Gordon Brown faced a row over spin yesterday after he announced that 1,000 British troops would be withdrawn from Iraq by Christmas.
The Prime Minister used a surprise visit to Baghdad to signal that British forces would hand Basra province to the Iraqis within weeks and lower troop levels from 5,500 to 4,500 by Christmas.
The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats accused Mr Brown of staging a cynical exercise in spin after it emerged that ministers had already announced that 500 troops were due to return home. Both parties are convinced that the trip to Baghdad is the clearest indication so far that Mr Brown wants to call a general election for November. He had planned to make his Iraq visit tomorrow and on Friday, after the Tory conference ended, but brought it forward at the last moment.
Liam Fox, the Shadow Defence Sectary, accused Mr Brown of a "cynical electioneering ploy" over the timing of the announcement – which coincided with a defence debate at the Tory conference.
Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, accused Mr Brown of a being behind a "cynical effort to manipulate the figures".
Government sources insisted Mr Brown had made his statement because he had been discussing troop numbers with Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister.
Army sources hinted that Britain's remaining forces would stay in Iraq on "overwatch" duties for as long as necessary, but Mr Brown will outline their role to MPs on Monday. He said yesterday: "The 30,000 [Iraqi] security forces that have been trained are capable of discharging their responsibilities for security and that allows us to make other decisions about British troops. By the end of the year, the British forces, which had been 5,500, can be reduced to 4,500, and, by Christmas, 1,000 of our troops can be brought back."
Dr Fox said: "If this is simply a ploy to bring back more of our troops before an election to make it look good for Gordon Brown, the public would regard that as cynicism of historic proportions."
Sir Menzies said: "What we need is a clear timetable to withdraw all our forces to safety within six months."