LONDON (Reuters) - Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth accused the Conservatives on Monday of undermining public support for forces in Afghanistan by making false accusations that troops are not properly equipped.
With the Labour party behind in opinion polls 10 days before an election, Ainsworth also attacked the Liberal Democrats, saying their plans for updating Britain’s nuclear-armed submarine fleet were disingenuous.
The Conservatives and Lib Dems have repeatedly accused Prime Minister Gordon Brown of failing to give Britain’s 9,500 troops in Afghanistan enough helicopters and armoured vehicles to protect them from lethal roadside bombs.
“I’ve found it disappointing that the Conservatives have gone beyond the legitimate activity of an opposition of criticising the government’s record on providing equipment,” Ainsworth said in a lecture at the Royal United Services Institute, a defence think-tank.
“They have misled the public about equipment improvements on a number of occasions. They would have the public believe that our troops are not properly resourced.
“In doing so they are both painting a false picture and they are also undermining public support for the mission,” he said.
Ainsworth said “some” people, who he did not identify, had come close to implying that every death of a British soldier in Afghanistan was “not just a tragedy, but ... a scandal.” Some 281 British soldiers have died in Afghanistan since 2001.
“If the opposition continues in this way we are making it very difficult, if not impossible, to commit our forces to action,” he said.
Support for the Liberal Democrats has soared during the campaign, pushing Labour down to third in several polls and increasing the chance the May 6 election will result in a “hung parliament,” in which no party has a parliamentary majority.
Despite his criticism of the other parties, Ainsworth said he disagreed with a Conservative defence adviser who had questioned whether a hung parliament could take necessary decisions on defence.
Ainsworth, in remarks that suggest Labour believes a hung parliament is a distinct possibility, said the defence review that all three parties have promised after the election would benefit from “reaching out across the political divide.”
The review is expected to identify cuts in defence spending to help rein in Britain’s big budget deficit.
Ainsworth said public services, including defence, would face cuts if the Conservatives were elected.
The centre-right Conservatives hit back, saying that Labour’s “deathbed conversion” to backing the armed forces after 13 years in power had no credibility and that Labour had undermined morale in the armed forces.
Ainsworth also criticised the Lib Dems, who have opposed spending tens of billions of pounds on replacing Britain’s Trident submarine-based nuclear weapons system, which is due to start going out of service in the 2020s.
The Lib Dems have suggested putting nuclear missiles on Astute conventionally-armed submarines could be a cheaper alternative. But Ainsworth said the Astute option would almost certainly require more warheads than Trident would.
“It’s uncosted, it’s untested, it’s probably impractical and the Liberal Democrats are ... being disingenuous,” he said.
The Lib Dems retorted that Labour election pledges on defence were “like something from a parallel universe.”
Editing by Mark Heinrich