The battle over Trident

At the time the coalition government was negotiated, Trident looked to be one of the most contentious policy areas for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to agree on. However, for all the barbed Cameron – Clegg exchanges over Trident during the election, it now looks as if the biggest tensions on the issue are coming from within the Conservative Party.

In my series of posts reviewing the content of the coalition document, I pointed out the compromise it contained on Trident:

It will be replaced unless there is a better value for money alternative. What the wording leaves unclear is the extent to which any alternative has to meet Trident like-for-like in terms of destructive power and constant instant availability. Whether or not both of those are required in effect decides the issue of whether or not a cheaper alternative is available.

Although it was a cross-party compromise, it also reflected the differences within the Liberal Democrats. There is a passionate unilateral tendency, but it is far from guaranteed to carry the day at party conference with multilateral disarmament commitments regularly being voted through (even if, as in the case of Ming Campbell’s policy on Trident, it took a speech from the leader to eke out a tiny majority).

Within the Conservatives there are even bigger differences growing, not so much over the principle of nuclear weaponary but over budgets and over Liam Fox:

A cabinet dispute over the costs of a new Trident missile system erupted into the open today when the defence secretary, Liam Fox, said his department was being asked to foot the multi-billion bill for the cost of replacing Britain’s nuclear deterrent.

Defence ministers have argued that the costs of a new Trident system – about £20bn over a decade – should come direct from the Treasury since it is a matter of national security. (The Guardian)

Leaving aside the rather bizarre implication of that final phrase that the MoD only funds from its own budget projects which aren’t a matter of national security, as the report highlights Trident is another issue that pits Osborne and Cameron against Fox – a defeated candidate for the party leadership, a right-winger to their moderniser camp and a minister who is seen to have fumbled badly already with comments such as his references to Afghanistan being “a broken 13th century country”.

The issue highlights why there is good reason to believe that David Cameron is seriously committed to coalition, as it’s an example of the sort of issue where having to win Liberal Democrat support provides a basis on which to rebuff pressures from the right.

But what does it all mean for Trident? It means the issue is very much up for decision and so there to be campaigned on.

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  • It is outrageous that Dr Fox is trying to exempt himself from the budget disciplines being imposed by the coalition government.

    Remember “we are all in it together”.

    The Boss should call Fox to his study and get him to copy our 100 lines the text to be taken from his 26 April 2009 speech:

    “With a Conservative government, if ministers want to impress the boss, they’ll have to make their budgets smaller, not bigger.

    On my watch it will be simple: if you do more for less you get promoted if you do less for more, you get sacked.”

  • Oh – finally a post on this! I have been watching this with some glee during the last few days, to be honest. And I have been wondering whether behind the scenes, there hasn’t been a bit of clever LibDem footwork, using Tory-style austerity measures to back up a LibDem manifesto pledge.

    I think the most important outcome, for the moment, would be to force (via impending budget cuts) the military to discuss among themselves what their priorities are and whether Trident makes strategic sense at all – my impression has been that not all military experts agree on Trident!

    Thus, it may well be that under these circumstances the original LibDem position gets some backing from unexpected corners.

    Let’s see how this goes – but if there is any move on Trident at all it might be an idea to suggest that this is a good example for LibDem influence on the coalition – would anyone have dared to question the macho posturing that is a nuclear deterrent without the LibDems there? But once somebody raises the question (and, so to speak, dares to suggest that the emperor has no clothes), it seems that good arguments can be found by others as well. That sort of ‘soft power’ could make a lot of difference on top of what’s actually been agreed in the coalition document – and I hope to see more of that kind of influence.

  • Andrea Gill 20th Jul '10 - 9:37pm

    @Geoffrey “It would look utterly bizarre if we try to replace Trident given the cutbacks and people losing their jobs simply in order to pay for it, particularly as other countries like Germany manage perfectly well without one.”

    Agreed, however not replacing at least part of it would also put us at odds (even more so) with the unions, UNITE in particular I believe wanted to vote internally against Trident but couldn’t because of the industrial interest.

  • Andrea Gill 20th Jul '10 - 9:43pm

    @Maria – a similar way in which perhaps the Marriage Tax Break has been kicked into the long grass also? [Link is to a yellow Tory’s blog where I am guest blogger:

  • I just think national “security” is a deliberately misleading term used by the MoD. More like national reputation, national macho posture, national keep seat on Security Council. It should probably be the Foreign Office paying rather than the Treasury, but maybe MoD thinks people may listen better if they specify the Treasury as the preferred dumping ground!

  • @Geoffrey – well I do know that UNITE voted against opposing the Trident replacement

  • As you say, Mark, the issue is very much up for discussion, but nothing will change unless grass-roots Lib Dem activists are prepared to show their strength of feeling on this issue to the party leadership.

    The reason Liam Fox has got his way so far on Trident is because no-one cares enough about the issue to challenge him. Despite all the political capital Nick Clegg gained during the election campaign by highlighting the costs of Trident, the party leadership wasn’t interested enough in the issue to push it up the agenda during negotiations on the coalition agreement. Liam Fox can have his way even though a majority of both Conservative and Lib Dems MPs probably disagree with him over like-for-like replacement, simply because they don’t care enough about the issue to kick up a fuss, and risk rocking the boat.

    A minority on the political right are holding the nation’s entire defence and foreign policy, not to mention the government budget process, hostage over this issue. Us party activists MUST get off our backsides and show our opposition to new nuclear weapons, or we will be stuck with Trident’s successor for the next 40 years.

  • Andrea Gill 21st Jul '10 - 9:54am

    @Geoffrey – AFAIK UNITE voted on it and couldn’t stand behind abolishing Trident due to industrial self interest.

    Would have hoped the Tories might take that as a hint that it is a GOOD idea but no such luck 😉

  • Andrea Gill 21st Jul '10 - 9:58am

    @Dave “The reason Liam Fox has got his way so far on Trident is because no-one cares enough about the issue to challenge him.”

    It may just be because of just how much it costs, but the challenge from Cameron on Osborne seems pretty clear to me!

  • The capital expenditure for the deterrent has always come from outside of the defence budget. Treasury pays directly for the weapons and the delivery vehicles (missiles). The operating costs for the launch platforms, associated maritime security infrastructure mainly come from the Navy budget, and a little from the Air Farce budget.

    Essentially the deterrent is a political tool, I would assess that it has little military value at present. As such it really should come from outside the defence budget.

  • “little military value”; “a political tool”. Another area where we can make common ground with the tories who want to reduce the costs of politics.

    Get rid of the thing.

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