Trident: the political barometer.

When I woke up on the morning of Monday the 18th July, the first thought on my mind was not “oh, I don’t work on Mondays” (although I don’t, and so I remain unaffected by the so-called Monday Blues). The first thought on my mind this very morning was simply thus: “Trident vote.” That this was my first thought of the day is proof perhaps that I might just be a tad fixated on politics.

Yes, that Monday was the day when the controversial UK nuclear deterrent system was debated in Parliament. After the waves of a fall-out of the EU referendum, a Prime Minister’s resignation, appointment of a new Prime Minister and the ongoing shambles within the Labour Party, a vote on renewing Trident had finally surfaced. It proved to be an interesting debate, focusing on the two main parties post-Brexit. It especially served as an indicator of the position of Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Before I get to the interesting breakdown of the vote, let’s firstly examine the topic of the vote.

What is Trident, and what is this vote about? I hear you ask. Simply put, a Parliamentary vote toook place to determine if the UK’s nuclear submarine fleet should be replaced at an estimated cost of £41bn. This nuclear submarine fleet is known collectively as Trident: four Vanguard-class nuclear submarines carry the US-made Trident ballistic missiles that give the weapons system its collective name. This missiles each have the capacity to deliver up to 12 thermonuclear warheads. The principle of continuous at-sea deterrence ensures at least one submarine is always on patrol, hence the need to have all four replaced as the current system becomes obsolete within a decade.

And who has the power to order the use of the missiles? Well, only the British Prime Minister can authorise a missile strike. Interestingly enough, there is a safe within each vessel, which contains a sealed letter from the Prime Minister. This letter bears the Prime Minister’ instructions for the commanding officer regarding how to proceed in the event of a nuclear attack that eliminates the British government.

The vote which took place on that Monday evening was in relation to the future use of Trident. As I previously mentioned, the system will require an upgrade within the next decade, if continuous at-sea deterrence is to continue. It is the potential upgrade and its estimated cost which continues to be controversial, and this was highlighted repeatedly during yesterday’s debate by those arguing against renewal.

You see, back in 2006 a Ministry of Defence white paper estimated the cost of replacing the system to be between £15bn-£20bn. Costly enough, but it was set to increase over time. In 2007, MPs backed the then-Labour government’s proposal to begin designing a new fleet of submarines. The cost of the new fleet became apparent under the Coalition government: costs were revised to show increased costings in 2011 when the programme reached the next design phase. However, the Coalition government that came to power in 2010 deferred the final manufacturing decision until 2016. (Probably knowing MPs, especially the Lib Dems, could not stomach approving the increased costs as the Conservatives argued for increased austerity.) Prior to extracting itself from the Coalition, the Conservative party however reaffirmed its commitment to replacing the fleet in its manifesto for the 2015 general election, which it subsequently won. Since then, the Ministry of Defence submitted new costings of £41bn for the submarines, with some £3.9bn alone spent during the design stages.

So, the government sets costs at £41bn, a figure supported by proponents of the system. But opponents have argued – as was witnessed during yesterday’s vote -that this figure is too modest, and that the final, real cost will exceed it. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, for example, has said the total cost will be at least £205bn. This figure, according to the opponents of the system, was calculated the total on the basis of official figures, answers to parliamentary questions and previous costs of items including nuclear warheads and decommissioning nuclear reactors. Moreover, opponents argue the Ministry of Defence has not taken into account that past MOD projects have frequently gone well over budget. Opponents thus have continuously submitted that spending vast sums upgrading a nuclear weapons system that experts say could be rendered obsolete by new technology is a poor choice. Arguably, it would be a far better idea to spend the projected sum on industrial regeneration, building homes, and tackling climate change.

Either the government is correct, or Trident opponents are correct, resulting in a government only standing by this figure because it knows to admit to any figure grossly exceeding this will provoke a public storm. But to detract moderate opponents and those undecideds from costings speculation, the government has a reliable line: jobs. When in doubt, throw the jobs line out.

The Ministry of Defence has stated that the maintenance of Trident supports more than 30,000 UK jobs. Approximately 2,200 people across the MoD and all three companies are currently working on the Successor programme, of whom more than 50% are engineers and designers. Jobs are expected to peak at 6,000 during the build phase and involve an estimated 850 British companies in the supply chain. These statistics sound promising, and more than that, reassuring at a time when jobs creation is a constant concern. It was no surprise then to hear proponents of the system stressing the potential employment opportunities of Trident renewal during the Commons debate.

And speaking of the debate – this vote perhaps marked the conclusion of the EU referendum outcome. It came as a new Prime Minister entered Downing Street, and with a new Cabinet. The business of the post-EU referendum results government commencement, prompting Westminster to remember its business does also include governance (when not hemming over the many questions regarding Article 50, and the Single Market).

