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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.

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

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.