Forget Star Wars II: The Tories prefer Mutually Assured Destruction

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The Independent Online

The scrap of ginger that is our Foreign Secretary came to the dispatch box to confuse the confusion created by Wednesday's confusing statements about America's proposed anti-missile system.

The scrap of ginger that is our Foreign Secretary came to the dispatch box to confuse the confusion created by Wednesday's confusing statements about America's proposed anti-missile system.

This cheered up the Tories no end. But then they are always cheerful talking about Mutually Assured Destruction. In this case, given latest polling, they might wish the destruction to be just a fraction more mutual, but the jovial impulse remains.

On Wednesday in Parliament, the Prime Minister carefully avoided voicing support for George Bush's favourite programme: Star Wars II (The Phantom Menace). He declared that this new laser-based, anti-nuclear warhead defence system was a sensitive issue; it needed such careful handling that it shouldn't be handled at all. This approach would protect the vital strategic interests of the Government against dangerous and unpredictable fundamentalists and fanatics (Tony Benn, for one).

The danger was, we inferred, that any firm expression of opinion of approval or disapproval could cause a fatal breach in the national protocols surrounding the security of the election result in June.

None the less, half an hour later, outside the chamber, the Government said something quite different. Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's press secretary, was asked whether he thought the American anti-missile system was a good idea and he said: "Broadly, yes."

This the contradiction which the Foreign Secretary had been called to resolve. But because he didn't want to resolve anything, he said what he always says.

Constructing dialogue. Mutual confidence. Recognise growing challenge. Commitment to future goal. Diplomatic context of final decision. Mutual concern. Obstruct and deter threats. Work closely. Enhance security. International context ...

Francis Maude managed to make a point, but wasn't able to make his opponent answer it: "Given the absolute necessity of the British Government speaking with one voice, will the Foreign Secretary now repeat word for word what the Prime Minister's official spokesman said yesterday?" Mr Cook replied that he was entirely happy to endorse everything the Prime Minister said yesterday. Close observers may note this wasn't quite the same thing.

Menzies Campbell, a very decent sort of Liberal Democrat, made a better fist of it. "There is no doubt there was a substantial difference in emphasis in what the Prime Minister told the House and what his official spokesman said. It is highly unsatisfactory that a change of emphasis in policy should be revealed in this way," he said sternly.

Mr Cook made an astonishing reply. "What the record plainly shows is identical statements by the Prime Minister and his spokesman. [Uproar] It does! [More uproar] They did!" This is the only fundamental New Labour principle: "We are the Government. We can say anything we like."

It is a measure of Tory failure that the minister's friends were able to inflict more damage than his opponents. "Is the Foreign Secretary aware the Government want to be very cautious about this before polling day?" Tony Benn said, witheringly. He was rewarded by Tory cheers and a saddened Foreign Secretary.

Dr Julian Lewis recalled the words of Mr Cook prior to his current elevated position. "Does he recall his reaction when the American president of the day originally proposed ballistic missile defence? Now he finds himself attacked by his own backbenchers who stick to the views which he has now abandoned." There was no answer to that. But that didn't matter either. It was only a Tory. And they, alas, no longer count.

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