Theresa May used her first appearance in the House of Commons since taking over as Prime Minister to speak about Britain’s nuclear deterrent. The Prime Minister essentially argued that in a time of increased concern over national security, the threat of a nuclear attack has increased. She sought to urge MPs across the House to back the “ultimate safeguard” for national security and to avoid taking the “reckless gamble” of voting to ditch it. What was particularly memorable for me when watching the debate was her swift response to a question from George Kerevan of the SNP. Mr Kerevan enquired whether she would ever use the Trident nuclear missiles, to which the Prime Minister answered yes without a moment of hesitation. (Cue the predictable “this lady’s not for turning” parallel.)

Mrs May was rather astute in her comments about increased threats to the UK, and the UK’s need to maintain a strong defence and nuclear deterrent. Many MPs would have been inclined to agree with her, given how recent events including the Nice attack and the attempted coup in Turkey have underlined how turbulent and tense the world remains. Moreover, persistent fears after the Nice terror attacks from security experts that terrorists could try to target less protected towns and cities outside London merely added to this.

The vote enabled the new Conservative leader and the much-embattled Labour leader to cross swords. For Mrs May, adhering to Mr Cameron’s scheduling of the vote provided the opportunity to reiterate her commitment to national security – to the detriment of Mr Corbyn. Prior to the vote, Mrs May was found to be much more trusted on the issue than Jeremy Corbyn, with Ipsos MORI finding recently that 55 per cent of voters thought the former Home Secretary had “what it takes” to be Prime Minister, and only 23 per cent saying the same for the Labour leader. Whilst the vote served to unite the Conservative party somewhat after the civil war unleashed during the referendum campaign, it served to messily split the Opposition into three different camps. Trident serves as a perfect example of the clash of ideology within the party. Labour’s party policy, currently under review, is to support Trident, even though its leader opposes it as a longtime anti-nuclear campaigner.

As the Labour leader stated he would vote against renewal, as he had been proudly involved in peace transformation all of his life, more than 100 MPs prepared to defy Corbyn  by supporting its renewal. This came as a second Labour moderate, Owen Smith, went public with his intent to challenge Mr Corbyn for the leadership if he refused to stand down of his own accord. Moderates no doubt hoped that a rebellion over Trident was just what they needed to help Angela Eagle and Owen Smith challenge Corbyn, but seemingly forgot it energised Mr Corbyn’s core supporters too. No doubt that Conservative MPs, observing the fractured Labour vote that evening, were quietly hoping that Corbyn’s continued struggle to keep control erodes Labour’s ability to appeal to voters at the next General election.

Some Labour frontbenchers decided not to follow their leader, with Shadow Defence Secretary Clive Lewis and Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry abstaining. This abstention unfortunately highlighted the party’s disunity and lack of clarity in communication. Ms Thornberry was at pains to stress on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Labour was “looking sensibly, in a grown-up way at all of the options”. She then admitted that Labour’s review of Trident had been delayed as a result of the Brexit vote, and struggled to explain the point of the review when her party leader was already set on opposing it. It became more farcical as deputy leader Tom Watson joined many Labour MPs in supporting renewal.

Conservatives were all too aware about the split among Labour MPs over Trident. New Defence Secretary Michael Fallon sought to utilise this, and prior to the vote called on Trident critics  (i.e. Jeremy Corbyn and his entourage) to “move on from their flawed 1980s doctrine”. Given the number of rebels, it was evident that a number of Labour moderates sympathised with the Defence Secretary’s message.

The motion was duly debated, division registered and lobbies were cleared. The result was eventually declared: MPs had voted to renew the Trident nuclear deterrent system by 472 votes to 117, a clear majority of 355. The pro-renewal Conservative whip was strong, the 56-strong SNP contingent all rejected renewal, meaning a significant Labour rebellion had taken place. It was later determined that more than 60 percent of Labour MPs voted with the government for Trident renewal: 140 Labour MPs voted to renew the programme, while 47 were opposed, 40 were absent and one abstained. It is well that the Labour MPs were granted a free vote on the matter, somewhat muting the scale of the rebellion.

In 2015, Labour stated it was ‘committed to a minimal, credible, independent nuclear capability, delivered through a continuous at-sea deterrent’. This wording is rather similar to that on Monday the 18th July’s vote, which describes Trident as ‘the UK’s independent minimum credible nuclear deterrent, based on a Continuous at Sea Deterrence posture’. So if that 2015 Labour manifesto was anything to go by, the Trident vote should have been straightforward: the party should have voted in favour of renewal. Instead, the party was split as a result of continuous disharmony between the leader and the majority of the PLP. This vote illustrated how the party’s leadership is unilaterally changing Labour’s policy. Moreover, it illustrated the increasing gap between those on the frontbench and backbenchers, who cough argue that in voting for Trident that they were sticking up for official party policy – party policy ignored by Mr Corbyn. All this set against a backdrop of a leadership contest, less than one year since Mr Corbyn took the post, and offhanded suggestions of a future, permanent split.

So, whilst the government won, this vote served to do more than consider the future of Trident: it might have contributed to the consideration of the future of the Labour party as we know it.


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