Millbank accused in fake defence letter dispute

Labour's Millbank headquarters was accused yesterday of using "dirty tricks" to defend the Government by writing a fake letter to a national newspaper.

Mystery surrounds the authors of a letter to The Times rejecting criticism of the Ministry of Defence's decision to scrap the Royal Navy's Sea Harrier jet six years early to save £109m.

The Times carried a letter on Monday from Flight Lieutenant Dan Holland of the RAF and Lieutenant James Hamblin of the Royal Navy arguing that the decision "will not, in fact, be as big a blow as many people seem to believe."

The letter went on: "While Labour's defence-spending policy is far from ideal, it certainly is not making the same level of cuts as we saw in the early Eighties with John Nott's infamous 1981 Defence Review, or in the early Nineties with the further cuts implemented by the Options for Change Defence Review of the Major government.

"If anything, the Tories have done more to hurt our national defence over 18 years than anything Labour could do in five."

There is only one problem: according to the Ministry of Defence, the servicemen do not exist. Nicholas Soames, the Tory former Armed Forces Minister, tabled a Commons question asking whether the letter had been approved by their commanding officers.

Adam Ingram, the Defence minister, admitted in his reply: "Inquiries have revealed that there are no officers with these names in the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. The authorship of this letter is therefore unknown. We have informed The Times accordingly."

The minister added: "Queen's Regulations provide guidance to service personnel on publication of views and the requirement to seek permission beforehand. Had the letter been authentic, these procedures would have needed to be followed."

Last night Bernard Jenkin, the shadow Defence Secretary, wrote to the Labour chairman, Charles Clarke, demanding to know whether he or any of his staff knew anything about the letter. Mr Jenkin said: "The moment I read this letter, I thought the author must be a member of the Labour Party's spin team.

"Who else would so carefully defend the Government and take such a typical swipe at the previous Conservative government?"

The Tory frontbencher said his party had established that the two servicemen did not live at addresses published in The Times. "No serving officer would be allowed to propagandise on behalf of the Government in this way. It is against Queen's Regulations and therefore whoever did this has brought the reputation of the armed forces into disrepute."

A Labour spokesman dismissed the Tory claim as "ludicrous" and "nonsense." He said: "It certainly was nothing to do with us."

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