The Government is preparing to compromise over potential cuts to army numbers to curb a growing revolt on the Tory benches, a cabinet minister has suggested.
Former defence secretary Liam Fox admitted tensions were running high within Conservative ranks over plans to slash the army’s full-time strength, which have already drawn backbench anger and a threat of resignation from Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood.
Ex-soldier Mr Ellwood, who was hailed a hero for trying to save the life of PC Keith Palmer during the Westminster terror attack, is understood to be “deeply concerned” by the proposals to cut manpower by 12,000 to 70,000.
His calls have been backed by an increasingly influential group of former servicemen within the Tory party, including ex army officers Tom Tugendhat and Jonny Mercer, both of whom have pledged to fight any cuts to the armed forces.
Speculation over defence cuts has mounted since the launch of a review by Theresa May’s national security adviser Mark Sedwill, but the Ministry of Defence insists that the no decisions have been made and the claims were only conjecture.
Dr Fox, who is now the International Trade Secretary, said defence cuts were an “ongoing discussion” and said it was normal for “some of these tensions to spill over into the public domain”.
He told Sky News’s Sunday with Paterson: “I think we should wait and see exactly what sort of compromise we reach – because that’s what it will be – and remember that the UK is the fourth biggest military budget in the world and is one of the very few Nato countries actually fulfilling promises to spend and help protect our partners.”
As well as rumours about potential cuts to the number of troops, concerns have been raised about the future of armoured vehicle programmes and suggestions that amphibious assault ships HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark could be axed alongside the loss of 1,000 Royal Marines.
Dr Fox said: “You have to look at our record. We are one of the very few Nato countries that actually spends 2 per cent of our GDP on defence.
“There’s a review going on at the present time and I think back to my time as secretary of state for defence where we had a similar review ongoing and there’s always a lot of tension, not just between the MoD and the Treasury but also inside the MoD between the different parts of the armed forces, and naturally there are concerns about the future shape of that.”
Mr Mercer, who sits on the Defence Select Committee, said a number of party colleagues were prepared to back a fight against cuts, adding: “It is the Conservative Party as a team making sure we do the right thing for defence as a whole.”
Meanwhile Mr Tugendhat, another former army officer who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was proud of Mr Ellwood for “standing up for defence” and warned that cuts were a “false economy”.
And Tory grandee Sir Nicholas Soames, a grandson of Sir Winston Churchill, said: “The Conservative parliamentary party has a duty now to unite against further defence cuts to capability.”
A letter sent to newly elected Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson by Sir Nicholas and 24 other Tory MPs warned that the loss of Albion and Bulwark would “dangerously limit the array of options” available to the Government in a military or humanitarian crisis.
It said: “We must make it clear to you that as a cohort of MPs representing a large portion of the Government’s vote, we are not prepared to see the degradation of this nation’s amphibious capabilities any further in this capability review that the Government is currently undertaking.”
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