A Trident nuclear submarine. Photo: Getty
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The government is trying to slip Trident replacement through the backdoor

The Mutual Defence Agreement is a US-UK nuclear deal that lays the foundation for replacing our Trident nuclear weapons system – it must be exposed and challenged.

In the last months of its political life, the Coalition Government is stepping up nuclear cooperation with the United States, under the guise of a routine treaty renewal. But far from being just another piece of foreign policy housekeeping, the renewal of the Mutual Defence Agreement (MDA) in July of this year, is actually a further step towards replacing Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system – but without the open, democratic debate which such a momentous decision warrants. Majority public opinion is against the replacement of Trident, and with concerns about transparency and accountability in government increasing exponentially, it seems ill-advised for our political leaders to try and pull a fast one on nuclear weapons behind the scenes.

The treaty in question dates back to 1958 when the US and UK signed the "Agreement between the UK and the USA for cooperation in the Uses of Atomic Energy for Mutual Defence Purposes". Generally referred to as the MDA, the treaty established an agreement between both countries to exchange classified information to develop their respective nuclear weapons systems. It is this treaty which ensures that Trident is both technically and politically dependent on the US. Originally, the MDA prohibited the transfer of nuclear weapons, but an amendment in 1959 allowed for the transfer of nuclear materials and equipment between both countries. This amendment is extended through a renewal of the treaty every ten years, most recently in 2004. Changes to the historic amendment this year are a cause for significant concern.

The treaty already ensures that the two countries’ nuclear programmes are inextricably linked. The UK warhead is a copy of the US one, with some components directly bought from the US. With the UK’s nuclear warheads expected to be non-operational by the late 2030s, a decision on their replacement will be intrinsically linked to the work taking place as part of the MDA. The UK leases from the US the Trident II D5 missiles it uses and British submarines must regularly visit the US base in Kings Bay, Georgia, for the maintenance and replacement of these missiles. The UK government recently paid the US £250m to participate in a missile life extension programme and participates in numerous exchange visits with staff from the US nuclear weapons laboratories. Britain also participates with the US in ‘sub-critical’ nuclear tests (tests which fall just short of releasing a nuclear explosion).

With the new amendments to the treaty, Britain will become even more dependent on US expertise for its own nuclear weapons programme and existing collaboration on warhead design will be extended to the nuclear reactors which would power a Trident replacement submarine.

The renewal has to be ratified on both sides of the Atlantic and Obama has already given the go-ahead from the US side. But much as successive UK governments may wish to view ratification as an automatic process to be slid through without question, there is a Westminster scrutiny process which a number of parliamentarians are availing themselves of. The government is required by law to lay any treaty that it has signed before Parliament for 21 days. The text should be sent to relevant select committees and any requests for debates should be considered favourably.

In 2004, government managed to avoid debate. The treaty was laid before Parliament just before the Summer Recess with an announcement that it had been signed a week earlier. This was in spite of the fact that MPs had been asking questions for months about the government’s intention to renew the MDA. This was an obvious – and successful – attempt to avoid any democratic scrutiny.

This time the government isn’t getting away with it quite so easily. Thanks to repeated questioning and an Early Day Motion from Jeremy Corbyn and other concerned MPs, the treaty is currently on the table for its 21 days and a Westminster Hall debate is taking place this week on the 6 November at 1.30pm. MPs may not be able to overturn the government’s ratification of the renewal, but the very fact of open discussion is important in itself. Correctly understood, this renewal is part of the attempt to impose Trident replacement on the British people through a number of seemingly unrelated steps. It must be understood and exposed as such.

Kate Hudson is general secretary of the CND 

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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