New Forest East



Today, BBC Radio 4 – 23 January 2017

JUSTIN WEBB: We know two things about the test of a Trident nuclear missile last year. Courtesy of the Sunday Times we know that the missile didn’t work and we also know that the failure was kept quiet. Just a few moments ago on this programme Greg Clark, the Business Secretary, refused to be drawn on it at all. Dr Julian Lewis, the Conservative MP for New Forest East, chairs the Defence Select Committee in the House of Commons, and is on the line. Good morning to you.

​JULIAN LEWIS: Good morning.

JUSTIN WEBB: Is that refusal to answer any questions at all about it, on the part of the Government – do you think – sustainable?

JULIAN LEWIS: No, I don’t think it is sustainable, but I think in fairness to the present Prime Minister one has to accept that she’s been dealt a rotten hand, because this matter, the decision to cover it up – if there was such a decision, as appears to be the case – was taken in the dying days of the Cameron administration, when spin doctors were the rule in No.10 Downing Street.

JUSTIN WEBB: So, to differentiate herself from that, are you suggesting that, at some stage relatively soon, she just tells us all she reasonably can about it?

JULIAN LEWIS: Well, I am fairly sure that that will happen, because this sort of event is one you can’t play both ways. These tests are routine – though infrequent in this country – though they happen more regularly in America. And, as is well known, we share the missiles; so you must look at the tests in totality. And whenever they work, which is 99 per cent of the time, films are released of them working. So whichever person decided that they wanted to draw a veil over one that didn’t work, really should have been sacked; but as all that regime has been sacked now, I think hopefully a line will be drawn in the near future.

JUSTIN WEBB: Really, you think that that was a political, a spin doctor thing and was associated with the way that David Cameron’s government approached this?

JULIAN LEWIS: Yes, I do, and I am not saying this after the event. I’ve said it from 2010 onwards – ever since in October 2010 David Cameron revealed, at the time of the Strategic Defence and Security Review, that they were going to put off taking this vital vote to renew the Trident submarines until after the 2015 election. And they did that as a love gift, as I said at the time, to the Liberal Democrats. It was an outrageous decision, and they carried on playing politics with the Trident nuclear deterrent right to the very end.

JUSTIN WEBB: Do you think Theresa May might have been wiser, when it came to that vote, and she made that speech in the Commons, to have said everything that she knew then, assuming that she did know at the time?

JULIAN LEWIS: I honestly don’t know the circumstances of what she did or didn’t know. I always think that something like this is better to lay it on the line. It would have been a diversion from the main substance of the debate, which was the question of whether we should or shouldn’t renew the Trident submarines. The fact that there was a malfunction on an individual test, on a missile that has been successfully tested over 150 times here and in America, is irrelevant to what we were debating; but I think in the end you have always got to assume that something like this will come out.

JUSTIN WEBB: And at some stage we are going to know, aren’t we – or should we know – whether or not Theresa May did know at the time, because that is something the Labour Party was talking about this morning. Is that a reasonable request that we know at least whether she did know when she made her speech?

JULIAN LEWIS: I think that this is a sort of matter for political judgement. I would expect that in the end we will find out, one way or the other, but I have to say she was handed a no-win situation by her predecessor on this matter.

JUSTIN WEBB: Dr Julian Lewis, thank you very much.

* * *


Daily Politics, BBC2 – 23 January 2017

JO COBURN: ... So the Prime Minister should have answered clearly – but she didn’t on the programme yesterday?

JULIAN LEWIS: I think it would have been wiser for her to have come out and said it in a straightforward way, but the real responsibility for this – as I’ve said in other interviews – lies with the people who decided to cover the matter up in the first place, when it happened in June, and presumably it was Downing Street. Now, I have to say – and I never thought I’d use these terms – in fairness to the spin doctors of Downing Street, a very senior former Cameron spin doctor has rung up my office in a state of great anger, saying they never knew anything about it.

JO COBURN: No, they’ve denied it. We’ve got the quotes here saying it is entirely false of you to suggest that David Cameron's media team covered up, or tried to cover up, the Trident missile test.

JULIAN LEWIS: So then that just moves the argument one step further back, and I have to say it was a great pleasure to convey the message to Sir Craig Oliver that he ought to issue a press release on the subject, and I hope that he will do so in great detail and depth. But nevertheless, if he didn’t know, did the Prime Minister know, and if the Prime Minister knew, why didn’t he make the matter public and why didn’t he even tell his own closest spin doctor?

