Blair to announce retention of Britain's nuclear deterrent

Iran Materials 4 December 2006 18:31 (UTC +04:00)

(AFP) - Prime Minister Tony Blair is to set out plans to replace the country's nuclear deterrent, but reports said he would announce a cut in warhead numbers to appease opponents and costs, reports Trend.

Senior ministers met in a special hour-long session of cabinet to ratify formally proposals for what is expected to be one of the most controversial decisions of the current session of parliament.

Britain's US-built Trident weapons system is a deeply divisive issue within Blair's governing Labour Party, as unilateral nuclear disarmament was a key plank of its policy at the height of the Cold War during the 1980s.

Blair, who was to announce the government position to the lower House of Commons at 3:30 pm (1530 GMT), has signalled that lawmakers will have a vote on the subject in the New Year.

But he faces a fight from left-wing Labour traditionalists, reported concern among several senior ministers and prominent party figures, and others who believe he is trying to rush through a decision without a proper public debate.

A CommunicateResearch poll for The Independent newspaper Monday found 50 percent of Labour lawmakers wanted to retain Trident against 39 percent who did not.

An ICM poll for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in July found 59 percent of the public opposed.

The prime minister's official spokesman defended the decision not to offer lawmakers a range of options on future policy in the proposals.

"This is one of the most serious decisions any government can take; it's a decision about how to protect the country," he said.

"Therefore it is right and proper that the government takes on itself the duty to put a firm proposal to parliament and for parliament to vote on that."

Concern has also been expressed about the cost of replacing the system, with observers saying that it could cost anything from 25 billion pounds (37 billion euros, 49 billion dollars) upwards.

The result, however, is unlikely to be in doubt.

The government has indicated the vote will be "whipped" -- where lawmakers are told to toe the government's line rather than follow their conscience in a free vote.

But Blair could make concessions -- The Sun tabloid said Monday that the number of Royal Navy Vanguard class submarines which carry the missiles will be reduced from the current four to three.

That would lead to a reduction in the number of stockpiled warheads from about 200 to 150.

The government argues a decision is needed now because the submarines begin to come to the end of their lives in 2019 and replacements take 14 years to design and build. The missiles also need updating in the 2020s.

But the leader of the second opposition Liberal Democrats, Menzies Campbell, told BBC radio Monday that any decision should be postponed until 2014.

"At that time we will have a better idea of the strategic environment and the threats we will face in the future," he said.

As the cabinet met, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), backed by a number of Labour lawmakers, delivered its alternative proposals to Blair's Downing Street office.

It argues that retaining the deterrent would promote proliferation and the costs could be spent better elsewhere on areas like health and tackling climate change.