A naval battle that could scupper the Tories

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The Independent Online
POLITICS at its highest, but politics at its lowest and dirtiest, too: today's Cabinet decision on which of two rival dockyards will refit Britain's Trident nuclear fleet will be glossed as a straightforward commercial matter. No one should be fooled. More hangs in the balance than taxpayers' money.

It has been a bitter, vicious fight between two huge enterprises. On the one hand, Rosyth has been promised the work repeatedly since 1984. It is Scotland's biggest industrial complex, where half of all Scotland's industrial apprentices are trained. If it loses, as looks likely, then it will probably be offered 'consolation prizes' of surface-ship work. The reality is that if Rosyth loses, it will close, sooner or later. With it will go some 18,000 jobs.

On the other hand, Devonport, at Plymouth in the West Country, has been modernising and lobbying desperately for the contract for the past two years. Its supporters claim that failure would close Devonport, too, with the loss of up to 20,000 jobs, but this is less likely.

The battle has been conducted, on the surface, at the level of rows about capital costs, specifications and efficiency. Each side has accused the other of waging a merely 'political' campaign. In truth, both are: an internal Ministry of Defence paper suggested that the cash difference between the two bids could be less than any margin of error. The MoD's message to Downing Street has been: 'Over to you, John, this is political.'

The Opposition has been involved too, of course: Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, whose constituency includes Rosyth, has been the butt of Devonport newspaper adverts reminding ministers that he was against the Trident programme. Ironies abound: the Scottish National Party, which has joined the campaign for Rosyth and can expect to benefit from the political backlash if it is closed, is itself firmly anti-nuclear.

But, in Conservative Britain, this has been essentially a struggle between rival groups of Tories, Scottish and West Country. Both groups have had their claque of supportive cabinet ministers. Both have been warning John Major that the failure of their particular yard would have terrible political consequences.

The Devonport message was well put by a local Tory MP yesterday. 'We have got more Conservative MPs here than in Scotland and Wales put together. Up to now we have been ignored because there has been a view that we were one solid field of blue. Now there are these clumps of yellow buttercups (Liberal Democrat seats). If this goes the wrong way, there will be a whole field of yellow.'

West Country Conservatives have added to the fear of Lib-Dem gains by playing on the long history of English Tory resentment about Scotland's higher per capita share of public spending. Anthony Steen MP told BBC Scotland: 'We don't get the strawberries and cream the Scots get,' while his colleague Gary Streeter complained about Scottish whingers: 'It's our turn now.'

But the message for Mr Major from Scotland has been almost equally bleak. One backbencher has warned him that the closure of Rosyth could destroy the Union with England. Senior Opposition figures have asked him what he expects the effect of breaking his party's promises to Rosyth will be on his own much- praised defence of the Union during the last election campaign. Lord Younger, the former Defence Secretary and Scottish Secretary, reminded ministers recently that there had been a long struggle to persuade Scottish voters to accept that the Clyde should be Britain's nuclear Trident base, and that a key argument had been the employment opportunities for Scotland in refitting submarines.

In a letter to the Times, he wrote: 'Before a final decision is taken, I feel I must remind all concerned of a matter of good faith which is involved here . . . I would find it impossible to support such a move as my good faith would clearly be called into question.' And, by implication, the good faith of the Government itself.

All the mutterings from ministers and MPs suggest that today the Cabinet will come down in favour of Devonport. Last night a cut-price bid from Rosyth was not being considered, even though Devonport was allowed, last year, to rebid after the earlier closing date had passed. Whoever wins, the Commons will doubtlessly be assured that this was finally a commercial matter. Only the most nave soul will believe that.

It looks as if a complex political judgement is being made: that the Tories feel more seriously threatened by a surge of Liberal Democracy in South-west England (28 Tory seats) than by a nationalist backlash in Scotland (11 seats).

Ministers should add to the debit side two final thoughts. First, that the Conservatives are already seeming less like a truly national party of Britain and more like the defenders of the South of England. This is not a matter of malice: our first-past-the-post voting system is tending to concentrate the big parties more strongly on their geographical heartlands, and this produces its own vicious circle. More Conservative MPs come from the South, so the party listens more to the South, so losing MPs in the North . . . A decision against Rosyth would be another twist in the spiral.

Second, there is, as Lord Younger pointed out, a matter of honour. For nine years the Conservative Government kept saying one thing to the Rosyth managers and workers. If it now does another, they will say they have been double-crossed. That isn't, dear Cabinet, trivial.