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.