Blair 'overriding Cabinet' on renewal of Trident

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair has been accused of "bouncing" the Cabinet and Labour MPs into a decision to renew Britain's Trident nuclear weapons system at a cost of up to £25bn.

Cabinet ministers who will today demand a public debate on the various options, believe the Prime Minister will railroad through the scheme without a proper discussion to ensure that part of his legacy when he stands down next year is to keep Britain in the nuclear club.

Mr Blair will also brush aside legal doubts about renewing Trident. The international lawyer Philippe Sands, a QC in the Matrix chambers co-founded by Cherie Blair, has produced a legal opinion for Greenpeace saying that the move would breach the Nuclear Non-Profileration Treaty. It has been sent to the Prime Minister and Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General.

Dominick Jenkins, Greenpeace's disarmament campaigner, said: "While Tony Blair rattles his sabre and waves treaties at foreigners, he's agitating for Britain to break those same treaties. Building a new nuclear weapon is against international law and threatens to unravel the global non-proliferation system."

At the Cabinet's weekly meeting today, Mr Blair will face down three sceptics who are pressing for a wider debate before a decision is taken in principle - Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary; Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary and Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary.

Mr Hain has asked the Treasury to estimate what the various options would cost so that the Cabinet does not rely solely on figures produced by the Ministry of Defence.

The options include extending the life of the four Vanguard-class submarines and American-made D5 missiles beyond 2024 when the system will reach the end of its life; buying a direct replacement in line with the UK's current agreement with the US; ordering a brand new submarine-based, ground or air-launched capability and not replacing Trident.

The Prime Minister will argue that Labour's manifesto said the party was "committed to retaining the independent nuclear deterrent". His critics say the pledge was slipped in at the last minute without any debate.

Mr Blair may also argue that a public discussion on the alternative systems may jeopardise the nation's security by handing sensitive information to Britain's enemies.

One minister said last night: "The PM is determined to force this through and there is little we can do to stop him. It's a bounce. It's just a pity we couldn't debate the issue."

Mr Blair hinted at his approach in the Commons yesterday, when he said that a White Paper would be published before Christmas but side-stepped a plea by Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, for MPs to be allowed to vote on detailed options rather than just the principle. He repeated his call later in a letter to Mr Blair.

The Prime Minister told MPs: "I suspect this is going to be not so much an issue of process but where we stand on a particular issue, and I believe that is important to maintain the independent nuclear deterrent."

Gordon Prentice, a Labour MP, called for a Green Paper discussion document on the options rather than a White Paper presenting MPs with a fait accompli. He said: "This is New Labour, old politics, with a decision taken by a tiny number of people at the centre."

Although 40 Labour MPs have signed a Commons motion calling for a public debate, Mr Blair is expected to win a vote on the principle of renewing Trident with the help of the Tory Opposition, which supports the idea. Gordon Brown, Mr Blair's most likely successor, has announced his support for retaining Britain's nuclear deterrent.