Gordon Brown was embroiled in another row about "spin" last night after telling MPs he may pull all of Britain's troops out of Iraq before he calls an election.
The Prime Minister said he was planning to reduce the total number of troops from 5,500 to 2,500 by next spring and held out the possibility of a total pull-out of British troops by the end of 2008. That would enable him to fight the next general election – now expected to be held in 2009 – with no troops in Iraq, neutralising the damage done to the Government by Tony Blair's decision to go to war.
He said the decision about more troop withdrawals would be taken in spring next year as Britain switched to an "over-watch" role with Iraqi forces, and it would depend on the advice of the military chiefs. But his claims were greeted with scepticism.
Mr Brown was accused of cynical media manipulation last week when he used a trip to Basra during the Conservative Party conference to imply that 1,000 British troops would be brought home by Christmas after the transfer of more tasks to Iraqi forces. It later emerged that the total included the withdrawal of 500 troops which had been previously announced.
In yesterday's statement to MPs, he said the numbers would be reduced from the summer total of 5,500 to 4,500 and then to 4,000 by the end of December.
However, he added that 500 logistics and support personnel of the 1,500 troops to be pulled out by Christmas are to be deployed elsewhere in the region. It is thought they will go to a safe base in Kuwait.
But Tory leaders accused Mr Brown of spinning the numbers again. "He is as guilty of spin as much as he was last week," said Gerald Howarth, the Tories' Defence spokesman.
Speaking as protesters from the Stop the War coalition defied a ban and waved placards outside the Commons, he said: "Where has this magic figure of 2,500 come from? What he was trying to do was sow in the minds of the protesters that they will reduce the numbers in Iraq but will they have enough to police the Iranian border, train the Iraqi forces and go back if necessary? We doubt it."
The Tories will renew their attack today when the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, announces the defence budget for the next three years. Mr Howarth said defence experts believed an extra 10 per cent, or £3bn, should be added to spending or defence commitments should be cut.
"You cannot operate at this tempo on this budget," he said. "For the Prime Minister to have the gall to say we will put the interests of the armed forces first – he has spent the last decade cutting their budget."
The Defence Secretary, Des Browne, vehemently denied reports at the weekend that he was furious with Mr Brown – a close Scottish ally – for failing to notify him in advance about last week's announcement. "I wasn't in the dark about all of that until I heard it," Mr Browne said on BBC radio. "I have been talking to the Prime Minister about the figures and these troop levels all over the summer.
"I knew fine well the Prime Minister in Iraq would be called upon to make a statement about a number of things, including troop levels. I spoke to him immediately before he left to go to Iraq the evening before. I didn't know precisely when he was going to make the statement because I wasn't with him... But he is the Prime Minister. I knew all of the detail of these troop reductions."