Here is a huge UK domestic political story, with major ramifications for the future direction both for nuclear defence and foreign policy. It goes to the heart of Britain's relations with the United States and with Europe. Had this been taking place against the backdrop of a Labour Government, you can guarantee that much of the Conservative supporting media would have savagely lambasted that Government for what it was engaged in. As it is, a Conservative dominated Coalition is making profound changes to Britain's defences, yet the huge internal rows that have been taking place within it, remain largely un-reported.
Two prominent liberal papers, who have had all of this drawn to their attention, have for two weeks decided not to carry any serious political analysis and commentary on it. While it may be tempting to attach some conspiracy theory to this strange abdication - the truth may be more banal. It is perhaps that they are either too parochial or simply don't have the capacity any longer to see the bigger picture. Either way, they still sit on the article written by me, which I attach below.
But then this would not be the first time the British press have been found wanting. In future we may have to come to rely on American newspapers, such as the Wall St Journal and New York Times to get to that bigger picture. It fell to the New York Times to get to the heart of the near ritual bugging and hacking into phone calls and private records by some of the UK tabloid press. It fell to the Wall St Journal to report authoritatively on this story, below - the real story behind Britain's defence cuts, and future alliances.
Something profound has been missing from the debate over the Governmemt's Defence Review – namely the refusal of many of the Conservative leaning newspapers to report on the huge schism over of Britain’s nuclear deterrent that has gripped the Government – and is set to intensify with David Cameron’s announcement that the Trident renewal programme is to be delayed until 2015. That delay means that Britain will move away from being dependent on the United States for the maintenance of its nuclear submarine fleet, reduce the existing Trident fleet from four to two submarines and instead throw in Britain’s nuclear lot with the French – and by extension the Europeans. To say that the arguments have been “explosive” would be an understatement of the first order.
For the Tory Right the delay in renewing Britain’s ageing Trident submarine fleet is confirmation that Britain has opted for future joint nuclear development and patrols with France, and that this country’s defence ties with France and Europe are likely to intensify. Their suspicion that David Cameron is set on re-drawing the “special relationship” in favour of greater European defence integration have been further fuelled by discussions that have been taking place between Cameron and President Sarkozy over a future Franco/British nuclear deterrent – based on joint nuclear submarine patrols. Cameron met with Sarkozy in May, where the idea of future co-operation was discussed and Sarkozy is due in London on November 2nd where joint co-operation is likely to be on the agenda again. Downing Street sources indicate that agreement will be reached then to allow France to test UK warheads in a new twist to the developing ‘entente cordiale’. This development further infuriates Tory Euro sceptics – for however this is dressed up, Britain is now moving inexorably closer to the rest of Europe over defence.
The budget for the upkeep and maintenance – and ultimately the replacement of Britain’s four ageing Trident nuclear submarines was recently lumped in by George Osborne with the Defence budget as whole – making it easier to either cut – or simply delay making any decision on their replacement, thus presaging the notorious Liam Fox leaked letter of protest, destined for David Cameron – a letter that pro European former Minister, Lord Heseltine described as “a letter written to be leaked”. The longer any delay, the easier it also becomes to argue for cheaper, cruise missile based, replacement systems.
Just over a fortnight ago, with former Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher as an invited guest, Liam Fox spoke out a private meeting of a new Right wing ginger group calling itself “New Directions”, the brainchild of Euro sceptic Tory MEP Roger Helmer. “New Directions” is deeply unhappy at what it sees as a drift away from the “Special Relationship” with the United States, and towards greater European defence co-operation. It is no secret that the European Union, looking forward over the next two decades, is planning for a new combined European defence force, and in this has the tacit support of big players such as Germany and Italy. The Franco British nuclear alliance will be seen by many in Europe as just the first step in this direction.
Even a year ago that idea that France and Britain could seriously be discussing merging their nuclear operations would have been unthinkable. Even Labour in Government argued that any delay in renewing Trident would put Britain’s defences at risk. Astonishingly, it is a Conservative led Coalition that is now attempting the unthinkable – driven by the urgent need to prune a £38 billion defence overspend. In practice, Britain wouldn’t have to renew her four Trident submarines, and neither would France if they settled on joint patrols. Both countries could share patrolling, therefore needing two submarines each. Some pro Europeans, including former Conservative MEP, John Stevens believe the French and British should go further, and develop their own new generation of nuclear missiles. “Not only would it all be cheaper”, says Stevens, it would end the practice of having to send Britain’s Trident based missiles over to the United States every eighteen months for maintenance.” German academic, Henning Meyer, currently senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics School of Governance goes further; “Not only is it a very good idea, and a step in the right direction, any joint British French co-operation could be the first step in extending it in Europe”. Meyer argues that Germany is a direct beneficiary of the British and French nuclear deterrents “and don’t forget”, he adds “in Europe we are continuing to double up defence capabilities. It doesn’t make sense”.
And the Europeans also in looking forward see a more isolationist United States beginning to emerge, giving them hope that a more independent European foreign and defence policy can begin to form as part of that process.
All of this is almost designed to send the anti European, pro American British Right into the stratosphere. Already siren voices behind the scenes are urging Defence Secretary, Liam Fox to go to the political wire over Trident, although the indications seem to be that his leaked letter was as far as he is prepared to go for the moment. Former Conservative Defence Spokesman, Dr Julian Lewis MP, has already given vent to the widespread feeling of betrayal on the Tory benches, saying of the Trident delay "What is shocking is that this is clearly designed as some form of appeasement of the Liberal Democrats who are, and always have been, covert unilateralists ... This is in total breach of the pledges given to Conservative MPs that the Trident replacement would go ahead if we backed the creation of the coalition." This hasn’t stopped the anti Fox briefings from beginning, surfacing as they did recently in the Mail on Sunday. ‘Unattributed sources’ were said to be concerned at Fox’s ‘partying’ and ‘loose tongue’.
So if it’s Round One to Cameron and Osborne, what will the Tory Right do next?