The Cabinet has prepared the ground to commission a full-scale replacement for Britain's Trident nuclear deterrent in a move that could cost about £30bn.
Ministers yesterday rejected a cheaper option of prolonging the life of the four Vanguard Class submarines and American-made D5 missiles beyond 2024 on the grounds that maintenance costs would be too high. They agreed in principle to support a plan by Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, to order a new submarine-based system.
Tony Blair made a concession to Labour opponents of the project by promising a full debate among Labour MPs and party members between the publication of a White Paper next month and a Commons vote next year.
That followed pressure from Jacqui Smith, the Chief Whip, and Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary. Mr Hain did not oppose replacing Trident, declaring that Labour could repeat past mistakes by going into an election pledging to scrap the British deterrent. He said the party had tried that but failed.
Government critics said MPs should be able to vote on various options rather than be presented with a "take it or leave it" plan to replace Trident.
Two former defence secretaries clashed at yesterday's cabinet discussion. Geoff Hoon, the Europe minister, said the Government should consider alternatives such as a ground or air-launched missiles. But John Reid, the Home Secretary, said the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had looked at that question and come out in favour of a submarine-based system.
A full replacement is supported by Mr Blair and Gordon Brown. Although the Cabinet is expected to include this recommendation in the White Paper, several ministers including Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, said the MoD must get a grip on the project's costs.
Ministers dismissed a warning by Philippe Sands, an international lawyer, that replacing Trident could be illegal under the Nuclear Non-Profileration Treaty. Jack Straw, the Leader of the Commons, said that was "nonsense."
He defended moves to impose a three-line whip on Labour MPs when they vote on the specific proposal in the White Paper rather than a range of options. "This is about the defence of this country and its people and its future over many decades," he said. "We have a responsibility not to cop out on this." But some Labour MPs expressed concern. Harry Cohen asked Mr Straw whether the assessment of the threat facing Britain would make the White Paper another "dodgy dossier" like the one ahead of the Iraq war.
Kate Hudson, who chairs the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, said: "The Government must consider all options for Britain's future security, including acting on our commitment to multilateral negotiations for nuclear disarmament under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty."
Sir Menzies Campbell, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: "We owe it to the British people and future generations to have a proper discussion."Reuse content