Nuclear stockpiles cut to placate Trident opponents

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Tony Blair is preparing to cut stockpiles of nuclear weapons when the Government presses ahead with plans to replace Britain's Trident missile system.

Ministers are expected to indicate that Britain will reduce its nuclear arsenal to reaffirm its commitment to the arms control process despite ordering a new generation of atomic weapons.

Ministers believe they can set an example by reducing Britain's arsenal and demonstrate that the country is "going in the right direction" on arms control, while justifying retaining a "minimum" nuclear deterrent on long-term security grounds. But a final decision on any future warhead numbers could be delayed.

Mr Blair will publish the Government's White Paper on the nuclear deterrent on Monday with a personal statement to MPs after a special cabinet meeting to approve the proposals.

They are widely expected to include replacing the ageing fleet of Vanguard nuclear missile submarines and US-built Trident missiles with a submarine-launched weapons system.

Britain currently holds fewer than 200 nuclear warheads after a series of reductions in the Government's nuclear stockpile since the height of the Cold War in the past 30 years.

Yesterday, the former Home Secretary Charles Clarke became the most senior Labour figure to express public doubts about replacing Trident, saying he was "extremely sceptical" that Britain needed to replace the system. "Trident was an expensive weapons system developed in the Cold War to meet the conditions of the Cold War, which ended 17 years ago," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. "It is still capable of functioning for about another 15 years."

MPs are gearing up for a battle over the decision, with some Labour backbenchers predicting that up to 100 would defy the whips over Trident. But Jack Straw, the Leader of the Commons, said he was not expecting a big rebellion.