Analysis: All to play for on Trident

Opponents of Britain’s nuclear deterrent need to realise they are closer to achieving their goal than they have been for years.

By Alex Stevenson

Until now politicians have succeeded in keeping the future of Britain’s nuclear deterrent firmly on the margins of the post-election defence review. One very public Cabinet spat later and everything has changed.

Only the Liberal Democrats were opposed to Trident during the general election campaign. Both David Cameron and Gordon Brown sought to use Nick Clegg’s opposition to a like-for-like replacement against him in the televised debates. It may have worked; the peacenik Lib Dems have always been weak when it comes to defence issues. In any case, there was no reason to suppose before polling day that the Labour-Conservative consensus on Trident would hold.

As the concerns triggered by David “junior partner” Cameron’s belittling of Britain show, prestige matters in international affairs. Previous Tory and Labour leaders have stuck consistently to the logic that, if the other major powers have the bomb, the UK needs to have it too. But times are changing. Britain no longer faces the same state-on-state threat of nuclear attack it did during the Cold War. This did not stop a majority in the Commons backing the replacement of Trident just a few years ago. It seems highly unlikely neither the Conservatives nor Labour would have taken the key backward step by themselves.

How ironic, therefore, that it was not the unexpected formation of Britain’s first coalition government since the Second World War which triggered the shift. The coalition agreement makes clear this was an issue where the Lib Dems had accepted their junior status. “We will maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent, and have agreed that the renewal of Trident should be scrutinised to ensure value for money,” the programme for government stated. “Liberal Democrats will continue to make the case for alternatives.”

Clegg’s party had, nevertheless, secured just enough to keep the issue within the strategic defence and security review. Media excitement at its inclusion seemed unjustified, for defence secretary Liam Fox was happy to hint it was only technically being considered. But then, as the Ministry of Defence slowly realised the Treasury was not prepared to fund Trident out of its own coffers, Fox’s confidence evaporated.

“All budgets have pressure,” Mr Osborne told the Bloomberg news agency yesterday.

“I don’t think there’s anything particularly unique about the Ministry of Defence. I have made it very clear that Trident renewal costs must be part of the defence budget.”

Officials within the MoD will be horrified by the news. Making room for Trident in an already desperately squeezed defence budget was the last thing they needed. Fox and co had been hoping to avoid the issue completely. But they now have no choice but to reassess Britain’s nuclear future.

The debate is likely to follow the same pattern as that currently playing out more broadly in the argument between the armed forces. In other words, it isn’t going to be pretty.

Before the election the heads of the services began fighting their respective corners, stressing the importance of being able to fight insurgencies (Army), maintaining Trident (Navy) or being able to respond quickly, anywhere (RAF). Charles Guthrie, the former defence chief of staff, warned against the perils of evenly “salami-slicing” our way into mediocrity. But Fox responded by shying away from tough choices, saying he wanted to see a “war-fighting edge” in generalist terms in a recent speech.

Those hoping to see Britain renounce its nuclear weapons in a bold and striking example of selfless global moral leadership by example are going to be disappointed. That opportunity exists, of course. But Fox is far more likely to prefer readjusting the grounds of the nuclear deterrent than abandon it completely.

A report released this week from the Royal United Services Institute presented a few of these options. Britain could, for example, maintain submarines capable of serving conventional roles as well as the nuclear delivery task. The warheads could be maintained – without being immediately deployable. Thirty years ago that would have been unthinkable. Now, with the prospect of a nuclear attack diminished, it may be acceptable.

Even stepping down on this basis would be a huge step for the British government to make. Drastic spending cuts, combined with the huge cost of sticking with Trident unchanged, make it much more likely. This is once again a very live political issue. Let the debate (re-)commence.