By Matthew Barrett
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Philip Hammond's statement to the House this afternoon announcing cuts to the Army was bound to be a challenging time for the Secretary of State for Defence. The announcement signals the beginning of a long transformation for the Army, and jobs will undoubtedly be lost as a result of the changes. Mr Hammond told the House that the 5th Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland, 2nd Battalion the Royal Fusiliers, 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire regiment, 3rd Battalion the Mercian Regiment and the 2nd Battalion the Royal Welsh would all be "withdrawn" or disbanded. The Secretary of State said:
"These withdrawals and mergers, unwelcome as I know they will be in the units affected, are fair and balanced, and have been carefully structure to minimise the impact of the regular manpower reduction and optimise the military effectiveness of the Army."
"The British Army has seen several transformations since the end of World War II. From wartime structure to Cold War; from conscription to professional force, and the downsizing at the end of the Cold War in Options for Change and Frontline First, and now it is embarking on another. The values of the Army have endured through previous transformations, they have sustained it through a decade of continuous campaigns. And those same values – courage, discipline, respect, integrity, loyalty, selflessness – will sustain it through this transformation, and no doubt through many further iterations."
The changes – which were previewed in the newspapers this morning – were expected. What was unsure was how harsh a reception Mr Hammond would receive from the Conservative backbenchers. While there were a number of Tories who gave Mr Hammond their support – two former officers, Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East), and Ben Wallace (Wyre and Preston North), for example – and some who said cuts were necessary following Labour's financial mismanagement, such as Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) and Julian Brazier (Canterbury), there was also dissent.
James Arbuthnot (North East Hampshire), the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, said "we can all be thankful" for cuts uncertainty being lifted but warned that increased reliance on reservists, as set out by Mr Hammond, was unparalleled, and sounded sceptical of how well the TA could handle the increased duties they would have to undertake.
Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) compared the cuts to those made in the 1920s. Sir Peter said the "day will come when we need to increase our armed forces", and asked whether the new, reduced Army would be able to train new soldiers in that eventuality. Mr Hammond assured Sir Peter that the Army would be able to do so.
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) – a former Colonel – said that it seemed to him that the cuts were particularly harsh towards English county regiments, as opposed to targeting cuts in Scotland. John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) had similar concerns, saying the Government was making "a very grave error" by cutting English regiments rather than less-well-recruited Scottish units. Mr Baron called it a grubby political decision, and noted that overseas aid spending to countries like India is continuing despite Army cuts. This, in turn, was echoed by Julian Lewis (New Forest East), who said Defence spending was too low down the Government's spending priorities.
John Glen (Salisbury) returned to James Arbuthnot's point, asking if Mr Hammond could be confident that relying on reservists would not create an "emerging capability gap". Richard Drax (South Dorset), another former soldier, said that if the overall size of the Army was being reduced, the proportion of professional soldiers should increase, not decrease. Finally, Patrick Mercer (Newark), a former Colonel in the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment (which, coincidentally, was merged into another regiment under the Labour government), raised his concern that recruitment would be passed into the hands of "privatised" contractors.
Mr Hammond was competent and calm, as is his style, for the vast majority of his statement, and the questions that followed, other than when replying to Labour MP Madelaine Moon, whose question he twice called "rubbish" and loudly rejected her intervention.