Gordon Brown has been forced into a damaging retreat after he finally admitted he misled the Iraq Inquiry and Parliament about the funds handed to the armed forces.
Senior military figures complained bitterly after the Prime Minster told Sir John Chilcot's inquiry that the budget for British troops had risen above the rate of inflation every year for the last decade. Mr Brown later repeated the claim in the Commons.
But, in a rare and surprising admission during Prime Minister's Questions yesterday, Mr Brown conceded that the claim was not accurate and that he would be writing to the inquiry to correct the statement. "I do accept that, in one or two years, defence expenditure did not rise in real terms," he said.
Mr Brown blamed "operational fluctuations" for the individual falls in real-terms spending.
A research note prepared by the House of Commons Library in October last year showed defence expenditure had fallen in real terms in four financial years since Labour came to power in 1997: 1997-98 (-2.2 per cent); 1999-2000 (-0.4 per cent); 2004-05 (-0.7 per cent); and 2006-07 (-0.1 per cent). The average annual increase between 1997 and 2009 was 2.7 per cent, it said, but noted that "this figure is likely to have been distorted by current operations".
The admission will increase pressure on the Chilcot inquiry to recall Mr Brown to give more evidence in the summer. A spokesman for the Prime Minister blamed the mistake on the complexity of the budget, adding that Mr Brown had corrected himself at the first opportunity. He refused to say when Mr Brown learnt of the error. "I don't think the Prime Minister has ever had anything to hide on this," he said. "He has done it at the time that he thinks it's appropriate."
Mr Brown had fiercely defended the claim at last week's PMQs. "I said to the inquiry very clearly first of all that the expenditure of the Ministry of Defence has been rising in real terms," he told David Cameron. "The defence budget... is rising every year."
Liam Fox, the shadow Defence Secretary, said Mr Brown's admission represented "a humiliating climbdown" from a week ago. "His attempt to rewrite history has failed and his fantasy figures have been exposed," he said.
The Prime Minister's evidence sparked condemnation from some senior military figures who said it was "disingenuous" of him to say that he provided military chiefs with everything they asked for.
General Sir Mike Jackson, the former chief of the general staff, said yesterday that he was annoyed by Mr Brown's repeated claims of a real-terms rise, "but it is for him to explain". While there had been a "modest" overall rise in spending since 1997, defence had not been given "the right resources to do what it is being asked to do operationally", he told BBC Radio 4's PM.Reuse content