Tories criticise underfunding of armed forces

Conservative Party Conference: Defence
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Tory delegates broke the political truce over the war on terrorism, bitterly criticising Tony Blair for cutbacks in defence spending.

They attacked underfunding in the armed forces, warning that Mr Blair was allowing morale in the forces to slump to a new low. As the party opened its annual conference with a two-hour debate on international affairs and the current terrorism crisis, delegates said soldiers, sailors and airmen were overstretched and forced to work with outdated and inadequate equipment.

They spoke out after Iain Duncan Smith, the party leader, and Michael Ancram, the shadow Foreign Secretary, pledged support for Britain's role in strikes on Afghanistan.

Mr Duncan Smith told delegates that his "thoughts and prayers" were with Britain's forces in the Middle East. He said: "I am resolved that the British Government will receive our support, and I assure the American people that President Bush will continue to have our backing in his determination to root out terror in the world."

But Martin Taylor Smith, a company director and former Conservative candidate, told delegates: "The 11 September showed that the peace dividend in terms of defence spending is no longer.

"Many of those there today, including our leader and chairman, served in the forces, whereas nobody in the current Government and the current Cabinet did."

Jacquie Nilsson, a former parliamentary candidate from Middlesbrough, said: "They cannot work on a wing and a prayer. They need money, they need the proper equipment to do the job.

"This Government has shamefully cut and cut the defence budget so they have not got the right equipment for their own safety, let alone being able to defend this country or oppressed people in other countries," she said.

Albie Fox, a former RAF helicopter trainer from Ynys Môn, North Wales, told the conference that servicemen and women were "going from job to job. They are not getting any time off. People are leaving and morale is low."

He said: "The camel's back is loaded. If they do not get the support, the equipment and finance, then morale is going to hit rock-bottom."

Mr Duncan Smith left the conference for Blackpool airport to fly to Westminster for last night's emergency debate on the crisis, before returning to Blackpool before midnight. His six-seat executive jet was provided by Lord Ashcroft, the controversial Tory party treasurer. But the cost of the trip will be met by the Commons authorities, who pay for MPs to travel back to Westminster when Parliament is recalled.

Michael Ancram, the shadow Foreign Secretary, warned against "appeasement" of terrorists in Northern Ireland and attacked critics of action against Afghanistan.

He said: "Terrorism feeds on appeasement and concession. Those siren voices who press for dialogue are the 'appeasement challenges' of our generation. We must reject them.

"Terrorism is never about negotiation or compromise or democratic solutions. It is simply about terror, because that is the sole means of the terrorist to effect change."