Portillo's top adviser outflanked by RAF

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Indy Politics

Chief Political Correspondent

Senior Tory MPs have been told that David Hart, the controversial adviser to the Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Portillo, will be overruled on plans to lease F-16 jets from the US, instead of upgrading British- built Tornado F3s.

The news emerged as the Ministry of Defence announced a shift of emphasis away from the strongly free-market approach favoured by Mr Hart, in favour of British industry. Mr Portillo accepted demands by the Commons Select Committee on Defence to give the Department of Trade and Industry a greater role in some procurement decisions.

Mr Hart's proposal to lease the F-16 jets from the US enraged the RAF board, and caused stiff opposition from senior RAF officers, who have been lobbying hard for the RAF F3 Tornados to be upgraded, at a cost of pounds 120m, until the collaborative project Eurofighter 2000 finally bears fruit, in about a decade's time.

Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, and former President of the Board of Trade, has also lined up with British industry against the proposal to lease the US jets. The issue carries uncanny echoes of the Westland helicopter row which precipitated his dramatic walking-out of the Thatcher Cabinet.

Mr Portillo is embroiled in a dispute with the RAF chiefs over their claims that the Tornados are cheaper to fly. The dispute has yet to be decided by the Cabinet, but senior party sources said they had been assured the F-16 plan would not go ahead.

"David Hart is paid to think the unthinkable. But we have been told that there is no way the Government will agree to leasing the F-16s," said one senior Conservative.

A decision to lease F-16s would have been damaging for British overseas orders for the Tornados. "The Italians are leasing F3 Tornados from us. It would have been ridiculous for us to lease from the US," said the Tory source.

Members of the cross-party Commons Defence Committee have privately discussed calling Mr Hart to give evidence over his role at the MoD, and his influential support for buying "off the shelf" from the US, rather than developing more costly home-grown defence projects.

The MoD yesterday told the committee it would, in consultation with the DTI, take "more systematic account of defence industrial factors in our procurement decisions" including looking carefully at the balance between off-the-shelf procurement and collaborative or national development of equipment.

Conservative defence experts have also been assured that to protect jobs in the shipyards, the MoD order for three Type-23 Frigates will be split between the Yarrow yard, on the Clyde, and Vosper Thorneycroft, in Southampton.

The Yarrow management recently announced it was to cut 650 jobs from its 3,000-strong workforce and said the redundancies were inevitable, whether or not it won the orders.