Government ramps up Trident work despite coalition pledge

As the government cracks under pressure on forest sales and housing benefit for the long-term unemployed, further revelations on Trident replacement spending are adding to their headaches.

Kate Hudson is the general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND)

As the government cracks under pressure on forest sales and housing benefit for the long-term unemployed, further revelations on Trident replacement spending are adding to their headaches.

Last month a Freedom of Information (FoI) request exposed Ministry of Defence plans to purchase so-called ‘long lead’ items for building Trident replacement submarines. That would be all very well if construction had been agreed, but as the government announced last autumn, the ‘main gate’ decision on whether to go ahead or not will not be taken until after the next election – 2016 in fact.

The current work on the submarines is supposed to be concept and design work, but the items listed in the Freedom of Information report include nuclear reactors to propel the new subs, hydraulics, air purifiers, turbo-generators and bits of the hull.

Of course, defence secretary Liam Fox downplayed the significance of this news, indicating that these were just routine ordering procedures without any particular importance and that ‘technically’ parliament can say no at any point. The most recent revelations, following Fox’s response to a query from Jeremy Corbyn MP, was that what seemed to be bits of the hull in the FoI report, was in fact steel for constructing the entire hull.

When Corbyn asked whether “steel for the substantial construction of the hull structure of the first boat of the Trident replacement programme will be made as a long-lead purchase prior to main gate”, the minister replied:

 “Yes. The specialist high strength steel needed for the hull structure for the first boat is included as a long-lead item in the Initial Gate Business Case for the programme.”

Never mind the unauthorised expenditure on costly items at a time of swingeing government spending cuts, this is actually political dynamite for the coalition. In fact, it is a slap in the face for the Liberal Democrats, who fought for – and thought they had won – a delay in the decision on whether or not to replace Trident until 2016.

That agreement, outlined in October’s Strategic Defence and Security Review, allowed the Lib Dems to say, in a letter from the party president to its members:

“Trident will not be renewed this parliament – not on a Liberal Democrat watch.”

This rather begs the question of who knows what about these MoD purchases. Is the MoD pursuing its own track, irrespective of the political agreement and process set out by the coalition government? Or is the coalition government pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes, including those of the vast majority of Liberal Democrat members who oppose Trident and expect their leadership to come up trumps on the issue?

Clearly many people at the highest levels have taken the 2016 decision point at face value. Only last week, cross party defence heavyweights Des Browne, Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Sir Menzies Campbell launched the Trident Commission to investigate the need or otherwise for nuclear weapons in Britain’s security – to help inform the debate and decision in 2016.

Someone, somewhere, is jumping the gun; they need to be reined in.

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