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16 March 2021updated 23 Jul 2021 1:18pm

Labour has no idea how to respond to the increase in Trident nuclear warheads

Keir Starmer is trying to distance his party from Jeremy Corbyn’s national security stance, without supporting nuclear proliferation. 

By Ailbhe Rea

Boris Johnson will unveil his vision for British foreign policy post-Brexit today, with the publication of the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy and a statement in the House of Commons at 12.30pm. 

The review, titled “Global Britain in a competitive age”, is expected to announce an effective end to 30 years of gradual nuclear disarmament, by lifting the cap on the number of Trident nuclear warheads the UK can stockpile from 180 to 260, according to a report in the Guardian. These additions to the British nuclear arsenal are to coincide with a major increase in defence spending and a more aggressive role abroad, with British troops serving overseas “more often and for longer”, according to leaks to the Sun. (None of this is confirmed until the report is published this afternoon, of course.)

How does Labour respond? With some difficulty, one can imagine. One of the key pillars of Keir Starmer’s leadership has been to differentiate himself from the foreign policy and security approach adopted by his predecessor. Jeremy Corbyn’s decades-long and sincere opposition to nuclear weapons was a repeated sore spot during his leadership, as his own obvious discomfort with the principle of a nuclear deterrent frequently undermined Labour’s stated commitment to renewing Trident. The new Labour leader has sought to sharply diverge from that era, declaring: “Under my leadership, national security will always be the top priority for Labour.” 

The largest increase in our nuclear stockpile since the Cold War presents a challenge for Starmer’s Labour, desperate to project its commitment to having a nuclear deterrent and a tougher, more patriotic approach to the wider issue of national security. British rearmament is plainly not a direction or an approach that the Labour leadership can endorse, but it is not one it wants to make a full-throated case against either. Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, has so far highlighted the “inconsistencies” across the review, but her line on the Guardian’s big story is buried in a Twitter thread, contrasting the “language of disarmament” in the review with the increase in this nuclear cap.

This is an argument Starmer and his team would rather not have, especially in a week when Labour’s vote against the new police bill will give the Conservatives an opportunity to paint the party as “opposing tougher sentences for paedophiles” because it opposes other parts of the proposed legislation. On Trident, as with the police bill, we’re seeing that, in a world where you’re either for or against something, there’s no space for a Labour Party to project toughness on national security while being less tough than the Tories. 

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[see also: The crackdown on the Clapham vigil shows why the policing bill is so dangerous]