DEFENCE PROCUREMENT AND THE NUCLEAR DETERRENT – 19 October 2011

Dr Julian Lewis: I do not know whether you care to cast your mind back to May 1997, Mr Hood, but you drew the short straw of being the hon. Member who had to respond to my maiden speech. That speech was about nuclear weapons – Trident – and I fear that this one will be on the same subject. Indeed, I suspect that it will not be the last one that you or other hon. Members hear from me on the subject. I sometimes think that I should go into a sort of partnership with the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). We have debated this subject many times over the years. He never changes his tune, and I never change mine, but the debate remains live. It relates to procurement, in addition to strategy and the ethics or otherwise of nuclear deterrence, because of course the procurement process for Trident has been much disrupted.

The hon. Gentleman made great play of the fact that Parliament has not yet had the debate. Well, excuse me, I think that Parliament did have a debate. If I remember correctly, it was in the spring of 2007, and both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party were wholly in favour of the next generation of Trident being constructed. I recall the then Leader of the Opposition – now the Prime Minister – to whose speech I had contributed, passing me an Order Paper on which he had inscribed the words ‘Julian gets his way’. Sadly, of course, there’s many a slip between cup and lip or, indeed, between a vote in Parliament and the deployment of a successor generation. The slip concerned came in the failure of the Conservative Party to win an overall majority at the last general election. That ought not to have been a problem for the procurement process for Trident, given that the Labour Party had gone into the election pledged to renew the nuclear deterrent and so had the Conservative Party. Only the Liberal Democrats were opposed to that.

Jeremy Corbyn: I know that the hon. Gentleman loves the fact that the Conservatives are in a coalition Government with the Liberal Democrats – it is what gets him out of bed every morning and into work – but in his discussions with his Liberal Democrat colleagues, has he reached any conclusion about whether they do or do not want a nuclear missile or whether they want a different type of nuclear missile in the review that apparently is being undertaken?

Dr Lewis: I have to say to the hon. Gentleman – I am tempted to say ‘my hon. Friend’ – that the Liberal Democrats really differ from both of us, because he knows where he stands on nuclear weapons and I know where I stand, but the Liberal Democrats stand firmly with a foot in both camps. They know that they do not want Trident, but they do not want to put themselves in his camp by telling the truth, which is that the majority of their activists are one-sided nuclear disarmers and do not want a strategic nuclear deterrent at all. Therefore, they come up with this fiction that it is possible to have a viable strategic nuclear deterrent with an alternative system to Trident.

That ought to have made no headway at all when the coalition was formed. The reason for that was that I and all the other Conservative Members of Parliament, who were being addressed by the Prime Minister-to-be at a meeting in Committee Room 14, were told what the terms of the coalition agreement would be, or some of the basic outlines of the terms. We were told that we would have to accept certain things that the Liberal Democrats wanted that we did not want, such as a referendum on the alternative vote, but that the Liberals would have to accept things that we wanted that they did not want, such as the renewal of Trident – that was the very example chosen. I remember my friend and colleague the future Chancellor of the Exchequer looking up at that moment, catching my eye – because at the time I was still the party spokesman on the Royal Navy and the nuclear deterrent – and nodding vigorously in confirmation of what the leader of the party had said. You can imagine, Mr Hood, my surprise and dismay –

Mr Gregory Campbell: On the issue of discussions and debate, does the lesson of someone nodding vigorously in agreement with a position, only for that subsequently to be replaced by a cold, hard dose of reality, ring a bell in relation to other issues?

Dr Lewis: There is always the possibility that people will change their mind when they see different circumstances, but I genuinely feel that that has not applied in this case as a result of what I was about to explain and what hon. Members will remember. Out of the blue, even though the procurement of a replacement and successor system for Trident had specifically been excluded from the terms of the security and defence review, on the day when the statement was made, publishing the review and presenting it to Parliament, we were told that the main gate decision, the contracts for Trident would be put off until after the next election. With the greatest respect to the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), there was no doubt at all that that had nothing to do with hard facts or realities creeping in, and everything to do with politics, as the letter subsequently sent out from the president of the Liberal Democrats, crowing in triumph at the delay of the Trident decision, made clear.

I must not wander too far from the procurement emphasis of this debate. Therefore, I would like to put a specific question to my hon. Friend the Defence Minister with responsibility for procurement issues. It relates to the study that is being done about alternative systems to Trident as a possible nuclear deterrent. That is being done as a gift, a present, a political offering to the Liberal Democrats in the coalition, and I believe that the study is being carried out by the Cabinet Office rather than the Ministry of Defence, although the Ministry of Defence is supplying the material to the Cabinet Office.

I have to say to the Minister that any halfway competent assessment team, facing the problem of examining the existing and the potential systems for carrying a nuclear deterrent in the future, could do a comprehensive study over a period of probably not more than two or three months and arguably over a few weeks, on the basis of the accumulated knowledge of half a century that we have in the business of strategic nuclear deterrence. I would therefore like to know what progress such a study is making or whether it will in fact be spun out until the next general election. The reality is that there is no alternative to Trident for the next generation of the strategic nuclear deterrent, and I suspect that my political opponents in the CND ranks would agree.

