Armed forces lacked support, says defence secretary

Bob Ainsworth says that British troops lacked ministerial support at the start of the conflicts in A

The government should have offered more support to British troops at the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Defence Secretary has admitted.

Bob Ainsworth said that the armed forces had been justified in their anger at the disinterest in their work in the first years of the conflicts.

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Ainsworth said that greater public and ministerial interest in the armed forces had been "absolutely essential" to answer the concerns of troops.

"People were pretty cheesed off with the attitude not only of the Government, but of the British public.

"They were out there in Iraq, they were out there in Afghanistan, they were doing hard yards and putting their lives on the line - and nobody back here was nearly as interested as they ought to have been."

He also predicted that defence issues would rise up the political agenda in the years ahead.

"We are going to wind up with a real debate on defence. It has not necessarily had a high enough profile," he said. "We have tended in politics in this country to concentrate on the domestic, on the here and now - the 'what's in it for me'."

In the interview, Ainsworth, a newcomer to the cabinet, also responded to claims that he is not up the job.

He said: "I have strengths and I have weaknesses. I don't pretend to be able to write a great thesis or doctorate - I have no pretensions in that direction.

"But I'll tell you what I do have, I have a good feel for ordinary people, for politics, and those are my strengths. I understand, I hope instinctively, where many of our Armed Forces come from."

Ainsworth, a former Labour whip and junior defence minister argued that his civilian background meant he could bring a "unique dimension" to the post of defence secretary.

"I don't try to second guess decisions that are quite properly taken in the military chain of command. I don't try to pretend I am cleverer than a general or the Chief of the Defence Staff," he said. "But I can bring something else, a knowledge and understanding of Parliament, and of civilian life."

He also suggested that some of the criticism he faced was based on his working-class background.

He said: "I speak with a Midlands accent. I drop my aitches. I suffer with an asthmatic-related condition that means I speak with a gravelly voice. I have a moustache that some people appear to take offence to. I don't know what motivates these people."

Ainsworth's interview came as the General Richard Dannatt, the outgoing Army head, warned in his valedictory speech that the defence budget was "under huge pressure".

Ainsworth conceded that Labour's focus on increasing health and education spending had placed restrictions on the defence budget.

"The defence budget has gone up but it has not gone up as fast as some other budgets," he said.

"If you stand at an election and put a manifesto in front of people saying you're going to improve health care, you have to stick by that."