Government vows to keep defence vow
Downing Street has insisted that it will stick to Nato guidelines when deciding what expenditure counts towards meeting the alliance's target of spending 2% of GDP on defence.
It comes amid reports that David Cameron has asked ministers to investigate whether expenditure on intelligence services could be counted as defence spending, in order to keep the UK above or close to the 2% level.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon was today holding talks with his US counterpart Ashton Carter in Washington, where concerns have been raised over recent days about the prospect of declining defence spending among Nato's European members as part of austerity programmes.
The House of Commons will on Thursday debate a motion tabled by backbench MPs calling for a legal obligation for UK governments to keep defence spending at a minimum of 2%.
Meanwhile, a former Ministry of Defence adviser claimed Mr Cameron had given a "personal assurance" to defence chiefs of rising budgets after 2015.
Luke Coffey, who was a special adviser to former defence secretary Liam Fox at the time of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, said the pledge had made it easier for military commanders like the chief of defence staff Sir Jock Stirrup to swallow the "difficult pill" of cuts.
Mr Coffey told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "When the Ministry of Defence received its final settlement in October 2010 it was very clear to Liam Fox and his ministers, Jock Stirrup and his service chiefs, that there would be a real-terms increase in the defence budget between 2015 and 2020.
"That is what made this difficult pill to swallow that much easier in terms of the defence cuts that the department received at the time."
Former Army chief Sir Peter Wall said the "significant reduction" in the defence budget had been made "against the expectation and an undertaking that the budget would increase when the economy started to turn the corner and improve".
Of the 28 countries in Nato, just four, including Britain, meet the 2% Nato target. At last year's Nato summit in Newport, Wales, Mr Cameron said all members should move towards the 2% target over the next decade, but he has not yet committed the government to maintaining that level during the next parliament.
Yesterday, Mr Cameron told LBC radio: "Anyone who feels that Britain is somehow shrinking its role in the world - that's not the case.
"We have met the 2% throughout this Parliament and we are due to meet it in the coming years."
He added: "I have responsibility to make sure we make the right decisions about defence and other security spending. I look at these things in the round, so I am also concerned about the budget for MI5, the Secret Intelligence Service, GCHQ, counter-terrorism policing. To me all of these things are part of our national defence."
The Financial Times quoted an unnamed "government figure" as saying that Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin had been asked to establish whether intelligence budgets could be reclassified as defence spending to keep the UK above the 2% target.
Asked whether such a process was taking place, Mr Cameron's official spokesman told a Westminster media briefing: "Our approach is to ensure that the spending approach we take, the way our spending is classified is in accordance with Nato guidelines, and that is not going to change. There hasn't been any change in how we go about that.
"In terms of what fits under the Nato guidelines ... we will remain entirely consistent with those."
Asked whether Mr Cameron had made private commitments to the defence chiefs to increase their budgets in real-terms - taking inflation into account - after 2015, the PM's spokesman said: "The commitment the Prime Minister has always made is to ensure that we always have world-class, equipped and well-funded defence forces.
"In terms of that ongoing commitment, you see it in terms of the defence equipment budget, which is increasing in real terms through to 2020, and that underpins a £150 billion investment in new equipment. I think you can very clearly see the Prime Minister's commitment to the armed forces."
Ukip defence spokesman Mike Hookem said: "Who does David Cameron think he is kidding by trying to fudge the figures in this way? This is smoke and mirrors politics at its worst and particularly hypocritical considering that David Cameron has been lecturing other western leaders on the need to keep up their own defence spending."
Speaking after the talks with Mr Carter, the Defence Secretary said the partnership between the two countries remained " the broadest, deepest and most advanced in the world".
"As close allies in Nato, permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and leading nuclear powers, our partnership has repeatedly proved vital to international peace and security, and will continue to do so far into the future," he said.
"For the UK's part, the close co-operation between our two countries makes clear our commitment to facing up to present-day challenges, including the threat to Ukraine's sovereignty and independence from Russia's aggression.
"Our deployment of training teams, gifting of non-lethal equipment and our regular participation in reassurance exercises in Eastern Europe demonstrates the strength of that commitment."