Norman Baker

Lib Dem MPs refused free vote on Trident

Lib Dem MPs refused free vote on Trident

The Liberal Democrats have rejected calls for their MPs to have a free vote on Trident replacement, as new figures suggest the true cost of the nuclear system is £76 billion.

Delegates at the party conference in Brighton defeated a motion put by former environment spokesman Norman Baker to allow Lib Dem MPs to vote on conscience, not the party line, if a vote takes place within the next six months.

Julie Smith of the Cambridge Lib Dems argued that allowing each MP to have their own view on Trident opened up the party to accusations of being disorganised. “And we do not need that criticism, we need to be a mature party,” she stressed.

The government has promised to publish a white paper on replacing Britain’s nuclear deterrent system and said there will be “fullest possible debate” in parliament on the issue. But Gordon Brown has already stated his support for a replacement.

Today Mr Baker said it was “appalling for the government to try to push this through in haste without any real consultation by any of the three parties”.

He urged Lib Dem delegates give their MPs a mandate to urge ministers to schedule any vote on Trident for after the party’s spring conference next year, when they will have discussed the issue further.

Until then, Mr Baker said, Lib Dem MPs should have a free vote on the issue and not be constrained by orders from the party leadership. Menzies Campbell himself admitted on Monday that there was “no sufficient evidence” to make a decision yet.

Although this was defeated, many delegates backed his concerns about replacing the nuclear deterrent, which new figures today suggest could cost £76 billion to replace and maintain – far more than ministers have previously admitted.

Lib Dem researchers arrived at the figure by adding the value the government has put on the cost of Trident – £14.9 billion – and the percentage of the defence budget devoted to the nuclear deterrent system for 30 years.

Mr Baker today used his speech in conference to argue against replacement, saying the world was “very different” from when Trident was commissioned.

“We do not know who the enemy is. When I asked who we were pointing it at, in a parliamentary question, the government confirmed it hadn’t been pointed at anyone since 1993. But they still feel we need it,” he said.

He added: “There is no point having nuclear warheads to protect against terrorists.”

More information was needed on the costs of replacing Trident, and the implications it would have for nuclear proliferation in countries such as Iran, Mr Baker said.

“What example does it set for the rest of the world to be hastening down this road when there is no need? We will be accused of Western double standards,” he warned.

The debate comes after the head of the Anglican Church in Wales, archbishop Barry Morgan, yesterday said Trident was an “anomaly” in a post-Cold war era and argued the money spent on replacing it would be better spent on tackling poverty.

“With that kind of money we could prevent 16,000 children dying every day from diseases caused by impure water and malnutrition,” he said.

“The deaths of 16,000 children a day is the equivalent of 40 jumbo jets crashing every day of every week. Our world would not tolerate that – just look at what happens when our airports grind to a halt.

“But we do tolerate hunger, poverty and impure water, and are prepared to contemplate spending our resources on weapons of mass destruction.”