UK’s Trident nuclear programme splits Labour three ways

Jeremy Corbyn, Tom Watson and Emily Thornberry at odds on future of submarines

Divisions within Labour will be on stark display on Monday when MPs debate the future of Britain's Trident nuclear defence programme, with leading figures in the party taking three different positions.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has said he will vote against the government's proposal to renew all four Vanguard submarines, which carry Trident nuclear-armed missiles. Deputy leader Tom Watson and former shadow work and pensions secretary Owen Smith, who on Sunday launched his leadership challenge against Mr Corbyn, will vote with the government.

Labour's shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry and shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, allies of Mr Corbyn, have called on MPs to abstain.

“I think the world has got more volatile – we’ve got to stick with what we’ve got and renew it, if that’s the advice of the security services,” Mr Smith said.


Aim to embarrass

Writing in the


, however, Ms Thornberry claimed that the vote would simply restate a 2007 commitment to renew the programme and was a ruse to embarrass Labour.

“The Tories know that those with strongly-held principles on either side of this debate will vote with their consciences, and the media will turn that into a fresh Labour crisis,” she wrote.

Prime minister Theresa May will open the debate for the government, making her first statement in parliament since taking office last week. She is expected to argue that, once nuclear weapons are given up, it is almost impossible to get them back, and that it would be irresponsible not to renew the current submarine fleet.

True cost

The government estimates the cost of replacing the submarines at £31 billion (€37 billion) over 20 years, but opponents of the plan claim the real cost is likely to be much higher.

Mr Smith on Sunday became the second Labour MP to challenge Mr Corbyn for the leadership, following former shadow business secretary Angela Eagle’s announcement last week. He suggested that, if he became prime minister, he would be tempted to block Brexit and suggested there could be a second referendum within 18 months.

"We need to negotiate right now. I don't think we should accept that we're on a definite path out. I think we need to make sure people are satisfied with that. We trusted people rightly to take the decision, we can trust them again in 18 months' time to check whether it's absolutely what they wanted," he told the BBC's Andrew Marr.

Conservative MP Dominic Grieve, a close ally of Mrs May, said he would “not necessarily” want a second referendum, but that another vote could be justified if there was a “legitimate question” that needed to be put to the electorate.

A former attorney general, Mr Grieve claimed that the government would need to take a vote in parliament before it invoked article 50 of the EU treaty, which triggers two years of withdrawal negotiations.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times