A Tory revolt against potential cuts to the armed forces has gathered pace with a defence minister thought to be prepared to quit if plans are implemented to slash the Army’s manpower.
Tobias Ellwood, the minister responsible for defence personnel and veterans, is understood to have concerns about proposals which could see the Army’s full-time strength reduced by 12,000 to 70,000.
Mr Ellwood has shared his “deep discomfort” with colleagues about a list of cost-saving options faced by the Ministry of Defence, the Times reported.
Meanwhile former army officer and Tory member of the Defence Select Committee Johnny Mercer said there were a number of Conservative colleagues prepared to fight back over the threat of cuts.
“What is proposed is going too far and I’m determined to do everything I can, as a lowly backbencher but certainly with a very powerful cohort behind me, to make sure that we remain the party of defence, that we do our duty by those who serve as we expect from them,” he told Sky News.
“And I would say that colleagues are absolutely with me on this one. I’m afraid on this occasion I’m determined to make the Government change course and see this one through.”
Tory grandee Sir Nicholas Soames, a grandson of Sir Winston Churchill, said: “The Conservative parliamentary party has a duty now to unite against further defence cuts to capability.”
Tom Tugendhat, Tory chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee and a former army officer, said he was proud of Mr Ellwood for “standing up for defence” and warned that cuts were a “false economy”.
The MoD said no decisions had been made and dismissed reports about the options being considered for cuts as “speculation”.
Measures thought to be under consideration include reducing the order for Ajax armoured vehicles and delaying upgrades to other tanks.
Mr Ellwood, who served in the Royal Green Jackets from 1991 to 1996 with tours in Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Kuwait, Germany, Gibraltar and Bosnia and is now in the Army Reserve, has indicated he would have to step down if the military was not shielded from the proposed reductions, the Times said.
Asked if Mr Ellwood was known to have concerns about the prospect of cuts, a senior defence source told the Press Association: “Absolutely.”
Speculation about defence cuts has mounted in recent months since the launch of a review led by Theresa May’s national security adviser Mark Sedwill.
Other options reportedly under consideration include the axing of amphibious assault ships HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, alongside the loss of 1,000 Royal Marines.
A letter sent to new Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson by Sir Nicholas and 24 other Tory MPs warned that the loss of Albion and Bulwark would “dangerously limit the array of options” available to the Government in a military or humanitarian crisis.
“It is simply not credible for us as government MPs, or a proud island nation, to claim that we are on the side of defence but then allow the Government unhindered to reduce one of our most capable and effective assets – the Royal Marines – and our amphibious capabilities,” they warned.
“We must make it clear to you that as a cohort of MPs representing a large portion of the Government’s vote, we are not prepared to see the degradation of this nation’s amphibious capabilities any further in this capability review that the Government is currently undertaking.”
Mr Williamson’s predecessor Sir Michael Fallon had begun publicly calling for more money for defence before his resignation earlier this month following allegations about improper conduct.
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “We have the biggest defence budget in Europe and are one of very few countries to not only meet but exceed Nato’s 2% spending target.
“In the face of intensifying threats, we are contributing to the cross-Government review of national security capabilities and looking at how we best spend the rising defence budget to protect our country.
“No decisions have been made and any discussion of the options is pure speculation.”