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Defence – a simmering problem that could boil over for Cameron

By Peter Hoskin
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Here’s a game to deflate any Tory’s summer optimism: how many simmering problems can you name that threaten to upset Cameron’s chances in 2015? As it happens, there are quite a few examples in the papers today. There’s the ongoing trouble in Accident and Emergency departments. There’s the precipitous decline in party membership. And there is, of course, the persistent threat presented by UKIP.

But there’s another worry for Cameron that gets mentioned far less than these – and that is defence. Another newspaper story, in the Sunday Times (£), captures one dimension of it. Apparently, only 367 people have enlisted in the Army Reserves during the past three months, against a target of 1,432. Only 50 per cent of the target for the whole year is expected to be achieved. As the paper reports, “the result, according to one former commander, is ‘panic’ among defence officials.”

The reason for that panic is simple: it was reservists who were meant to occupy the breach left by cuts to the regular army. Around 20,000 troops are being jettisoned from the Army by 2020, alongside 5,000 each from the Royal Air Force and the Navy. It was anticipated that the Army Reserve would increase by around 11,000 in the meantime – but that now looks, to borrow a military term, a forlorn hope.

This is how it’s been since the Government’s messy and compromised Defence Review; one strategic complication after another. But it creates political complications, too. Not only does a recruitment shortage threaten to aggravate Cameron’s running battle with the military chiefs – which I summarised here – but it could also help solidify UKIP’s support. Farage & Co. pledge, on their website, to “reverse [the] decline” of our armed forces. It’s yet another example of UKIP’s cash-for-all approach to policymaking, but it clearly has some appeal for unhappy former Conservatives.

And there will be blue-on-blue attacks, as well. In a separate story in today’s Mail on Sunday, Sir Gerald Howarth questions whether the Military Covenant is being upheld “not just in spirit but in action” – but that’s not even the start of it. John Baron is just one of the Tory MPs campaigning against the Government’s decision to disband one of his local regiments. Dominic Raab has asked why, to save money, we don’t just get out of Afghanistan this year. In every reach of the backbenches, there are questions about funding and overstretch and procurement.

The flashpoints will likely come with the next manifesto. George Osborne may have eased Tory worries with the defence budget he outlined in the last Spending Review, but he and Cameron will be under pressure to make further commitments for the event of a Tory majority – and all as they withdraw from a decade-long conflict. Yep, the game of life sure is hard to play, as the M*A*S*H theme song had it.


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