JO COBURN: Right. So you're saying that David Cameron may have known and refused to actually tell people? It does seem inconceivable that he wouldn’t have told his Director of Communications at the time.

JULIAN LEWIS: Well, the plot seems to thicken and get more and more mysterious. But the fact remains that if there was a cover-up, this cover-up occurred at the time of the abortive missile test, which was in June, and not in July, when the vote was being held and when we had a new Prime Minister who had been in office just for a few days.

JO COBURN: Right. But even so, even if she had only been in the office for a few days as Prime Minister, these are key pieces of information. She would have known. We now know, in fact, she was briefed about it. It would be inconceivable that she wouldn’t have been. Again, doesn’t it betray a level of trust that she wasn’t able to be clear about that when asked the direct question?

JULIAN LEWIS: I think it would have been more sensible for both Prime Ministers to have been absolutely up-front about this; but what you have to remember is that this particular issue was not what the debate was all about. The debate was all about: 'Do we renew our nuclear deterrent, or not?'

JO COBURN: But we didn’t have all the facts, did we?

JULIAN LEWIS: Well, we do have all the facts in the sense that this particular missile system, including the missiles that we use, are shared with the Americans – and altogether, according to reports, there have been over 160 successful test firings. Now, are you seriously suggesting that a majority of 355 MPs would have been turned around into a vote not to renew the Trident missile system?

JO COBURN: No, I’m not suggesting that at all, clearly, as I haven’t put that to you. What I am suggesting to you is that there is a level of transparency that MPs would probably have appreciated. If that was the case – and you're so convinced that they wouldn’t have been converted, in terms of their viewpoint – then why not just set it out clearly?

JULIAN LEWIS: I’ve already answered that. I’ve already said that it should have been done; but I can only assume that she may have thought that there would have been an inevitable row on the basis of her having to point the finger at the previous administration, because the first question that would have then been asked was: 'Well, why was it covered up a month ago by your predecessor?'

JO COBURN: Was it right than for the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, who has said today that it was wrong, or would have been wrong, to comment on Trident tests, as it would put information in the hands of our enemies. But was it then wrong for the Government to publicise the successful testing of Trident missiles in October 2012?

JULIAN LEWIS: That last point is the crucial point, Jo. You are absolutely right. The fact is that most information – just like with our Special Forces – most information about our nuclear submarines, our nuclear deterrent, has to be kept under wraps. But the fact is that when you have a missile test firing of this sort, it is usually widely publicised and a sensible thing when there is an occasional mishap, and the planned aborting of a mission, when something goes wrong, is to be upfront about it – and then you wouldn’t have had any issue arising out of it of significance whatsoever.

JO COBURN [to Tulip Siddiq]: You are against the renewal of the Trident missile system, anyway, so it wouldn’t have changed your mind either way. Would it have made any material difference?

TULIP SIDDIQ: Look, I think this is deeply worrying. There was a serious malfunction in our nuclear deterrent. The Prime Minister came and told MPs to renew this, spending £40 billion worth of taxpayers’ money, and when we raised concerns about how credible this was, we were dismissed. There wasn’t just me, there were Members from both sides of the House, who raised concerns about how credible it is, should we be looking at other options, is it right for the time? We were dismissed out of hand, we were criticised, and we were told constantly that we didn’t care about the country’s security. If the Prime Minister knew, which, judging by the interview you just showed us – I am a politician too, I know when someone is evading a question – she knew, she should have told us, she shouldn’t have covered it up, she shouldn’t have kept us in the dark, there should be an inquiry into this.

JO COBURN: Is she right?

ANNE-MARIE TREVELYAN: No, I think, the key point is: this ballistic missile system is by far the most effective and efficient in the world.

JO COBURN: But my question was: should Theresa May have been straight in terms of what she knew?

ANNE-MARIE TREVELYAN: Well, I think in relation to, as Dr Lewis said, in relation to the debate in July, the question was

JO COBURN: What about her interview yesterday: should she have been straight about what she was briefed?

ANNE-MARIE TREVELYAN: I hope very much that she was well briefed, and it was entirely her decision whether to discuss it. It’s not for me. The point that we should take away is that the Royal Navy have tested a missile every four years, HMS Vengeance had just come out of a refit, they were making sure everything worked, they tested it, there was a problem with a missile, which was not armed, it could not cause any great damage –

JO COBURN: Thank goodness.

