Exclusive: Chief secretary to the Treasury hails ‘significant moment’ in nuclear deterrent debate and calls for every party to face up to financial challenges
Danny Alexander was eight years old when the UK first decided to embark on the Trident nuclear submarine programme, and was little more than 20 when patrols began in 1994.
So a lifetime’s understanding of the history of nuclear deterrence is not something he possesses, but neither, he would argue, is he encumbered by many of the assumptions and preconceptions that plague the debate about replacing Trident.
As chief secretary of the Treasury, nobody is better placed in government to question the need to spend so much money on a fleet of new submarines that will probably never be used in conflict, against an enemy nobody can identify, in an era of financial crisis.
That is the pitch of the Liberal Democrats, and it is why Alexander, 40, stresses that avoiding the replacement of Trident with “like for like” Successor submarines should become a key issue at the next general election.
Alexander knows the Conservatives are committed to replacing the Trident fleet come what may – and there is unconcealed irritation among senior Lib Dems at Tory ministers who behave as if the policy is set in stone.
But senior Lib Dems believe there is still much to play for; the forthcoming review is likely to set out seven or eight alternatives to replacing Trident, which would give the UK an opportunity to step down from continuous-at-sea deterrence.
There is political calculation too; if the Tories don’t win an outright majority in May 2015, the fate of “Successor” could be in Labour’s hands – and the rump of Ed Miliband’s party is far more ambivalent about it than the leadership.
Alexander hasn’t spoken to anyone in Labour about this specifically, but it is obvious he hopes the party will be more biddable than the Conservatives.
“My hope would be that politicians of all parties, including Labour politicians, will look at this review when it comes out with an open mind. Obviously I think every political party needs to be facing up to the challenges, not least to the financial challenges facing the country over the next few years. I suspect that the review will influence the debates within parties about what should go in their General Election manifestos.”
He said: “The final decision isn’t made until the country has taken that Main Gate decision in 2016. That gives the British people a chance to have a say on this subject and politicians of all parties to formulate or reformulate their views. I hope the review will be influential in that respect. This isn’t just a debate for Liberal Democrats and our supporters, it’s a debate for the expert community, for the thinktanks, and it’s a debate that I think many members of our armed forces are interested in.”
That is an understatement; in private, senior army officers do not have a good word to say about the vast sums of money needed to pay for Trident replacement. Many in the RAF feel the same way.
It is far from clear the military would resist a change to the country’s nuclear deterrent strategy, especially if it guaranteed more money for other aircraft, tanks, and armour.
Since September Alexander has made trips to the naval base at Clyde, the home of the UK’s submarine fleet, and to the UK’s Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston. These visits have convinced him the military would accept a change in posture if Successor wasn’t approved.
“If the country had a different policy, they would apply exactly the same skills and dedication and ingenuity to delivering that policy. That is something that actually gives me confidence that whatever posture we take as a country it can be successfully delivered.
“Most of the (military) people I have spoken to have said, quite rightly, that this is a debate for politicians to have, this is a debate for parliament, so I think I am not going to challenge them to engage in that debate. It is quite properly in the realm of politics and government.”
Is it really possible for a new government to take a decision as potentially momentous as cancelling Trident renewal?
“Of course its possible,” he argues. “You are asking me to get out my crystal ball and I’m not going to do that. I anticipate the review will set out a clear, credible, compelling, set of arguments for alternatives.
“It is the first time for a very, very long time the British state has engaged in this debate in this way and so it is quite a significant moment. If anything, the fact that I have taken on the leadership of this review as a member of the ‘quad’ just demonstrates the level of importance and seriousness with which we are continuing to treat this review. The circumstances the country is facing reinforces that policy. It does not diminish it. The economic and financial circumstances reinforce the wisdom of our policy.”
Alexander is particularly keen to squash any thoughts the Royal Navy might have that extra Treasury money will be forthcoming to help pay for new submarines.
The sums are substantial. The MoD will have to spend £7bn up to 2020, and will have to find another £20bn in the decade thereafter.
The only way defence can pay for this is by restricting other equipment programmes; and that’s assuming Successor is built on time and in budget – almost unheard of for a major procurement. But even then, a new fleet of four submarines would account for at least one third of the MoD’s equipment budget for a decade.
This could have a knock-on effect on other prized programmes, such as the Type 26 destroyer and the number of Joint Strike Fighters for the Navy and the RAF. The army would barely get a look in.
One Admiral told the Guardian the Treasury “will have to pay the costs of Trident. “If the government wants it, the government has to pay for it,” he said.
Professor Malcolm Chalmers, an expert at the Royal United Service Institute, explained: “Even if the MoD manages to secure the continuing 1% annual growth in total equipment spending to which this government has committed itself, sharp increases in spending on Trident renewal in the early 2020s seem set to mean further years of austerity for conventional equipment plans.
“The crunch point could come in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review. It could come earlier if the 2013 Spending Review were to order further cuts in defence. A further £500m cut in the 2015/16 budget, for example, could force the MoD to take £5bn out of its budget for the following decade. With Trident renewal ring-fenced, this could make life even more difficult for current plans for new generations of unmanned aircraft, frigates and armoured vehicles.”
Alexander is unmoved.
“We have said repeatedly that this has to come from within the defence budget. Obviously the defence budget is not set for the entire period that Successor or whatever other alternative we might come to. But given all the financial pressures across the whole of the public sector, all the things the government has to do and wants to pay for, and all the pressures in different areas, I just think the idea that somehow, out of thin air, we can carve a multibillion pocket to pay for this, that is not financially realistic.”
The review is being compiled now, though there is still some analysis to be done. Cameron and Clegg should have it by late spring, and then it will be published.
Alexander can see how ugly Trident renewal will be for the defence budget, but he says he is also convinced that the time may have come for the country to decide it wants a different kind of approach to deterrence.
“The more I have got into it the more I have got a sense of the real significance of this debate for the future of our country, and I suspect it might be influential internationally too.”