'PARTY POLITICS AND THE TRIDENT VOTE'

TRANSCRIPT OF DERMOT MURNAGHAN INTERVIEW WITH JULIAN LEWIS MP, CHAIRMAN OF THE DEFENCE SELECT COMMMITTEE

Murnaghan, Sky News – 7 February 2016

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: Now a Parliamentary vote on Trident has long been on the cards, but a date still hasn’t actually been set for one.  It’s a divisive issue within the Labour Party – especially with Jeremy Corbyn, its leader, firmly opposed to renewing Britain’s nuclear deterrent – and now the Prime Minister has been urged not to play party politics with the timing of the vote by a senior member of his own party. That man is with me now and he is Julian Lewis, Chair of the influential Defence Select Committee. And a very good morning to you, Mr Lewis.  How do you think he might be playing party politics with this issue?

JULIAN LEWIS: Well, it’s quite simple: everybody is ready for this debate and ready to go ahead.  The Labour moderates want it to go ahead; the Labour Left, led by Jeremy Corbyn, have never been afraid to debate this subject; the SNP want it to go ahead; Conservative pro-Trident MPs – which is the overwhelming majority – want it to go ahead. And the only thing that appears to be standing between the vote and the carrying forward of the policy is Number Ten Downing Street, and I think the Prime Minister really has to intervene.  I know he’s got a lot on his mind –

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: So what are you saying is their calculation then? Why would they want to delay?  As I’ve described, there is that difference of opinion, to say the very least, within the Labour Party, why would they [Number Ten] want to wait?

JULIAN LEWIS: Well, the answer is this: later this year Labour will have their Party Conference – in October, of course – and they will then decide whether to change their position, which still remains a multilateral approach to nuclear disarmament rather than a one-sided disarmament approach to the issue.  They will decide whether to change that and go back to the days when they supported the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and one-sided disarmament. And I can only assume that the reason for this overdue vote being delayed until then is that some of the so-called strategists who advise the Prime Minister are suggesting it would be better for Labour to impale themselves further on the hook of unilateralism.

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: So you see them becoming unilateralists by voting – having the debate and voting – within the Conference, and then along comes the Government with this issue in the House of Commons?

JULIAN LEWIS: Yes. The fact is it would probably strengthen the hand of the moderates in the Labour Party who support Trident – and there are many Labour MPs who support Trident just as strongly as Conservative ones do. It would strengthen their hand if the vote was done and dusted before the Conference, because they’d then be able to say:

“Let’s not go back to what Gerald Kaufman famously called ‘the longest suicide note in history’ in 1983.”

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: It is quite an accusation for you to be making about – and it has to go all the way to the top – about the Prime Minister.  This is about the defence of the realm, for goodness sake, and you are saying he’s playing politics with it. 

JULIAN LEWIS: Well, I am saying that I want the Prime Minister to take control of the people who are, perhaps, badly advising him; but it wouldn’t be the first time that we’ve had a situation of this sort. In October 2010, purely as what I described at the time as

“a love-gift to the Liberal Democrats”,

the Conservative leadership agreed to extend the life of the existing Trident submarines by at least five years, until after the General Election.  Now, that was a terrible and unforgiveable decision, because everybody expected there to be another ‘hung’ Parliament.  If there had been another ‘hung’ Parliament, even though the overwhelming majority of Conservative and Labour MPs support the renewal of the deterrent, the Liberal Democrats could have played-off one leader against another and said:

“Unless you get rid of this one [Trident] system, we won’t give you the keys to Downing Street.”

Thank goodness that didn’t transpire, but it easily could have done. So, the fact is, party politics has been wriggling its way through this whole debate and it shouldn’t.

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: We have no doubt about which way you will vote in that debate, if and when it comes, and – just related to current events – I’m thinking with reference to North Korea and why nuclear deterrents are still required.

JULIAN LEWIS: Yes. Even if North Korea weren’t rattling the nuclear bars of its cage, it would still be the case that what we are doing here is taking a decision, not just for the political and military strategic situation that confronts us now, but for the next thirty, forty and fifty years.  That is the lifespan of this weapons system and we cannot possibly predict what threats will arise over that period. Just as it makes sense to have adequate conventional forces in peacetime, so it is the ultimate insurance policy to have a minimum strategic nuclear deterrent, such as Trident, when we don’t know what threats are waiting for us in the next twenty, thirty or forty years.

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: Okay, and a quick thought while you are with us, Mr Lewis, about your constituency association. Several – well, quite a few dozen – have actually written [to the press] saying that they feel slighted by the Prime Minister, after all their efforts during the General Election campaign. He stood up in the House of Commons and said that, when it comes to the EU issue – when it comes to an EU referendum –

“Don’t listen, MPs. Don’t listen to your constituency associations. You make up your own minds.”

JULIAN LEWIS: Well my constituency association, I believe, selected me in February 1996 – a long time ago – primarily because of the shortest answer I have ever given to a political question: I was asked in the selection meeting:

“Would you vote to replace the pound with the single European currency?”

My answer was:

“Over my dead body.”

That is my view; and it is the view of the majority of members of my association that the European federalist superstate project is something that must be resisted at all costs.

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: So, on this statement, on these words he’s used in the House of Commons, do you think he has been at the very least a bit thoughtless – a bit inelegant?

JULIAN LEWIS: To tell you the truth, I wasn’t able to be present for his statement, so I didn’t hear it word for word; but what I would say is this, the argument about an ‘emergency brake’ on the payment of benefits to people who come to this country from other European countries seeking work is, to my mind, a total distraction and irrelevance.  I’ve got a very short list of six good reasons why we should vote to leave the EU – and you’re not going to let me read them out – but that doesn’t even feature.

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: You still haven’t answered the direct question: is your constituency association cross about the way the Prime Minister has spoken?

JULIAN LEWIS: The answer is I haven’t had a chance to ask them.  They haven’t signed this letter. I don't know if they were asked, but one thing I do know is that the overwhelming majority of them will be voting to come out of the EU – as should we all.

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: Okay Mr Lewis, thank you very much indeed, very good to see you. Julian Lewis there.

[To view this interview, click here.]