Cameron declares the Trident review redundant

The PM's decision to reject calls for a "viable cheaper option" represents an opportunity for Labour to woo the Lib Dems.

The coalition is supposedly conducting a review into whether a £20bn like-for-like replacement for Trident is required but you wouldn't know it reading David Cameron in today's Telegraph. Following North Korea's sabre rattling, the PM denounces those who suggest that we "need to find a viable cheaper option", observing that our current nuclear weapons capability costs "less than 1.5 per cent of our annual benefits bill." 

There is a token reference to the review, currently being led by Danny Alexander ("all governments should, of course, carefully examine all options"), but Cameron immediately adds that he has seen "no evidence that there are cheaper ways of providing a credible alternative to our plans for a successor". All of which suggests that the official study into alternatives to Trident is little more than a Lib Dem face saving exercise. 

But Cameron's obstinacy should come as little surprise. It was only a few months ago that Philip Hammond announced £350m of further funding for a new generation of nuclear-armed submarines, appearing to rule out any option but the full renewal of a sea-based system. Back then, Clegg accused the Defence Secetary of "jumping the gun", noting that "The coalition agreement is crystal clear: it stands, it will not be changed, it will not be undermined, it will not be contradicted. The decision on the Trident replacement will not be taken until 2016, however much other people may not like it that way." Now Cameron has similarly pre-empted the conclusion of the review, how will his deputy respond? 

For Labour, the Tories' absolutism represents a political opportunity. By signalling that it is genuinely willing to consider cheaper alternatives to Trident, the party can lay down an important  bargaining chip for any coalition negotiations in 2015. So it is notable that while Labour has responded by declaring that it is "absolutely right and necessary that the UK retains an independent nuclear deterrent" (Ed Miliband has no desire to allow himself to be painted as a soft-minded unilateralist) it has also insisted that "the precise nature of the deterrent must be judged on meeting military capability requirements and cost". That proviso leaves Labour with significant room for maneouvre, a fact that won't have escaped the Lib Dems' attention this morning. 

HMS Vanguard sits in dock at Faslane Submarine base on the river Clyde in Helensburgh, Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.