Minister admits troops need more helicopters

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A government minister risked inflaming the row over support for troops in Afghanistan today by insisting they did not have enough helicopters.

Foreign Office minister Lord Malloch-Brown - who is standing down at the end of this week - said: "We definitely don't have enough helicopters," adding that "mobility" was crucial for the dangerous operations being undertaken.

He also risked further angering Downing Street by admitting that Gordon Brown's political future looked "incredibly bleak".

The Prime Minister will face awkward questions about the peer's parting shots when he holds his monthly press conference in Number 10 today.

Lord Malloch-Brown's comments came as the Chancellor Alistair Darling also stepped in to debate over armed forces equipment levels, saying he had funded all requests from the military.

Mr Darling told the Tribune newspaper: "The Army has said this is what we want in terms of troops and equipment and we have provided that and financed it.

"I am very clear that if you ask troops to go and do something especially in the face of acute danger, somewhere like Afghanistan, you have to make sure there are sufficient troops and those troops are sufficiently equipped to do what is asked of them."

The military top brass has been dropping increasingly heavy hints that it is unhappy with troop levels and equipment for the fierce combat in Helmand province that has now claimed 18 British lives this month.

The latest casualty, a soldier from Joint Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group who died as he tried to defuse a roadside bomb, will be named later today.

Until now Mr Brown and other ministers have insisted that the military has all the resources it needs.

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Lord Malloch-Brown said: "We definitely don't have enough helicopters. When you have these modern operations and insurgent strikes what you need, above all else, is mobility."

The minister went on to admit that the public had not been prepared for an increase in the intensity of the campaign.

"We didn't do a good job a month ago of warning the British public that we and the Americans were going on the offensive in Helmand," the peer said. "This is a new operation; the whole purpose is to win control. These deaths have happened ... after we chose to go on the offensive."

Lord Malloch-Brown also controversially suggested that the Taliban may have to contribute to a future Afghan government for there to be peace in the region.

Elements of the insurgents' "support group" may have to be invited back into "the political settlement" as a price of victory, he said.

The minister's intervention is particularly significant because his responsibilities at the Foreign Office include Afghanistan.

Mr Brown appointed Lord Malloch-Brown, a former deputy secretary general of the United Nations, as part of his new "government of all the talents" in June 2007.

His diplomatic skills have been highly praised by colleagues and officials, but there were rumours of a rift with Foreign Secretary David Miliband and occasional outspoken comments that sparked controversy.

When the peer announced his resignation earlier this month, Downing Street had hoped that he would depart without incident.

Lord Malloch-Brown refused to write off Mr Brown's chances at a general election, but added: "It looks incredibly bleak."

Asked if he thought the Prime Minister believed he was doomed to lose, the minister replied: "No, I don't. That's one reason why, for all the criticism, he's a remarkable leader. He has this almost Churchillian faith in his belief that he can persuade the British public he's the one."