October 29, 2012 5:29 pm

Future of Trident splits coalition

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The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were in open disagreement over the future of the UK’s independent nuclear weapons system on Monday when leading figures in the government came to blows over whether there should be a like-for-like replacement for Trident.

Philip Hammond, defence secretary, strongly reasserted the Conservatives’ robust commitment to replacing Trident fully when the decision is taken in four years’ time. He announced a further tranche of £350m for the design of four new submarines, which will begin carrying the deterrent after 2028.

However, Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister and Lib Dem leader, rebuffed Mr Hammond, warning that people should not “jump the gun” over whether or not the system would be replaced.

Mr Clegg said the coalition agreement signed by the two parties in 2010 was “crystal clear” that no decision on whether to replace Trident would be taken until 2016, “however much other people may not like it.”

Mr Clegg added: “The idea of a like-for-like entirely unchanged replacement of Trident is basically saying we will spend billions and billions and billions of pounds on a nuclear missile system designed with the sole strategic purpose of flattening Moscow at the press of a button.”

The deputy prime minister’s intervention is his most robust public questioning of Trident for some time and suggests that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are heading for serious disagreement.

On Monday, Mr Hammond again threw his weight behind like-for-like replacement in 2016, when the UK must decide whether or not to pay up to £20bn to build the four new submarines to replace the existing Vanguards.

On a visit to Faslane, where the submarines carrying Trident are berthed, Mr Hammond said: “Our continuous submarine-based nuclear deterrent is the ultimate safeguard of our national security and the government is committed to maintaining it, both now and in the future.”

In a powerful political gesture, he announced the additional £350m on design work while also revealing that the UK test-fired an unarmed Trident D5 missile in the North Atlantic last week for the first time in three years.

Unlike the Conservatives, the Lib Dems, however, have long been looking for cheaper alternatives to Trident. They have explored ideas involving warheads from a conventional missile launched from a conventional submarine; or by placing the deterrent on a bomb dropped from an aircraft.

The Conservatives have repeatedly rejected these ideas, suggesting they would not give the UK deterrent the ultimate protection it needed in the event of total war. The also argue that many of the alternatives would not save much money.

However, Mr Clegg and his allies are waiting for the outcome of a Cabinet Office review into the strategic and financial costs of these alternatives.

The review, which is to be completed by Christmas, will not make any firm recommendation on whether to keep Trident but it will provide politicians with the most detailed information in many years on viable alternatives.

Most analysts believe that the Lib Dems and Conservatives will end up proposing different systems for the deterrent in their party manifestos at the next general election. Labour has said little on the issue since losing power in 2010. Some figures allied to Labour are keen to see whether Ed Miliband, Labour leader, will shift party policy, hitherto committed to Trident, after details of the alternatives are published.

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