ANNE-MARIE TREVELYAN: It was a test and the Royal Navy and our submariners did a cracking job, did all the right things to make sure that they managed the situation – and that's very important.

JO COBURN: This is about being straight with the British electorate and being straight with MPs in the House of Commons, when an issue like this is being voted on, whether or not it was directly related or not. I mean, the UK notifies other states when its tests are being carried out, so actually Lord Admiral West said that the Russians would know more about the test, and the misfiring of a missile that veered off course, than your colleagues in the House of Commons – can that be right?

ANNE-MARIE TREVELYAN: Well, personally I don’t see a problem whether it was to be discussed and put down as a Written Statement in a way that… To be honest, we often test lots of weaponry across the board with all three Services all the time, and this was not a nuclear test. This was an unarmed missile test. Therefore, in itself –

JO COBURN: But they announced it in 2012? It looks like a sin of omission, if you like.

ANNE-MARIE TREVELYAN: I genuinely think this is an issue that is out of proportion. I think the challenge is whether the new Prime Minister was fully made aware. The statement you read out implied that she was briefed on a planned test –

JO COBURN: She was.

ANNE-MARIE TREVELYAN: But that was a historic test at that point. So I would question whether she was fully briefed; but I think the point is I have no problem with us knowing that our Royal Navy are doing a fantastic job using an incredibly effective tool to keep us safe.

JO COBURN: Lord West, whom I've just mentioned, former First Sea Lord and Security Minister, has likened this incident to North Korea and the Soviet Union covering up missile tests that went wrong.

ANNE-MARIE TREVELYAN: I think we sometimes see when they go wrong too. So, you know, I think that the world’s media pay close attention, this has been highlighted because people have drawn together a series of information and put it in the public domain.

JO COBURN: But after the event happened. When that debate was going on, was it right that this was not made clear?

ANNE-MARIE TREVELYAN: I think she made clear her position to us – which the majority of us supported – that this is the most sophisticated, efficient and reliable ballistic missile system that exists, and that’s the one that we want to invest in.

JO COBURN [to Tulip Siddiq]: We talked about the fact that Theresa May should or shouldn’t have been clearer at the time, but in terms of the effectiveness of this system, listening to both, Julian Lewis and to Anne-Marie Trevelyan, are you in any doubt that it is a sort or non-effective or ineffective system, even if you don’t support it, is there any doubt in your mind that it is not effective?

TULIP SIDDIQ: For me the main concern is that there was a serious malfunction. We needed to know about it in Parliament. You cannot tell MPs to make a decision on such a serious topic without giving us the full facts. The Prime Minister covered it up, the former Prime Minister covered it up, we need to have an inquiry.

JO COBURN: That is the problem for the Government, isn’t it, because it does in the end allow MPs, quite rightly, like Tulip and her colleagues who are against the renewal of that Trident system, to doubt the honesty and integrity of the Government.

JULIAN LEWIS: Yes, I mean we must disentangle the strategic and the political issue. The strategic issue is that if these submarines went to sea with only one missile, then a failure of one missile out of 162 would be a serious problem. In strategic terms this means very little, if anything. But in terms of political straightforwardness, then it does raise an issue and, depending on what is said in the House of Commons this afternoon, maybe the Defence Committee as soon as tomorrow might be able to call some people before it, but we’ll have to wait and see whether the Government finally comes clean on this unnecessary row.

JO COBURN: Right. Well, an Urgent Question has been asked for and has now been confirmed. I don’t yet know who will be coming back to the House to actually answer that question, but it is going to happen at 3.30 this afternoon, which is unsurprising. Will that satisfy you, Tulip Siddiq?

TULIP SIDDIQ: Well, I guess I have to listen and see.

JO COBURN: If ministers are coming back, what do you think they need to say, Julian? What would you like to hear to put this to rest?

JULIAN LEWIS: Well, I would like to hear a straightforward timeline of when this matter was reported to the previous Prime Minister; what was decided then about covering it up; and when the present Prime Minister learned about it and for what reason she decided not to mention it in the immediate run-up to the debate. But, as I say, I don’t think it would have made a scrap of difference to the outcome of the debate with its stunningly large majority, quite rightly, in favour of keeping our nuclear weapons as long as other countries can threaten us with theirs.

JO COBURN: Julian Lewis, thank you for coming in.