by Paul Goodman
We link today in our news section to reports of the Government's internal deal over Trident – which Liam Fox described in the Commons yesterday as follows
"The coalition agreement reflected both coalition parties’ commitment to a minimum credible nuclear deterrent, but also the desire of the Liberal Democrats to make the case for alternatives. As Secretary of State for Defence, I am absolutely clear that a minimum nuclear deterrent based on the Trident missile delivery system and continuous at-sea deterrence is right for the United Kingdom and that it should be maintained, and that remains Government policy; but to assist the Liberal Democrats in making the case for alternatives, I am also announcing today the initiation of a study to review the costs, feasibility and credibility of alternative systems and postures. The study will be led by Cabinet Office officials overseen by the Minister for the Armed Forces. A copy of the terms of reference of the study will be placed in the House of Commons Library."
It's worth noting that this arrangement was subject to two questions from the Conservative backbenches. The first came from Julian Lewis, formerly a Shadow Defence Minister.
"Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): I am really rather worried that my right hon. Friend is in danger of inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on the Minister for the Armed Forces, who is really quite a decent chap. If the Secretary of State, like me, had had the experience of watching the hon. Gentleman address the Liberal Democrat conference on this subject, he would have seen that it was indistinguishable from a CND revivalist meeting. How is it fair to the Minister for the Armed Forces to confront him on the one hand with serious arguments about why Trident is the only option while on the other hand requiring him to go back to the Liberal Democrats and tell them that unavoidable conclusion?
Dr Fox: I rather fear that my hon. Friend is a little too late. Having made my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces sit through some 57 hours of the strategic defence and security review, I feel I have already inflicted a cruel and unusual punishment on him. I refer my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) back to the advice he gave me when we were in opposition, which was that we should never be afraid to have the most rigorous look at alternative systems. When one considers the evidence, the costings and the threats, one inevitably comes to the conclusion that a submarine-based continuous at-sea deterrent based on the Trident system will be the best protection for the United Kingdom. I take him at his word and I am not at all afraid to consider the alternatives."
The second was asked by James Gray.
"Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): It is of course always open for any political party or any part of any political party to take a different view from Her Majesty’s Government. Can the Secretary of State think of any precedent whatsoever for public money, ministerial time and resources being used to bolster and examine the manifesto commitment of one particular party that might or might not be part of the coalition?
Dr Fox: There are realities of coalition government that simply have to be faced. As part of the coalition agreement, we made it very clear that we would continue and move to the decisions I have announced today, but we also made it clear that the Liberal Democrats, as one of the coalition partners, would be free to make the case for alternatives. We have lived up to that commitment today."