Tories divided over defence cuts: MPs' comments on eve of today's White Paper expose prospect of fierce dispute in party ranks

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THE CONSERVATIVE split over defence spending was exposed yesterday when one senior backbencher questioned troop levels in Ulster while another drew a firm line against any further cuts in defence capability.

Speaking on the eve of publication of the Defence White Paper - expected to propose across-the-board cuts in all three services today - Archie Hamilton, a former defence minister, nominated Ulster and UN peacekeeping as two areas for review.

He told BBC-TV's On the Record: 'There is no direct relationship between the numbers of troops in Northern Ireland, which now stand at some 19,000, and the incidence of terrorist action. There doesn't seem to be a direct relationship.' He added: 'It is very easy to put more in; there are always frightfully good political reasons why you cannot take them out.'

As for UN peacekeeping commitments, Mr Hamilton spoke of the Foreign Secretary's aim to get Britain to 'punch above her weight', and said: 'I have concerns when I hear about Britain punching above her weight, because I do not think anybody's actually costed Britain punching above her weight and there is a very serious cost to actually meet when it comes to doing that.'

However, the problem faced by the Government in seeking cuts in the defence budget was illustrated by Sir Nicholas Bonsor, Tory chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Defence, who told the same programme: 'I would find it extremely hard to live with any further defence cuts. Certainly, I cannot live with any further cuts in our defence ability.

'So if there are going to be further cuts, then somebody has to find areas of inefficiency which can be improved, rather than cutting the sharp end of our defence capability.

'I have no doubt that that feeling is broadly spread throughout the Conservative backbenches and very largely shared through the House.

So I think the Treasury should tread with extreme caution if it

tries to cut the defence and expenditure budgets any further.'

Nevertheless, today's White Paper is expected to divest the RAF of its nuclear role, with the abandonment of plans to replace its ageing stockpile of free-fall nuclear bombs with tactical air-to-surface missiles (Tasms).

Defence ministers are expected to maintain a sub-strategic nuclear weapon by deploying tactical nuclear missiles on the four Trident submarines. Orders for five frigates and destroyers are likely to be cut, intensifying the problems of shipyards already going to the wall. However, the Treasury is seeking deeper cuts in the defence budget, as part of the annual spending review, which could make today's White Paper look out of date before the end of the year.