Whilst the UK media is relishing the drama over Britain’s leaving the EU, speculation this week suggests the Conservative government may rush a Trident vote through the Commons in July. It would do this to move on from a damaged referendum debate, and divert attention to a deeply divided Labour Party. This is clearly a temptation, but if they do go down this route it would represent an infantile inability to delay gratification for much greater political return later. Trident is a goose that just keeps laying the golden eggs for the Conservatives. An early slaughter would be the height of madness. The clever money is on a vote rather closer to or after the end of the year.
If next week we witness a vote to leave the EU, proactive government will grind to a halt. We will see the early resignation of the Prime Minister, a leadership contest, and quite possibly an early election. Rushing a Trident vote in such circumstances would not only squander opportunities before a new leader could be crowned, it could even be seen as desperate and could back-fire. If the electorate vote to remain next week, the PM will certainly have a desire to move quickly on several key decisions. But he is likely to resist on this one.
Extended discussion is far more likely to benefit the Conservatives and harm Labour. A vote in the summer (or early September) may bring the issue to a head but the debate would have been all too brief and then it would all but close down. It would also enable the Labour whips to offer a free vote on the issue as their policy on the matter is in flux, minimising damage to the Party.
It’s all about party politics
In contrast, by ‘magnanimously’ giving the Labour Party the time to ‘sort themselves out’ (they are in the middle of a policy review with a finale vote at Autumn conference), it gives Labour the chance to tear itself apart twice - first in determining its policy, and then when a large number of MPs vote against it. Because, as everyone who follows this particular media drama knows - it has little to do with Russia, national security or our responsibilities to engage in disarmament negotiations, and everything to do with Labour splits.
The decision on the vote, its wording and its timing is made entirely by Downing Street. It is a political decision, driven by domestic political considerations. This is predictable and realistic, it does not deserve condemnation. Claims that this delay is irresponsible and holding up the programme are baseless and more likely than not motivated by other considerations (such as closing down any debate).
Vote unnecessary to construction
Let’s establish beyond doubt that there is nothing in the timing of this vote that affects the practical programme to start constructing the Successor submarines. The government already announced last November on page 36 of last November’sSDSR its abandoning of a single ‘Main Gate’ procurement decision and confirmed that the Commons vote would be on the principle of the programme and the continuous patrolling posture of the submarines. If it were to attempt also to include in the vote an explicit contractual commitment to four submarines this would not only go back on this announcement, it might also risk uniting many MPs in objecting that this would be premature and demonstrate undue comfort and favouritism to BAE. The decision already taken in the SDSR to adopt a modular approach illustrates powerful forces on the inside of government opposed to premature contractual commitments.
Let’s also acknowledge the logical corollary, that recent delays to the programme have had nothing to do with these political machinations. Rather the construction programme itself (described in the SDSR as one of the largest most complex of all government investment programmes) has experienced technical and industrial challenges, as well as difficulties in completing the current SSN Astute programme. Astute 4 seems to have taken longer to build than Astute 1, which is all the more remarkable given the delays to the first submarine and cost escalation widely attributed to the atrophy of skills caused by the procurement gap between the Vanguards and the Astutes. The relationship between suppliers BAE and the customer, HMG, are at a deep low right now. This may have contributed to further delays in the last few months arising from the difficulties in filling the new project leadership positions announced in the SDSR.
And whilst there are credible claims that many lessons have been learned from the Astute experience that will serve the Successor programme, it has its own severe challenges that could lead to more modifications, further delay and spiralling costs. These include the challenges and uncertainties arising from accommodating the first new reactor design since the 1980s (the PWR3) and from the emerging technologies that will challenge the ability of the SSBN to remain stealthy.
And yet, as with the posture over the use of nuclear weapons, ambiguity over the timing of the vote will remain the name of the game. Any sensible strategist in Downing Street will be advising the PM to delay but also to talk up the possibility of an early vote on Trident, as this will ensure the issue receives oxygen and excites both sides within Labour passionate on this issue. There should be no surprise that George Osborne took the opportunity at yesterday’s PMQs to refer to Trident in an effort to stoke the issue, or that ‘Commons sources’ are briefing PoliticsHome of the likelihood of a July vote. Expect more signals there will be a summer vote. It may even happen.
This article was originally published on Huffington Post Politics United Kingdom, 16 June 2016: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/paul-ingram/trident_b_10504418.html