The new defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, was put on notice in the Commons that he will face a substantial Tory revolt if a national security review leads to major cuts in the armed services.
Williamson, making his Commons debut in his new job, faced Conservative backbenchers who pressed him to stand up to the chancellor, Philip Hammond, over a threatened squeeze on the MoD budget.
The threatened rebellion is over a Cabinet Office review of the UK’s national security, originally scheduled to report in December but now delayed until January or February. The review includes the intelligence services MI5, MI6 and the surveillance agency GCHQ but the MoD, with by far the biggest budget, £36bn, is facing the brunt of proposed cuts.
One of the strongest warnings to Williamson came from Conservative MP James Gray, who said the Cabinet Office needed to be told the review should not be some kind of camouflage to cut the services.
“Will he speak to the chancellor of the exchequer to make sure he digs deep into his pockets to produce the money we need? Above all, will he speak to the chief whip to remind him that if he does not do so, he will face a very substantial rebellion?” Gray said.
British defence reviews have followed a predictable pattern down the decades: proposed defence cuts prompt an outcry from Conservative backbenchers, backed by retired generals and admirals.
The Cabinet Office review is of a different order, addressing a more fundamental question: whether British armed forces are still relevant to conflict in a world in which cyber-warfare, robots, drones and artificial intelligence are becoming increasingly important.
Part of this is whether, after a spate of terrorist attacks and plots in the UK this year, the focus should now be more on counter-terrorism than on potential threats from states such as Russia and China.
The MoD has drawn up a list for cuts that includes two ships that help with amphibious landings, HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion; reducing the number of marines from 7,000 to 6,000; delaying or cutting back on the number of F-35 jets to be bought for two new aircraft carriers; and scaling back an ambitious army plan to deploy a 30,000 strong-division by 2025.
The MoD says no decisions have yet been taken.
Williamson, who only took over as defence secretary from Michael Fallon earlier this month, largely sidestepped a series of questions from Conservative and opposition backbenchers about the review.
One of the few hints he gave of his position was when he said the world was rapidly changing but the threats came not just from cyber attacks but from Britain’s peers, by which he meant Russia.
Williamson admitted he had not yet met the chancellor to make the MoD case against cuts.
Julian Lewis, the Conservative chair of the Commons defence committee, said Williamson should remind the chancellor that during the cold war the UK spent 5% of GDP on defence, is now barely 2% and a target nearer to 3% would help prevent UK forces from being hollowed out.
Williamson said he regarded 2% as a base rather than a ceiling.
Gen Sir Richard Barrons, who retired last year as chief of joint forces command, suspects, shares the view of backbenchers that the review is an excuse to squeeze the defence budget, which he argues is already about £1.5bn to £2bn short a year.
“There is a school of thought led by some who are at the heart of the previous Conservative administration that believes the conventional military is post-history and all that matters now is cyber and the only thing that matters is keeping terrorism away from our shores,” Barrons said.
“No one can doubt the urgency of dealing with terrorism but if you look at the actual effect of terrorism, it is quite small and arguably diminishing. We should keep it in perspective.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010