By Matthew Barrett
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3.30pm Update: appearing on the Sunday Politics show, Andrew Neil asked Philip Hammond how spending money on a Trident replacement is fair, when the money could be spent on preventing cuts to Army regiment numbers. Hammond defended cuts to the Army, saying that the equipment element of the Defence budget had been improved so troops get the proper armour and equipment they need:
“The overall defence programme consists of a number of different parts: an equipment programme, the nuclear element and the manpower budget. The manpower budget is a very large proportion of the total military spending budget. If you look back a few years, the previous government was not spending enough on equipment for the Army in Afghanistan, for protective equipment, and the money was being spent on maintaining a larger force level.
"What we’ve done is looked at how we can have a sustainable force that meets Britain’s needs in the future, on the basis that we must equip our armed forces properly – so whatever level of force we ultimately decide to have, we’ve got to be able to provide the protective equipment and the proper fighting equipment that that army needs.”
Conservative MPs are keen for revenge after the decision by Nick Clegg and his MPs to abstain from what amounted to a vote of confidence in Jeremy Hunt earlier this week, the Sunday Telegraph says. While that newspaper says the main revenge will take the form of voting down Nick Clegg's Lords reforms, undoubtedly Tory MPs will look forward to voting for policies that make Lib Dems feel uncomfortable.
That is the background to the announcement today that Philip Hammond has found funding to start work on a new nuclear deterrent. The Defence Secretary will announce the ordering of nuclear reactors for a new class of submarines to replace the current Vanguard fleet, which carries Trident at present. The reactors will be built at a Rolls-Royce plant in Derby – a move that will create hundreds of jobs at the plant, and many more in the wider supply chain.
The new contract will be worth £20bn – and is made possible by the fact that Mr Hammond's department has now sorted out its cuts programme and structural reforms. Mr Hammond said last month: "In the next few days we will be in a position to make the grand announcement that I’ve balanced the books". Similarly, the Sunday Telegraph quotes "a senior MoD source" as saying: "We have balanced the MoD’s books and can now get on with ordering major pieces of equipment for the armed forces to protect us against future threats".
Conservatives favour a like-for-like replacement of the Vanguard submarines, which will be in use until the late 2020s – and their missiles in use until 2042. While the Coalition Agreement states that the Government will "maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent", Liberal Democrats are allowed to "continue to make the case for alternatives". Happily for annoyed Conservatives, the newspaper quotes a senior Lib Dem as saying Trident replacement is a "massive fault line" between the two parties, especially as the Lib Dem manifesto states that the party would oppose such a like-for-like replacement, and would instead argue for "alternatives".
A compromise may well be the abandoning of the "Moscow criterion" – the requirement for our nuclear arsenal to be able to take out Russia's capital. A review into that rule is being carried out by Nick Harvey, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces – and a Lib Dem. More likely, however, is that Tory MPs will be minded simply to vote for the like-for-like replacement they favour, and consider it a bonus that the Lib Dems won't like any such decision. As Iain Martin writes in his column today:
"Stung by the reaction to the botched Budget and mindful of the strong opinion poll lead which Labour has opened up, there has been a concerted effort in recent weeks by the Conservative leadership to emphasise Tory themes. … Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, is going to annoy the Lib Dems by announcing the go-ahead for a new generation of nuclear reactors destined for the next class of submarines. The Tories hope to differentiate themselves from their erstwhile Coalition partners and reconnect with Conservative-leaning voters."