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By Peter Hoskin
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Here’s
a game to deflate any Tory’s summer optimism: how many simmering problems can
you name that threaten to upset Cameron’s chances in 2015? As it happens, there
are quite a few examples in the papers today. There’s the ongoing
trouble in Accident and Emergency departments
. There’s the precipitous
decline in party membership
. And there is, of course, the persistent
threat presented by UKIP
.

But
there’s another worry for Cameron that gets mentioned far less than these – and
that is defence. Another newspaper story, in the Sunday
Times (£)
, captures one dimension of it. Apparently, only 367 people have
enlisted in the Army Reserves during the past three months, against a target of
1,432. Only 50 per cent of the target for the whole year is expected to be
achieved. As the paper reports, “the result, according to one former commander,
is ‘panic’ among defence officials.”


The
reason for that panic is simple: it was reservists who were meant to occupy the
breach left by cuts to the regular army. Around 20,000 troops are being jettisoned
from the Army by 2020, alongside 5,000 each from the Royal Air Force and the
Navy. It was anticipated that the Army Reserve would increase by around 11,000
in the meantime – but that now looks, to borrow a military term, a forlorn hope.

This
is how it’s been since the Government’s messy
and compromised Defence Review
; one strategic complication after another.
But it creates political complications, too. Not only does a recruitment shortage
threaten to aggravate Cameron’s running battle with the military chiefs – which
I summarised here
– but it could also help solidify UKIP’s support. Farage & Co. pledge, on
their website, to “reverse
[the] decline”
of our armed forces. It’s yet another example of UKIP’s cash-for-all
approach to policymaking, but it clearly has some appeal for unhappy former
Conservatives.

And
there will be blue-on-blue attacks, as well. In a separate
story
in today’s Mail on Sunday, Sir Gerald Howarth questions whether the Military
Covenant is being upheld “not just in spirit but in action” – but that’s not
even the start of it. John Baron is just one of the Tory MPs campaigning
against
the Government’s decision to disband one of his local regiments. Dominic
Raab has asked
why, to save money, we don’t just get out of Afghanistan this year. In every
reach of the backbenches, there are questions about funding and overstretch and
procurement.

The
flashpoints will likely come with the next manifesto. George Osborne may have eased
Tory worries with the defence budget he outlined
in the last Spending Review
, but he and Cameron will be under pressure to
make further commitments for the event of a Tory majority – and all as they withdraw
from a decade-long conflict. Yep, the game of life sure is hard to play, as the
M*A*S*H theme song had it.

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