TRIDENT AND THE DEFENCE REVIEW – 16 September 2010

Dr Julian Lewis:

‘When it comes to our nuclear deterrent, there are some straightforward questions to answer. Should it be replaced? Do we need a submarine-based system? Does the decision need to be taken now? Our approach to all those questions is to answer yes.’

Those are not my words, but the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (David Cameron), now the Prime Minister, on 4 December 2006, when he gave an excellent response to the statement by the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, on why the Trident programme should be renewed. My right hon. Friend went on to say:

‘Conservative Members have always believed that Britain should have an independent nuclear deterrent’ –

and that

‘Those who argue that the world has changed so that no deterrent is required miss the point. Yes, the world has changed, and it continues to change rapidly, but that is the very case for keeping up our guard. Just as today’s threat is so different from that predicted 20 years ago, today we cannot predict the threat that we will face in 20 years’ time. Still less can we predict the threat in 40 to 50 years’ time, when the next generation of submarines will still be in service.’

Finally, my right hon. Friend pointed out that we need a credible deterrent, both against rogue states and against serious, modern, well-equipped states that pose a more traditional threat to our security. He said:

‘We should have a credible deterrent to both’.

He went on to say that

‘the key to a credible system is that it is not vulnerable to pre-emptive attack … Do not all the experts agree that, of the three options of land, air or submarine-based systems, the submarine-based system is the least vulnerable by far?’ – [Official Report, 4 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 24.]

That was why, when the vote was held on replacing the nuclear deterrent with a successor to Trident on 14 March 2007, the Conservative Opposition voted very strongly with the Government. The motion1 was carried by 409 votes to 161, with the Liberal Democrats and some Labour rebels voting against.

Following that, the Conservatives gave a manifesto commitment at the last election, committing our party to replacing the Trident nuclear system with a successor system that would be submarine-based. We went into the election on that basis, but did not win enough seats – sadly, it must be said – to form a Government by ourselves. Conservative MPs were summoned, got together and addressed by our party leader. We were told about the various offers made to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Because the nuclear deterrent was such a major issue of difference between us and the Liberal Democrats, a special mention was made of it, and it was stated that the successor to Trident would be carried forward and that the Liberal Democrats would have to accept it. I particularly remember a senior colleague looking at me, catching my eye at that moment, and giving me a reassuring nod because he knew of my concern about this issue. That was my right hon. Friend, as he now is, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

I must say that when I came to the Chamber this morning, I was very agitated because it appeared that someone – a Government source – had spoken to the BBC suggesting that this commitment was in doubt. As I said in an intervention, if so, this was particularly alarming because it would be a betrayal of the commitment the Conservative Party gave to the electorate and a betrayal of the commitment the Conservative Party leader gave to Conservative MPs when seeking their support, which we gave, to the formation of the coalition. I cannot imagine that such a betrayal would take place. I must say that I am considerably reassured by the answers I have had from the Minister for the Armed Forces to questions put to him earlier in the debate.

John Woodcock: I associate myself with much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, although I cannot comment on the internal workings of the Conservative Party. Does he agree that although the earlier assurance from the Minister for the Armed Forces was welcome, there has been so much confusion on this issue that it requires the Prime Minister to clarify once and for all precisely what the policy is, without ambiguity?

Dr Lewis: I think it would do no harm at all for the Prime Minister to make a further statement. He has always been unambiguous about this in the past and he was unambiguous about it when he was seeking the leadership of the party. It was a specific issue about which I asked him personally when I was reflecting on whom to support and he was very firm in his commitment to the continuation of the nuclear deterrent.

I am not quite sure what actually happened with the generation of this story. We have heard from the Armed Forces Minister that, as far as he knows, it had nothing to do with anyone employed by the Government. On the other hand, the BBC says it got its story from ‘Government sources’. Those two statements are hard to reconcile. It is possible that someone somewhere on the press side in government thought they would take a punt at it, or perhaps someone thought they would fly a kite. The idea of flying a kite would be to say:

‘Well, let us see if we can shift this decision a little and see what sort of a reaction it gets’.

I hope that the reaction this has got so far – notably from my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Bernard Jenkin) in his excellent interview on the ‘Today’ programme this morning and to some extent, I hope, from the contributions I have made in the Chamber today – has been sufficient to send a message to anyone anywhere in government that if they think that Conservative Members who have devoted their political lives to the protection, the maintenance, the justification and the support for a strategic nuclear deterrent would be prepared to perform back-somersaults on an issue of this sort, they have got another think coming. This is not going to happen.

One of the advantages of my having been able to campaign for 28 or 29 years on the same subject, both outside and inside Parliament, is that I have seen these things happen over and over again. It may be that some bright spark in the coalition thought that it would be a good idea if we could just shift the particular decision from one side of the next General Election to the other, it would postpone some potential fissure between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats within that coalition. Let me assure anyone who holds that view that, on the contrary, any such move to delay will fuel the very divisions and uncertainty that people wish to avoid.

I have been here before, on an international scale. I remember when the decision was made in 1979 to deploy the cruise and Pershing II missiles in five NATO countries to counter the SS-20 deployments by the Soviet Union from 1977. However, there was a fatal flaw in what was done. It was announced in December 1979 that the deployment would take place, but it was not actually due to take place until November 1983, which was when the cruise missiles came in. That reopened the whole controversy, and gave new life to those who always oppose a nuclear deterrent or deployment. It was a fatal mistake. Anyone who makes a decision on a matter of this sort must make it in principle. We made it in principle, and we made it in principle in 2007.

Our attention has been drawn to some small print. We have been told that if we look at the coalition agreement, we will see that the deterrent will be replaced, and that it will be replaced on the basis of value-for-money assessments. Hon. Members will have heard me ask the Armed Forces Minister whether that could possibly be interpreted as meaning that the deterrent should not go ahead at all. He seemed to say that that could not be the case; but there is a problem. If we put off the decision about the main gate, we will reach a point at which, if it were decided not to proceed through the main gate with a replacement of Trident, the only conceivable alternative would be the one that we hear time and again from the Liberal Democrats: cruise missiles on Astute-class submarines. That whole programme would have to be designed right from the beginning, and there would be no way of preventing a fatal gap which would ensure that, by the time the programme had been designed, there would be no submarine-building capacity left at Barrow-in-Furness. I see the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) nodding in agreement.

I have seen these tricks played over and over again. People are unwilling to say that they want to get rid of the deterrent because they know that, politically-speaking, that would be suicide, so they try to find indirect means of scuppering it. We will not fall for that sort of trickery.

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1 "That this House supports the Government’s decisions, as set out in the White Paper The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent (Cm 6994), to take the steps necessary to maintain the UK’s minimum strategic nuclear deterrent beyond the life of the existing system and to take further steps towards meeting the UK’s disarmament responsibilities under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty."