Last updated: March 14, 2007 4:33 pm
A third member of Tony Blair’s government quit on Wednesday in protest at the prime minister’s plans to replace the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons system, ahead of what was expected to be a sizeable parliamentary revolt.
Stephen Pound, a parliamentary aide to Hazel Blears, Labour party chairman, said he could not continue in his role and vote against the government.
His decision to quit followed the resignations of Nigel Griffiths, deputy Commons leader, and Jim Devine, another parliamentary aide, earlier this week.
Mr Blair told British MPs it was “essential” to start renewing the Trident system, as ministers sought to quell the revolt ahead of the House of Commons vote.
With a large scale Labour rebellion expected, the prime minister was expected to have to depend on support from opposition Conservatives to push his plans through.
In the House of Lords, parliament’s upper chamber, peers also put themselves on a collision course with the government over constitutional reform, voting to keep the system under which they are appointed to their seats. The Commons last week voted for a radical overhaul of the Lords, backing proposals for a fully elected chamber.
However, there was some good news for Mr Blair as it emerged that John Denham, chairman of the powerful home affairs select committee and one of a group of senior Labour MPs to have voiced concern, said that he would back the government on Trident.
Tony Wright, another select committee chairman who had backed one of two rebel amendments, is also now expected to vote with the government.
Earlier, Mr Blair, in an effort to win over this group, which also included Charles Clarke, the former home secretary, used prime minister’s question time to assure them that the vote taken today would not “bind” future parliaments to any decision.
It would remain open to a future parliament to decide whether or not to put out contracts for new submarines to carry the Trident missiles, the prime minister said.
However, he refused to back Mr Denham’s call for a firm commitment to be made to hold another vote before the contracts were laid.
Up to 80 Labour backbenchers are predicted to back a rebel amendment to the main government motion that argues the case for replacing Trident is “not yet proven” and says they are “unconvinced of the need for an early decision”. MPs will also vote on the main government motion.
The Commons speaker decided an alternative, softer amendment, circulated by Mr Denham and backed by a 20-strong group of Labour MPs including Mr Clarke and other a sprinkling of influential select committee chairmen, would not be debated. This, coupled with Mr Blair’s conciliatory remarks, is likely to cap the size of the rebellion.
The decision to replace Trident is a totemic issue for many in the ruling Labour party, which was opposed to the system during the early 1980s. Under the government’s plans, submarine numbers could be cut from four to three, while the number of nuclear warheads would be cut by 20 per cent.
Between £15bn and £20bn would be spent on new submarines and the fleet would take 17 years to develop and build.
As the debate got underway, Margaret Beckett, foreign secretary, told MPs they were being asked whether to take the steps necessary to maintain a minimum strategic deterrent and to take further steps towards disarmament.
She said: ‘‘Specifically that will mean a decision to begin a process to design, build and commission submarines to replace the existing Vanguard-class boats.’’
The foreign secretary warned that voting against replacement of the submarines would deprive the UK of its deterrent.
“To decide not to retain that ability would require us to be confident that in the next 20 to 50 years no country with a current nuclear capability would change its intentions towards us and that no power hostile to our vital national interests and in possession of nuclear weapons would emerge.
‘‘I do sincerely regret that I cannot advise either the House or the British people that I believe such confidence would be justified or that we should remove from future parliaments the ability to maintain our deterrent.’’
Ms Beckett dismissed as “complete and utter rubbish” suggestions by one left-leaning rebel, the Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn, that the government’s policy was “contrary to the whole spirit of the [nuclear] non-proliferation treaty”.
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