Downing Street has been forced to concede that the defence budget would not be immune from further cuts in the next public spending round.
David Cameron yesterday appeared to indicate that the Armed Forces would be spared further pain in the forthcoming spending review for 2015/16.
Briefing journalists travelling with him to Algeria and Libya, the Prime Minister said he did not “resile” from comments he made at the time of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, when he said the defence budget should start to rise again in real terms “in the years beyond 2015”.
But the Prime Minister’s spokesman insisted that he had been referring to the 2016/17 financial year and beyond, and not 2015/16.
“As his remarks at the time made clear, in the years beyond 2015 means starting in 2016. To suggest otherwise would be quite wrong,” the spokesman said.
“As to the spending review announced by the Chancellor in the 2012 Autumn Statement, we are not going to pre-empt its decisions, which will be announced in the first half of this year.”
Interviewed by the BBC, Mr Cameron refused to be drawn on the possibility of defence cuts in the 2015/16 review.
He said: “What matters most of all is that we make sure the budget is being spent on the things that our military need. Intelligence assets, transport assets, making sure we have special forces that are the best-equipped in the world.
“We’ve set out our defence spending plans for the spending review period. We’ve also, unlike any other department, said that we’ll continue to increase spending on defence equipment ahead of inflation post-2015.”
The issue has been cast into sharper relief by the Government’s commitment of up to 330 personnel and air support to the campaign against rebels in Mali.
Protecting the Ministry of Defence budget could mean harsher treatment for the police and other services.
For Labour, Shadow Defence spokesman Kevan Jones said: “Our forces don’t want jam tomorrow and P45s today.”
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