Tricksy Brown seeks Tory split on Trident
The Mole: The PM has timed his defence review to have maximum impact on the divided Tory frontbench, says our Westminster insider
David Cameron has been urging the government to launch a root-and-branch review of Britain's defence for years. Now he has got it and it has served only to highlight a major Tory split over the future of Britain's nuclear deterrent.
In a classic Gordon Brown tactic, the review will announce its interim findings early next year, just before the next general election, and is virtually certain to once again raise a question mark over whether the Trident nuclear system is the right and most cost-effective way of meeting Britain's current defence requirements.
But the big decisions on what to cut and what to abandon will not be taken until after the election. And that will land the issue of what to do about the hugely expensive and controversial Trident system firmly in the lap of the next government. Assuming the Tories will be in power, there is the risk of a fundamental frontbench rift over the future of the nuclear programme.
Cameron has already refused to ring-fence spending on Trident, amid growing speculation in Westminster that he may be ready to scrap it. Such a move has the backing of shadow chancellor George Osborne. But defence spokesman Liam Fox has suggested any move to drop the deterrent will be over his dead body, and he is backed by shadow foreign secretary William Hague.
Fox has spotted the trap in the timing of the defence review, declaring in an article for the Daily Telegraph: "Not for Labour any difficult decisions which may be unpopular; no chance that voters will be told the consequences of its catastrophic economic management. Even by the standards of New Labour, this is an unparalleled exercise in cynicism, manipulation and cowardice."
Or, put another way, Brown has done it again. The Prime Minister has manoeuvred to allow himself to gain any electoral advantage from the prospect that Trident may be dumped but will not have to live with the consequences of that suggestion until after the election, if at all.
Fox goes on to say: "To abandon our (nuclear) deterrent in a world where countries such as North Korea and Iran are developing nuclear weapons would be utter madness. A Conservative government will not leave Britain open to nuclear blackmail in a dangerous and uncertain world. We have repeatedly said that we believe in Britain's independent nuclear deterrent, and that a submarine-based system is the best available."
Yet only weeks ago Cameron refused to rule out a change on Trident, saying any spending review by a Tory government would have to look at all spending.
Meanwhile in the Commons, the weakness of Gordon Brown's authority among his own MPs was highlighted yesterday when he resorted to extreme measures to head off another rebellion over the 10p tax row, led by Frank Field.
Apart from the usual tricks of offering rebels deals on pet projects for their constituencies, and again relying on the Ulster Unionists to win the vote, ministers led by Chancellor Alistair Darling warned the rebels that if they got their way and changed the Bill enacting the Budget as they planned, the Government would not be able to raise any tax at all during the coming year.
The threat was met with a mixture of disbelief and anger, but was taken seriously enough by backbenchers to save the day for Brown, who won the vote with a majority of 43. ·
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