The political battle over the future of Trident

At the time the coalition government was negotiated, the future of 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 weaponry 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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