Tories in turmoil as Hammond says Cameron hasn't promised to protect defence

Defence Secretary forced to clarify that the PM's pledge to protect spending only applies to defence equipment, not the total budget.

Back in 2010, when David Cameron rather optimistically believed that George Osborne's deficit reduction plan would succeed, he promised Conservative MPs that defence spending would rise in the next parliament. "My own strong view is that this structure will require year-on-year real-terms growth in the defence budget in the years beyond 2015," he said.

With the ever-more hawkish Cameron now talking of a "generational struggle" against African jihadism, Tory MPs and armed forces chiefs have understandably demanded that this pledge be kept. The front page of today's Telegraph suggests that they have succeeded. "No more defence cuts, says Cameron" reads the headline, with the paper reporting that "the Treasury will increase defence spending above inflation from 2015, even as it cuts other Whitehall departments’ budgets." 

But interviews this morning with the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, suggest that the pledge isn't as bold as it appears. Hammond told Sky News that contrary to the Telegraph's splash, the promise only applies to defence equipment, not total spending.

"I think what the Prime Minister was referring to was the pledge that was made – which Treasury ministers have repeated – that the equipment plan, the part of the defence budget which funds equipment, will rise by 1 per cent a year in real-terms after 2015. And the Treasury has re-confirmed that commitment since the announcements in the Autumn Statement," he said. In other words, Cameron hasn't ring-fenced defence at all and the cuts (which amount to 7.5 per cent by 2015) will continue.

"I don't expect to be exempt," Hammond said. And with spending on the NHS, international development and schools already protected, it would be surprising if he did. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has already described the likely 16 per cent reduction in spending on non-ring-fenced departments as "inconceivable". Protecting defence would mean even greater cuts to areas like the police, higher education, welfare and local government. 

Quite how Cameron led the press to believe that he had pledged to increase defence spending is unclear. But by reminding his MPs (many of whom are furious that defence has been cut while overseas aid has been increased) that he won't be able to keep his 2010 promise, he has done himself no favours. 

David Cameron meets British soldiers based at Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.