By Rob Merrick
Southern Daily Echo – 12 March 2015
Hampshire MP Julian Lewis will today join a Conservative revolt against his own party's plans to cut defence spending. The backbencher will urge Prime Minister David Cameron not to drop a pledge to set aside two per cent of GDP for defence – or send "a terrible signal to President Putin".
Around 30 Tory MPs are expected to vote for the firm commitment, in the run-up to the publication of the party manifesto for the May 7 General Election. Dr Lewis, the New Forest East MP, told the Daily Echo he feared 20,000 more soldiers could otherwise be axed from |an Army that has already shrunk to 80,000. And he said:
"There is even speculation that we could go down to just 50,000 regular troops – which would be a terrible signal to send to President Putin. If Russia is back on a Cold War path, then we are talking about spending more money to ensure that we, and our NATO allies, are safe. And we now also face a threat from the spread of militant, totalitarian Islamic extremists."
The row came up at Prime Minister's questions in the Commons yesterday, when Gosport MP Caroline Dinenage also called for a fresh "commitment". In reply to questions, the Prime Minister said:
"This country has met its NATO commitments".
But he declined to make a pledge for the next parliament.
The two per cent figure is expected to be missing from the Conservative manifesto, with the Ministry of Defence tipped to receive only a "flat cash" settlement if the Tories win. Experts say that could see defence spending slipping to just 1.7 per cent of GDP by the end of the decade – below the level of NATO allies such as Poland and Romania.
Labour – which has also failed to make the two per cent pledge – has argued it's impossible for the Tories to make the commitment while planning £50 billion-plus cuts. But Dr Lewis said:
"We have chosen to ring-fence other areas of spending and to spend £30bn on a new high-speed railway. If I had to choose between the size of the Army or a faster train service, then I know which choice I would make."
Ms Dinenage said she would not be present for today's vote, but shared the "sentiment" that defence spending should be two per cent of GDP.