The Conservatives and Labour have combined in the House of Commons to reject demands by the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party to scrap multibillion-pound plans to renew the United Kingdom’s Trident nuclear weapons programme.
Making clear that Trident will be a key issue in May's general election, SNP MP Angus Robertson said the smaller parties may hold the balance of power: "We will do everything we can to ensure that the Trident replacement does not go ahead."
So far, more than £1 billion has been spent on preparations for a new generation of nuclear-powered submarines to replace the Royal Navy’s Vanguard class based at Faslane on the Clyde – but a final decision was delayed by the Conservatives/Liberal Democrats coalition until 2016, because they could not agree.
Currently, one of the Vanguards is at sea at all times – the “continuous at sea deterrent”.
Each carries eight Trident missiles with 40 warheads. Each warhead is eight times more powerful than that dropped by the United States on Hiroshima in August 1945.
Defending the UK's nuclear arms programme, defence secretary Michael Fallon said every British government for six decades had backed it: "It is not about short-term politics. Whatever the current threats to this country, we cannot gamble with tomorrow's security," he told MPs.
The House of Commons had decided in 2007 to build a new fleet of submarines: “It is Faslane that is truly Britain’s peace camp.
“Whether we like it or not, there remain approximately 17,000 nuclear weapons globally. We cannot un-invent those weapons.”
Despite being angry about the SNP's bid to force Labour into the same voting lobby as the Conservatives, Labour's defence spokesman Vernon Coaker insisted Labour continues to back plans to replace Trident by the late 2020s.
The cost of Trident’s replacement is becoming an increasingly important issue in the coming election, particularly as the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SNP have claimed it will cost £100 billion.
Describing this as "a fantasy cost", defence minister Philip Dunne said the submarines and missiles will cost £25 billion approximately – though it is generally accepted the annual cost of maintaining the deterrent will be nearly £3 billion.
Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards said the tens of billions saved by scrapping Trident's replacement could build hundreds of thousands of affordable homes, hire tens of thousands of teachers and improve the lives of the poor.
However, Conservative Cumbria MP
said the fifth-largest economy should not make decisions about nuclear weapons because it thinks it could “save some money by cutting them”, or safeguard highly paid jobs in poor, but marginal constituencies by keeping them.
Though the House of Commons vote was never in doubt, the result has political implications – particularly in Scotland where opinion polls show significant opposition to Faslane, and where the SNP plans to use the issue against Labour. The vote was lost by 363 to 35.