David Cameron restocks his emotive arsenal

The PM will try to drive home that the jobless, the deficit and immigration are down


It is not often that a politician achieves three things at once. So we ought to take note of David Cameron's defence of the Trident nuclear missile system last week. He planned to give a speech to and answer questions from defence workers in Scotland mainly to take the argument against independence to Alex Salmond.

There are good arguments for and against replacing Trident, to which we shall come in a moment, but here we are talking about emotion and symbolism. Salmond knows the dangers of defence policy to the case for independence, which is why he recently reversed the SNP's promise that Scotland would leave Nato. The first time I thought he was unlikely to win his referendum was when BBC Newsround interviewed Scottish children last year and one boy, aged about nine, said he didn't think Scotland should be an independent country "because we don't have enough soldiers".

Cameron's second motive for giving the speech was to embarrass Ed Miliband. One Downing Street adviser used the language of Gordon Brown's team, saying that they were "starting to put up dividing lines" between them and the Labour Party, and that replacing Trident was one of them. So far, Miliband has hidden behind the coalition's review of options for replacing Trident to avoid committing the Opposition to a like-for-like replacement.

Last month, Jim Murphy, the Blairite and pro-nuclear shadow defence secretary, went as far as he could to make the case for keeping the full four-submarine system. He had to keep open the option of switching to airborne or land-based missiles, which he said would be more expensive, or to ship-based missiles, which were "potentially cheaper", but said that the submarine option was the "only one that gives you the ability to retain secrecy – with certainty – about the location of your deterrent".

Defence policy has not been a vote-mover since Labour abandoned one-sided nuclear disarmament in 1989. If you want politics at its most emotive and symbolic, simply recall the Tory election poster in 1987, "Labour's policy on arms", above a picture of a soldier with his hands up. You can see why Cameron is keen to open up a gap with Labour on national security – and why Murphy at least is keen not to let him.

All this is complicated by questions of coalition management. No, not that coalition: I mean the Labour coalition that Miliband is trying to manage. He knows that 102 Labour MPs rebelled against Tony Blair's early preparations to replace Trident in the last Parliament, in March 2007.

Cameron's third success was that his speech in Scotland happened to coincide with the news that the North Korean government had authorised a nuclear strike on America. What better example could he have hoped for of the uncertain threats against which British nuclear weapons might be an insurance? True, he made a mess of the argument, by saying: "North Korea does now have missile technology that is able to reach, as they put it, the whole of the United States, so if they're able to reach the whole of the US they can reach Europe too. They can reach us too."

That was oddly emphatic, asserting as fact what was only a North Korean claim, contradicted by repeated test launches that have ended in failure. And it drew a withering response from Michael Portillo, Tory former defence secretary, who said: "It remains to me absurd to believe that the United Kingdom would use its nuclear weapons against North Korea. To say we need nuclear weapons in this situation would imply that Germany and Italy are trembling in their boots because they don't have a nuclear deterrent, which I think is clearly not the case."

Again, however, this is an argument that operates at the level of emotion and symbol. The UK's nuclear weapons were part of a balance of deterrence during the cold war, which seemed MAD (mutually assured destruction) and yet which appeared to work. The case for them remains irrational, as Portillo, a journalist, is free to point out, but it would be hard for a practising politician ever to persuade the voters to give them up in an uncertain world.

Cameron's success in pressing the case for Trident came in the week of benefits and tax changes that Labour thought would be a turning point in their favour, but which was not – thanks to the emotion and symbolism of the grisly Philpott case. Last week could be a trailer for the Prime Minister's tour of the country this week to do question-and-answer sessions in which he usually performs strongly. His advisers are calling it his "What have the Romans ever done for us" tour, in which he will try to drive home the messages that unemployment, the deficit, crime and immigration are all coming down.

I have come close recently to writing off the chances of the Conservatives holding on at the next election, but if they are to recover lost ground this is a preview of the only strategy open to them: to press their advantages in the world of emotions and symbols.

twitter.com/@JohnRentoul; independent.co.uk/johnrentoul

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Letter from the Political Editor: Mr. Cameron is beginning to earn small victories in Europe

Andrew Grice
Pakistani volunteers carry a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen, at a local hospital in Peshawar  

The Only Way is Ethics: The paper’s readers and users of our website want different things

Will Gore
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'