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 Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.