History can repeat itself. Looks like the Lib Dems are set to run a replay of Whitehall’s great Trident debate from 30 years ago – a thrilling tale involving secret studies by civil servants, party leaders going behind the backs of their grass roots and an outgoing Labour prime minister ordering officials to help his Tory rival, Margaret Thatcher.
Well, it may not be as exciting and devious this time round, but there are similarities. Nick Harvey, Lib Dem armed services minister, has told the Financial Times that he is asking military intelligence and the Cabinet Office for fresh advice on Trident. Under the coalition deal the Lib Dems can have a separate position to the Tories on the UK nuclear deterrent – hence the review. Mr Harvey’s Tory boss, Liam Fox, backs Trident. The Lib Dem grass roots are against. It is all reminiscent of Labour in the 1970s.
“Labour was formally against a nuclear deterrent but the leadership, under James Callaghan was for it, “ recalls one insider. “An added complication was that Callaghan favoured Trident while the then Labour foreign secretary, David Owen, wanted an alternative nuclear deterrent. Officials at the Ministry of Defence were ordered to carry out secret studies of the options. Now it seems Harvey is playing the same role in relation to the coalition as Owen did to Callaghan, though his review won’t be so secret.”
The 1970s studies backed Trident. When Labour fell in 1979, Callaghan ordered officials to give their analysis to the Tories – a highly unusual move. In his book, Time to Declare, Lord Owen says Callaghan was strongly encouraged to do this by the then cabinet secretary, Sir John Hunt. Lady Thatcher, of course, went ahead with Trident.
Mr Harvey believes that officials have been too willing to tell ministers what they want to hear. He insists he has an open mind. So how will his review fare? Will it back Mr Fox and Trident or will it support his wish for a cheaper alternative? “Harvey won’t be on his own at the MoD,” says my mandarin. “At a time of budgetary constraints Trident is looking expensive so people will be revisiting other options. They’ll be looking 40 years ahead so there are no absolutes.”
One possibility would be for the UK to co-operate with the French on sea-launched missiles, also a 1970s’ idea. Mr Harvey put such a move to French defence experts only a few weeks ago and it was warmly received. No doubt his review team will take note.
So who ranks as Whitehall’s “dream minister”? The best by a mile, according to an Institute for Government report, was Michael Heseltine. The report, which looks at what makes an effective minister, is based on interviews with some 50 current or former top civil servants and ministers. Nearly all singled out the Tory Lord Heseltine for his “magic combination” of knowing where he wanted to go and being able to inspire others.
Although an entrepreneur, the report says Lord Heseltine was always a politician first, a businessman second.
He has little time for political advisers, saying he was his own best adviser on politics. “I don’t think politicians become better because of political advisers,” he tells me.
Yet the report says being a special adviser can be a good apprenticeship for being a minister. It calls for more training for would-be ministers, fewer reshuffles and better appraisal of ministers. Some mandarins are doubtful. “Ministers are already appraised by the chief whip for their political performance and permanent secretaries put in feedback via the head of the home civil service,” says one. “It could be more structured but that might be difficult. We have to keep the confidence of ministers and they already think we’re more powerful than we are when it comes to grassing them up.”
State visits always cause headaches. US president Barack Obama is to address both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall today. It is set to be the keynote speech of his UK trip but First Lady Michelle Obama will not be there. Apparently she is going to Oxford saying that she’s “heard him speak before”.
Some MPs and peers are dismayed. They loved France’s first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, and are grumbling that they won’t meet glamorous Mrs Obama. “Some people always find something to moan about,” sighed one Commons man.