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Wednesday 30th January 2013 | 18:11
No sooner had the PM touched down in Algeria before he was denying that North Africa was going to end up as his Iraq or Afghanistan.
But with more than 300 British troops set to help out against Malian insurgents, it's no wonder that questions are being asked about defence cuts.
The Telegraph splashed today on worries that even the SAS may face budget cuts as the Treasury put the squeeze again on the MoD budget in the coming spending review for 2015/16. The FT reported that many Tory backbenchers are warning No.10 that the last round of deep cuts were enough. Mark Pritchard was quoted as saying:
“Colleagues have, to date, reluctantly backed reductions in the MoD budget. However, any additional cuts to the defence, beyond those already agreed, will create a substantial political backlash. In short, the MoD budget has been cut enough, and the Treasury needs to look elsewhere for savings.”
James Kirkup was first today to ask Downing Street whether the PM still stood by his pledge in 2010, when he told the Commons:
"My own strong view is that this structure will require year on year real-terms growth in the defence budget in the years beyond 2015."
Note those key words were 'year-on-year', 'real terms growth', 'beyond 2015'.
This morning, No.10 were wary of repeating that quote. Instead, a spokeswoman simply insisted that the spending review had yet to be decided. With the MoD among those departments which has no 'ring-fenced' protection like the NHS or DfID, it's no wonder the top brass are nervous.
But it seems the PM himself is indeed determined to stick by his original pledge. If so, that may spell some tricky negotiations between HMT and the MoD, with the PM acting as a less than impartial referee.
Philip Hammond, who don’t forget expressed discontent at Cabinet the other week about further cuts to his department, must know that he has a reputation among some in the military as desiccated calculating machine, an accountant's accountant rather than a man interested in military matters.
But I'm told that Hammond, like many Tory ministers, thinks that Osborne can take more out of welfare in order to protect defence. And perhaps that's where the debate may now move.
Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems got a pledge from the Autumn Statement negotiations that no more will be taken out of DWP before 2015. If they were reluctant to bend on more welfare cuts for the period they are in office, won't they be even more reluctant to agree deeper cuts to DWP after 2015?
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