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.

Photo: Getty
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The three avoidable mistakes that Theresa May has made in the Brexit negotiations

She ignored the official Leave campaign, and many Remainers, in pursuing Brexit in the way she has.

We shouldn’t have triggered Article 50 at all before agreeing an exit deal

When John Kerr, the British diplomat who drafted Article 50 wrote it, he believed it would only be used by “a dictatorial regime” that, having had its right to vote on EU decisions suspended “would then, in high dudgeon, want to storm out”.

The process was designed to maximise the leverage of the remaining members of the bloc and disadvantage the departing state. At one stage, it was envisaged that any country not ratifying the Lisbon Treaty would be expelled under the process – Article 50 is not intended to get “the best Brexit deal” or anything like it.

Contrary to Theresa May’s expectation that she would be able to talk to individual member states, Article 50 is designed to ensure that agreement is reached “de vous, chez vous, mais sans vous” – “about you, in your own home, but without you”, as I wrote before the referendum result.

There is absolutely no reason for a departing nation to use Article 50 before agreement has largely been reached. A full member of the European Union obviously has more leverage than one that is two years away from falling out without a deal. There is no reason to trigger Article 50 until you’re good and ready, and the United Kingdom’s negotiating team is clearly very far from either being “good” or “ready”.

As Dominic Cummings, formerly of Vote Leave, said during the campaign: “No one in their right mind would begin a legally defined two-year maximum period to conduct negotiations before they actually knew, roughly speaking, what the process was going to yield…that would be like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger.”

If we were going to trigger Article 50, we shouldn’t have triggered it when we did

As I wrote before Theresa May triggered Article 50 in March, 2017 is very probably the worst year you could pick to start leaving the European Union. Elections across member states meant the bloc was in a state of flux, and those elections were always going to eat into the time. 

May has got lucky in that the French elections didn’t result in a tricky “co-habitation” between a president of one party and a legislature dominated by another, as Emmanuel Macron won the presidency and a majority for his new party, République en Marche.

It also looks likely that Angela Merkel will clearly win the German elections, meaning that there won’t be a prolonged absence of the German government after the vote in September.

But if the British government was determined to put the gun in its own mouth and pull the trigger, it should have waited until after the German elections to do so.

The government should have made a unilateral offer on the rights of EU citizens living in the United Kingdom right away

The rights of the three million people from the European Union in the United Kingdom were a political sweet spot for Britain. We don’t have the ability to enforce a cut-off date until we leave the European Union, it wouldn’t be right to uproot three million people who have made their lives here, there is no political will to do so – more than 80 per cent of the public and a majority of MPs of all parties want to guarantee the rights of EU citizens – and as a result there is no plausible leverage to be had by suggesting we wouldn’t protect their rights.

If May had, the day she became PM, made a unilateral guarantee and brought forward legislation guaranteeing these rights, it would have bought Britain considerable goodwill – as opposed to the exercise of fictional leverage.

Although Britain’s refusal to accept the EU’s proposal on mutually shared rights has worried many EU citizens, the reality is that, because British public opinion – and the mood among MPs – is so sharply in favour of their right to remain, no one buys that the government won’t do it. So it doesn’t buy any leverage – while an early guarantee in July of last year would have bought Britain credit.

But at least the government hasn’t behaved foolishly about money

Despite the pressure on wages caused by the fall in the value of the pound and the slowdown in growth, the United Kingdom is still a large and growing economy that is perfectly well-placed to buy the access it needs to the single market, provided that it doesn’t throw its toys out of the pram over paying for its pre-agreed liabilities, and continuing to pay for the parts of EU membership Britain wants to retain, such as cross-border policing activity and research.

So there’s that at least.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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