Alison Seabeck (Shadow Defence Minister): Just as an aside, does the hon. Gentleman have any concerns that the study was one of the documents [Oliver Letwin] put in the wastepaper bin in the park?

Dr Lewis: I do not mind so much when unclassified documents are thrown away, but I do mind when this country’s basic protection is thrown away. I really do not want to see another hung Parliament, with both major parties having gone into an election proclaiming their commitment to the next generation of the nuclear deterrent, only for a third party that is adamantly opposed to that deterrent, but which does not have the guts to wear its unilateralism openly, to blackmail the leaders of those two parties in turn, saying: ‘You get rid of this weapons system and we will make you Prime Minister’.

Stephen Gilbert: I feel loth to interrupt my hon. Friend as he expands on how a but effective team can punch above its weight in the coalition, because he is doing a splendid job. Does he not see, however, that the threat facing the United Kingdom has changed hugely over the 20 or 30 years since the end of the Cold War? Does he not agree, therefore, that it is right and proper to examine whether we need to change our plans in response to that changing environment?

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. We are now moving from a procurement debate into a pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear debate.

Dr Lewis: I shall briefly deal with the point, as it is out there, and then I shall move back to procurement in the narrow sense, if I may.

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. I would much prefer you to carry on with your very interesting speech.

Dr Lewis: Thank you very much. I would simply say that punching above one’s weight and getting a result that reverses the mandate of the two large parties are very different things.

The question is what happens in the procurement process for a weapons system that Parliament has already voted in principle to bring into existence. The hon. Member for Islington North says Parliament should debate and vote on the issues again and again at every stage of the procurement process. As the Minister will confirm, however, procurement does not work that way; there are certain set stages in the procurement of a weapons system at which Parliament may have its say and at which contracts must be signed. The fact is that the contract in this case has been put off until after the election, and the result is that the entire procurement project has been put in jeopardy.

The systems we are worried about – whether nuclear systems or aircraft carriers – will be built over a fairly long period, but they will be in service over a very long period. The lifespan of the new super-carriers will be 50 years, and that of the next generation of the nuclear deterrent will be about 30 or 35 years. Therefore – I would not dream of returning to our earlier debate – the circumstances that have changed in the world over the past 15, 20 or 25 years might well change again over the next 15, 20, 30, 40 or 50 years. That is why we have armies, navies and air forces in times of peace, when there is no apparent threat on the horizon, and why we need systems such as the nuclear deterrent – to prevent us from being taken by surprise.

I must draw my remarks to a conclusion, as others will not have time to speak otherwise. However, I would not like today to pass without paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), the former Secretary of State for Defence, and wishing him all the best. I served under him and three previous shadow Secretaries of State, and I know that defence specialists across the parties are bound by a common world view and a common realisation that decisions taken in the defence portfolio, above all others, will determine whether the people of this country remain safe and whether our forces, when they go into action, sustain great casualties or emerge triumphant, bearing few, if any, casualties. The responsibility for those issues is fearsome. My right hon. Friend had a passionate belief in the importance of the Anglo-American alliance and of procuring a future generation of the nuclear deterrent, and I trust that his successor will be equally committed.

Finally, I welcome the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) to her responsibilities. Like many members of Labour defence teams in the past, she takes defence seriously and works on a non-partisan basis when she can.

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Alison Seabeck: ... The hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) is on the flip side of the coin from my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North. He described, with benefit of his long-standing interest and knowledge in defence matters, some of the problems regarding procurement and politicians’ role in muddying the waters, if I am to be gentle about what is going on in the coalition regarding Trident.

Dr Julian Lewis: Because there has been such candour on Government Benches about muddied waters, for the sake of clarity, will the hon. Lady take the opportunity to reaffirm her party’s firm commitment that Trident should be renewed and replaced by the successor system?

Alison Seabeck: The hon. Gentleman and I both stood on manifesto pledges that said exactly that. I also thank him for his kind comments in welcoming me to my new role.

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[The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Peter Luff): ... In a characteristically thoughtful and articulate speech, my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) spoke about the need for fixed points in programmes for decisions. As he said, such a measure is important given the long period over which such decisions are felt. As I am frequently reminded, the last captain of the aircraft carriers that we are currently building is probably not even born yet, which puts into context the length of time we have.

... I also want to pick up something that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East said about the previous Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox). The MOD is now set on a path of real recovery, real hope and real confidence thanks to his excellent work. It now falls to the ministerial team to continue that work as a tribute to his sterling leadership as Secretary of State.

... In the minute that I have left, I will address nuclear missile systems. I smiled when the hon. Member for Islington North got to his feet, because I could see the other “usual suspects” in Westminster Hall and I knew what would happen. Actually, I think that the hon. Gentleman’s concerns have largely been addressed. The long-lead items for HMS Victory were bought 15 years ahead of the construction of the ship, and the oak for the ship was laid down accordingly. Long-lead items are an established part of military procurement, and they always will be. I do not think we need to make any apology for that.

... I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East said, and he is right to keep us to our pledge. I assure him that the main gate decision being delayed until 2016 brings certain advantages, in that there will be a more mature design by then for us to approve. However, I hope he will keep us to that pledge on an important capability that guarantees our freedom, as he so rightly reminded the Chamber.]