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Andy McSmith's Diary: Trident fleet will cost us billions, but exactly who is it supposed to keep at bay?


While politicians agonise over the size of the Government’s debt, one of the most expensive publicly funded projects in recent years is quietly getting under way.

A series of written questions from that old Labour troublemaker Paul Flynn has extracted details from the Ministry of Defence about how much it is costing, so far, to replace the UK’s Trident fleet. The Defence Minister, Philip Dunne, has given a list of 42 contracts that have already been awarded. The biggest is the design contract won by BAE Systems, worth just under £672m. Together, if I have added them up correctly, they come to £1,391,233,027.

The Government expects the final bill to come somewhere between £15bn and £20bn. Greenpeace suspects the total will be around £34bn. But to put that £1.4bn committed so far in context, that is three times what the Government expects to save from its highly unpopular “bedroom tax”, or more than seven times what the MoD paid in redundancies over three years as it rid itself of 11,000 of its employees, many of them Afghanistan veterans.

Curiously, Trident created more controversy 30 years ago when Margaret Thatcher first acquired it, although back then people at least knew what it was for. Its purpose was to deter the USSR from invading the UK. Now the Government is spending billions on renewing it, with barely a murmur of dissent, and when no one can say whom it is supposed to deter or what it is supposed to deter them from doing.

A rose by any other name

Chuka Umunna, shadow Business Secretary, handled himself with confidence in the notoriously difficult forum of a Commons press gallery lunch, but floundered momentarily when asked if he thought of himself as a socialist.

“I mean, labels are labels,” he replied. “You can call me a democratic socialist, a social democrat – I don’t think my constituents care about that. What they care about is what your values are.”

That is not quite in tune with what Ed Miliband said when he was harangued in a Brighton street last September about when he was going to bring back socialism. “That’s what we are doing, sir,” the Labour leader replied.

Leave Blackadder bishop be

Tessa Munt, the Lib Dem MP for Wells, has been campaigning furiously against the Church Commissioners’ decision to move the Bishop of Bath and Wells out of his flat in the magnificent 800-year-old palace in the middle of town. Sir Tony Baldry, the Commissioners’ parliamentary representative, insists it is being done to give the bishop and his family more privacy. Ms Munt suspects that it is because the palace costs so much to maintain.

This is a serious matter, and yet some of us only have to hear the words “Bishop of Bath and Wells” to conjure up an image of a fiery-faced degenerate on Blackadder advancing with the intention of shoving a red hot poker up the eponymous hero’s bottom. Even David Cameron, when tackled by Ms Munt, was moved to say: “I shall try to keep the image of Blackadder out of my mind.”

Smoke on the water?

There was an under-reported moment from the debate in the House of Lords over whether to ban smoking in private vehicles in the presence of children. Lord Scott of Foscote, a 79-year-old retired judge, inquired: “Does ‘private vehicle’ include a motor boat? One drives a motor boat.” The answer was no.

Bonus numbers

After all the bad publicity over bankers’ bonuses, MPs have come down hard on bonus-earning civil servants. In the Home Office, two out of every five pocketed a bonus in 2012-13; that is 11,672 bonuses, costing £6.5m. But the average works out at £559, and most were less than £500.

Keith Vaz, chairman of the Commons Home Affairs committee, described the practice as “irresponsible”. This is one of Mr Vaz’s favourite words. He has applied it to the security firm G4S, to Nigel Farage, and to the Derby firm Simply Drinks for selling a product called Simply Cocaine, among others. So the Home Office officials need not feel too alone.