Latest Channel 4 News:
Row over Malaysian state's coins
'Four shot at abandoned mine shaft'
Rain fails to stop Moscow wildfires
Cancer blow for identical twins
Need for Afghan progress 'signs'

FactCheck: double-counting troop numbers?

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 10 October 2007

David Cameron accuses Gordon Brown of spin and double-counting the number of troops leaving Iraq by Christmas. Is he right?

The claim

"And I believe that by the end of the year the British forces, which have been 5,500, can be reduced to 4,500, and that by the end of the year, indeed by Christmas, 1,000 of our troops can be brought back to the UK and to other purposes ... That releases 1,000 of our troops and hopefully they will be home by Christmas."
Gordon Brown, Iraq, 1 October 2007

"Isn't it the case that 500 of [these troop withdrawals] had already been announced and 270 of them were already back in the country?"
David Cameron, Iraq debate, parliament, 8 October 2007

The background

While the Tories' conference raged in Blackpool last week, Gordon Brown's "fact-finding mission" to Iraq grabbed headlines with the news that 1,000 troops would be home by Christmas.

In parliament this week, Brown made a formal statement and announced more troop withdrawals. He said the current "first phase" of overwatch - where control is handed over to Iraqi forces and British troops take a mentoring and training role - would see troop numbers fall to 5,000 then 4,500.

The second phase of overwatch, he said, would see troop numbers dropping to 2,500 from spring 2008.

The Tories, however, pressed him further on the 1,000 troops that he had mentioned in Iraq the previous week. David Cameron claimed Brown was double-counting troop numbers and that, in dealing with the lives of servicemen and their families, he was entering a "different order of magnitude" to past spinning.

Who's right? Had we heard it all before?

The analysis

Firstly, lets look at what comrade Gordon actually said in Iraq. The detail of his initial statement to reporters contain the kind of cautious linguistic twist of which a tax policy would be proud.

He says that by the end of the year our forces, "which have been 5,500", will be reduced to 4,500.

The use of the phrase "have been" is interesting. Why not just say how many troops there are now? Especially as the mention of the 1,000 who should be out of Iraq by Christmas seems to suggest pretty clearly that we're going from a current 5,500 to a future 4,500.

But how many troops are there in Iraq? Not, in fact, 5,500, but 5,250, says the Ministry of Defence.

There were 5,500 before Basra Palace was handed over to Iraqi control on 5 September. But as a "dividend" of the handover, 270 troops went home - if not the next day, then a couple of weeks after, an MOD spokesperson told FactCheck.

So, when Gordon spoke, Cameron's 270 had indeed already packed up their kitbags. Had Brown been speaking a month ago, his choice of the 5,500 figure would have made more sense.

Brown acknowledged in parliament this week that he had spoken in Iraq using data "as of" 1 September. So what about Cameron's claim that a reduction from 5,500 to 500 had already been announced?

Back to a big parliamentary announcement by then-premier Tony Blair on February 21. He talked of a reduction from the 7,100 then in operation to "roughly 5,500", and then said that over time the UK would be able to draw down slowly - "possibly to below 5,000 once the Basra palace site has been transferred to the Iraqis in late summer".

If not an announcement, then certainly a trailer - and all the way back in February.

And by June, when questioned in parliament Blair said there were 5,500 troops in Iraq and: "When, in the next few weeks, we are able to complete a further phased withdrawal, they will come down even further, but they must come down as and when the security conditions allow."

A statement from Des Browne, the defence secretary, in July backed this up, saying that the next phase would reduce troop numbers to 5,000 after the handover of Basra palace.

Shouldn't this have stolen Gordon's thunder?

Finally, what about the rest of these 1,000? The number of troops in Iraq will, the MOD confirmed, soon go down to 5,000, then 4,500.

However, 500 of the reduction is made up by support and logistical staff being deployed to other parts of the region - the "other operations" Brown mentioned.

The force in Iraq will be reduced, though whether many people will see it as a homecoming in exactly the way Brown suggested is more debatable.

The verdict

Cameron seems the clear winner on the battle of the numbers. It's true, as Brown says, that troop numbers have and are being reduced in Iraq; after all, there were 46,000 troops out there at the height of the conflict.

But by suggesting, as he did last week, that 1,000 additional troops were suddenly about to be brought home, was, as Cameron points out, a recycled announcement too far - not least because 270 of the troops to which his figures appeared to refer were already out of Iraq.

Brown did promise after taking office to make statements in parliament rather than to the media.

By saving the juicy new revelations for parliament this week rather than spilling the beans on camera in Iraq he is, at least indirectly, keeping this part of the promise - although he comes away from it looking far from transparent.

FactCheck rating: 1 (to Cameron); 4 (to Brown)

How ratings work

Every time a FactCheck article is published we'll give it a rating from zero to five.

The lower end of the scale indicates that the claim in question largerly checks out, while the upper end of the scale suggests misrepresentation, exaggeration, a massaging of statistics and/or language.

In the unlikely event that we award a 5 out of 5, our factcheckers have concluded that the claim under examination has absolutely no basis in fact.


PM speaks to reporters in Baghdad, 1 October 2007
PM outlines Iraq strategy, 8 October 2007
Written Ministerial Statements, Thursday, 19 July 2007
Oral Answers to Questions -Prime Minister, Wednesday, 27 June 2007
Tony Blair's statement, February 21 2007

Your view

You've read the article, now have your say. We want to know your experiences and your views. We also want to know if there are any claims you want given the FactCheck treatment.


FactCheck will correct significant errors in a timely manner. Readers should direct their enquiries to the editor at the email address above.

Send this article by email

More on this story

Channel 4 is not responsible for the content of external websites.

Watch the Latest Channel 4 News

Watch Channel 4 News when you want

Latest Domestic politics news

More News blogs

View RSS feed

Cartoon coalition


How Channel 4 News viewers picture the coalition in cartoon form

Token candidate?

Labour leadership candidate Diane Abbott (credit:Getty Images)

Diane Abbott: I am the genuine move-on candidate for Labour

'Mr Ordinary'

Andy Burnham, Getty images

Andy Burnham targets Labour's 'ordinary' person.

Iraq inquiry: day by day

Tony Blair mask burnt during protest outside the Iraq inquiry. (Credit: Getty)

Keep track of Sir John Chilcot's Iraq war findings day by day.

The Freedom Files

Freedom Files

Revealed: the stories they didn't want to tell.

Making a FoI request?

Channel 4 News tells you how to unearth information.

Channel 4 © 2010. Channel 4 is not responsible for the content of external websites.