Defence is next big challenge for the PM from the Tory right

Few issues polarise the Conservatives as much as Europe. But David Cameron could be about to experience the full weight of his backbenchers’ frustrations over another emotive Conservative issue – defence.

The Prime Minister could have been forgiven for thinking the post-election honeymoon would have lasted a little longer. An unexpected majority coupled with the Labour leadership contest should have given him the opportunity to ram home his advantage and bask in the admiration of the Party. But instead he’s already been given a reminder that his majority is slender and will necessitate him retaining the support of those on the Conservative right.

As the Prime Minister has pressed ahead with his plans for a renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the EU, the Conservative Eurosceptics have begun flexing their muscles on issues such as how referendum campaigns will be resourced and suggestions of an electoral purdah. And Mr Cameron has had to respond, with Downing Street confirming an EU referendum will not take place at the same time as Scottish and Welsh Assembly elections in 2016.

But as the European debate gears up to be Britain’s version of the Hatfields and McCoys, the Prime Minister faces another tempestuous debate with members of his Party on defence.

The media has been rife in recent weeks with the calls of various experts for Britain to stick to the NATO commitment of spending two percent of GDP on defence. This has been amidst sustained speculation that the UK will fall below that target well before 2020 – speculation given further credence by the Chancellor’s demands for a further £500m from the MoD budget.

This week Tory backbenchers were seen watching from the sidelines as the House of Lords debated defence spending. The message was very clear: members of Mr Cameron’s own party fully intend to hold his feet to the fire over UK defence policy and spending, particularly when the Prime Minister has recommitted to ring-fencing the international aid budget.

Grumblings amongst the Conservative backbenches may increase in volume ahead of the Strategic Defence and Security Review that will be published later in the year. Mr Cameron will have a walk a tightrope with his backbenches and will be hard pressed to mollify their concerns on both Europe and defence.