter Viggers, another member of the defence committee, said there was "certain" to be opposition if the cuts went ahead.

It came as the protests deepened over the pounds 2bn sale of armed forces' married quarters last night. A defence minister admitted that assurances by the Prime Minister that families would not be moved out against their will could be broken.

John Major told MPs last Tuesday that no forces families would be moved out of their quarters against their will. But James Arbuthnot, the minister for defence procurement, admitted some could be offered "comparable" accommodation elsewhere.

Julian Brazier, the Tory backbencher leading the campaign to stop the sale, warned that Mr Major would have to intervene to uphold his assurance.

"The Prime Minister has been to Bosnia, he takes a terrifically personal interest in the armed forces. He doesn't make pledges lightly and the pledge was made very clear on Tuesday," Mr Brazier said on BBC radio.

He said the deal, allowing site exchanges, would have to be "very substantially changed" to guarantee families would not be uprooted against their will. The doubts are certain to make the families who oppose the sale, dig in their heels, and it will strengthen opposition among Tory peers to the sale.

Peers are ready to defeat the Government on the final stages of the Housing Bill with an amendment which would scupper the sale for a year. Labour is also poised to force a vote in the Commons against the sale.

Jonathan Aitken, a former defence minister, fuelled Tory backbench rumours that the campaign is aimed at undermining the chances of Michael Portillo, the Defence Secretary, sweeping the right wing votes in a leadership contest with John Redwood.

Mr Aitken said: "There is a sort of slight game of Portillo-bashing in some quarters.

"Some people may be playing that game and I would regret that if it was true."

Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Menzies Campbell said Mr Aitken's comments on BBC radio revealed splits among the Conservatives. "It is an extraordinary admission and will be deeply damaging to service morale that the sale has become an issue between camps."

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