A compromise deal could soon be reached with Conservative MPs angered by further UK defence cuts, after a minister signalled he may be prepared to quit over the proposals that could lead to a reduction in the number of army personnel to 70,000.
The international trade secretary, Liam Fox, acknowledged there were tensions over the potential cuts after several MPs spoke openly about their concerns, including former army officers Johnny Mercer and Tom Tugendhat.
The defence minister Tobias Ellwood, whose responsibilities include defence personnel, is understood to be deeply concerned about the proposal to reduce the army’s full-time strength by 12,000 .
Fox said it was an “ongoing discussion … I’m afraid it’s not unknown for some of these tensions to spill over into the public domain.”
“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,” he told Sky News.
Fox said there had been similar tensions during his time as defence secretary. “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,” he said.
Mercer, a member of the defence select committee, tweeted that there was significant unease across the party. “It’s a campaign, not a silver bullet, to get Defence back where it needs to be,” he said. “Also worth noting this is not ‘my’ campaign or anyone else’s. it is the Conservative party as a team making sure we do the right thing for Defence as a whole.
Tory grandee Sir Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Sir Winston Churchill, tweeted: “The Conservative parliamentary party has a duty now to unite against further defence cuts to capability.”
Soames has signed a letter to the defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, by Sir Nicholas and 24 other Tory MPs warning about the potential loss of amphibious assault ships HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, saying it would “dangerously limit the array of options” available to the forces.
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.”
Tugendhat, who chairs the foreign affairs select committee, tweeted support for Mercer, calling the cuts “a false economy”. The MoD said no decisions had been made.
Former Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell, the party’s defence spokesman, said the government needed to “listen and learn” after the criticism. “Former members of all three armed services, informed commentators, members of both Houses of Parliament and now a defence minister have all voiced their deepening anxieties about possible heavy cuts in the defence budget,” he said.
“Reducing the army even further, cutting the Royal Marines and selling surface ships will fracture our defence capability.”