One of the really striking claims that Ed Balls made in his speech today was that the Tories would end up cutting more from the defence budget than Labour. This is not the sort of thing that you’d expect to hear: Labour saying it would end up spending more on defence than the traditional party of the armed forces. The Shadow Chancellor said:
‘First of all, our cuts, in any part of public spending, are not going to go nowhere near the huge scale of defence cuts you are going to see under the Conservatives on the basis of these plans.’
Balls also said that it was ‘absolutely impossible on the Conservative trajectory’ to meet the target for defence spending to remain at 2 per cent of GDP. When David Cameron was asked about the issue today, he started talking about ‘what we have said very clearly’, which is always the way a politician admits that things are mired (perhaps conveniently) in confusion:
‘What we have said very clearly is that the £160 billion capital budget… the equipment budget, over the next 10 years, that will grow in real terms under a Conservative government. Making sure that vital equipment we have ordered… can be delivered. We have also said that we don’t want to see further reductions in the regular armed forces. So, we have made those very clear promises, but again, I would say we cannot make those pledges without a strong economy.’
None of this will quell the revolt that John Baron is threatening on Thursday on defence spending. The Tory MP and organiser of many a rebellion, has tabled a motion saying ‘this House believes that defence spending should be set to a minimum of two per cent of GDP in accordance with the UK’s NATO commitment’. He has a good number of signatures on the order paper already, though some Tories might hesitate to join given how many of the naughty camp are signed up (Peter Bone, Philip Hollobone, David Nuttall and Andrew Bridgen are on the list, along with less rebellious types such as Defence Select Committee chair Rory Stewart, Sir Gerald Howarth and James Arbuthnot).
This is tricky for Tory MPs who do not like rebelling but who are very worried about defence spending (and the concern goes far beyond the usual suspects). And it is tricky for the party as well: how can it let a motion pass that calls for it to make a pledge the leadership does not want to make or indeed cannot afford to make? I understand, though, that there will be no whip against Baron’s motion because it is a backbench debate, and therefore the whips are happy to take a relaxed view on it. This is perhaps better than antagonising the party by being heavy-handed. But it does mean that there could be quite a number of MPs who go far beyond those naughty types who decide to express their view.