The head of the Royal Navy has been summoned to 10 Downing Street to be hauled over the coals by David Cameron after raising doubts about the armed forces' ability to sustain a lengthy campaign in Libya.
Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope sparked the Prime Minister's anger by suggesting that the Government would have to make "challenging decisions" on force levels if the mission lasted more than six months.
Mr Cameron told MPs that he had spoken to Admiral Stanhope, and that the First Sea Lord now "agreed that we can sustain this mission as long as we need to". He said it was vital that the UK sent out a consistent message that "time is on our side".
A senior Whitehall source confirmed that the Navy chief was called in to explain his remarks and made clear he was given a dressing-down. "I think you can assume that there was no coffee or biscuits," said the source.
Speaking at Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, Mr Cameron told MPs: "I had a meeting with the First Sea Lord yesterday and he agreed that we can sustain this mission as long as we need to. That is exactly the words used by the Chief of Defence Staff yesterday."
And he added: "We are doing the right thing and I want one simple message to go out from every part of this Government, and indeed every part of this House of Commons, and that is that time is on our side. We have got Nato, we have got the United Nations, we have got the Arab League, we have right on our side. The pressure is building, militarily, diplomatically and politically and time is running out for Gaddafi."
Following the row triggered by his comments, Admiral Stanhope wrote an article for the Sun newspaper, praising the work of "your modern, flexible Navy" and pointing out that it is to receive two new aircraft carriers as well as Type 45 destroyers, submarines, combat ships, tankers and support ships.
Admiral Stanhope told journalists on Monday the UK was "comfortable" with the present Nato mission, which was extended earlier this month by 90 days, to the end of September.
But he added: "Beyond that, we might have to request the Government to make some challenging decisions about priorities. If we do it longer than six months we will have to reprioritise forces."
In response, the head of the Armed Forces, Chief of Defence Staff General Sir David Richards, insisted that Britain can sustain its intervention in Libya for "as long as we choose to".