Theresa May has been warned she faces a major Tory rebellion unless Chancellor Philip Hammond can be persuaded to find extra funds for the defence budget.
Conservative MPs lined up to tell new Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson that he must urge the Chancellor to “dig deep” and produce more money to stave off the threat of cuts to the British Army, RAF and Royal Navy.
In his first Commons appearance in the role, Mr Williamson said he viewed the Government’s commitment to meeting the Nato target of spending 2% of GDP on defence as a base rather than a ceiling in response to calls to boost expenditure to 3%.
Mr Williamson was also urged to push for the cost of the Trident nuclear deterrent to be taken out of the defence budget, something he indicated was being examined as part of a Whitehall review.
The defence secretary was warned by veteran Tory MP James Gray he would face a “very substantial rebellion” unless there was action to protect military spending.
Speculation about defence cuts has mounted in recent months since the launch of a review led by the Prime Minister’s national security adviser Mark Sedwill.
The review is examining all aspects of national security capabilities, fuelling concerns it will prioritise measures to counter cyber attacks and terrorism rather than major defence projects.
Junior defence minister Tobias Ellwood – who was ironically cheered by Labour MPs in the Commons – is reportedly prepared to quit if the Army’s full-time strength is slashed by 12,000 to 70,000.
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson during his first set of defence questions in the House of Commons (PA)
Mr Gray told the defence secretary to remind the Prime Minister that “her primary duty is the defence of the realm” and the Sedwill review must not be used “as some kind of camouflage to cut our services”.
Defence Select Committee chairman Julian Lewis said: “We spend barely 2% of GDP on defence, and perhaps a target nearer to 3% of GDP on defence might prevent our armed forces being further hollowed out.”
Mr Williamson, who promised MPs he would “do everything I can” to deliver for the armed forces, said he viewed the 2% target “as a base as against a ceiling”.
Tory former minister Sir Hugo Swire pressed Mr Williamson on Trident, claiming that the cost of the continuous-at-sea deterrence “distorts the defence budget”, suggesting that he would have “considerably more support than perhaps he knows” if he pushed to have the burden shifted away from the defence budget.
Mr Williamson said: “All of what he has raised is very much going to be part of the review.
“He raises an important point in terms of nuclear capability being part of the defence budget, and this has traditionally not been something that sat as part of the defence budget, and was only changed post-2010.
“I think what’s vital is we look at all options as part of the national security and capability review.”
Asked whether Mrs May had sympathy with those calling for the defence budget to be increased to 3% of GDP, the PM’s spokesman said: “We have the world’s fifth largest defence budget, which is the biggest in Europe.
“We are one of few countries to not only meet but exceed the 2% spending target, and we are also committed to increasing the £36 billion defence budget by at least half a percent above inflation every year for the rest of the Parliament.
“We are investing significant amounts in the MoD. At the same time, the National Security Capability Review is ongoing and will report in due course.”