Defence Secretary Michael Fallon should have spent Monday morning answering tough questions on the Tory record at a London debate organized by the Royal United Services Institute. Instead, he was in Ilford North supporting former Conservative MP Lee Scott’s struggling campaign win back his seat.

In Fallon’s place, the Tories sent Parliamentary Under Secretary For Defence Harriet Baldwin,, who has held that junior ministerial appointment for less than a year. Fallon had been due to take part, but pulled out at the last minute.

“Michael Fallon has serious questions to answer about the impact of government cuts on the capacity of Armed Forces, which is probably why he wanted to duck such an important debate,” said Wes Streeting, Labour Candidate in Ilford North who has served as its MP since 2015.

“I would never pull the Defence Secretary away from talking to serving personnel and reservists to prop up a local campaign. Michael Fallon and the Ilford North Conservative Association should apologise to those who wanted to hear from the Defence Secretary and explain why he felt it was more important to travel up the Central Line to Ilford when he was expected to answer questions in central London.”

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At RUSI, Baldwin struggled to defend the Conservative record, being particularly pushed by a recent Royal Marine officer on collapsing training budgets. [You can see the debate here]. Attendees – who included some of Britain’s leading defence experts as well as veterans, reservists and serving personnel – said privately afterwards they were distinctly unimpressed.

Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary Nia Griffith said she was proud to take part alongside senior spokespeople from the Liberal Democrats, Green Party and Scottish National Party. She stressed the  party’s commitment to maintaining military spending at two percent of GDP, the Trident nuclear weapons system and improving lives and opportunity for military personnel.

She also said the party was committed to examining the overuse of private contractors to provide military services such as catering and housing.

“Without Fallon, Labour and Nia Griffith were clearly the strongest in town,” says Peter Apps, volunteer coordinator for Labour Friends of the Forces, who attended the debate. “She clearly knew her stuff, and stuck to her guns. Baldwin admitted her expertise was limited beyond her narrow beat of procurement. Maybe she could sense the crowd was unconvinced.”

“It was clear many in the audience felt the UK was heading towards a psychotically hard Brexit that could be devastating for our economy and defences, many of which already need substantial improvement.”