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Trident – Why is no one taking it seriously?

Last week, Tony Blair only secured the renewal of Trident because the Conservatives supported him. A total of 95 Labour MPs were unwilling to support their own Prime Minister on an issue of paramount national security. It was the largest defence rebellion in Labour history.

That this went by largely unemarked outside the Westminster village is an indication of how seriously things have deteriorated in the dog days of Tony Blair.

There was a time, not that long ago, when it would have been unthinkable for a Labour leader to rely on Tory votes in this way. Failure to carry the Parliamentary Labour Party would have been a confidence issue, a possible resignation issue.

Not any more. Instead we had the Labour chairwoman Hazel Blears, the crazy frogette, popping up to congratulate the Prime Minister for winning “a majority of Labour backbenchers” – as if it was perfectly normal for the PM to fail to win the backing of his own MPs.

The contagion of conscience has even spread to that most loyal of groups, the Scottish Labour MPs. Fifteen of them rebelled on the Trident vote, including the chancellor’s chum, Nigel Griffiths, who resigned as deputy leader of the house.

The departure of the unnaturally ambitious Griffiths’ led to speculation about Gordon Brown’s private views on Trident renewal. Would the pocket rocket have taken such a drastic step – which nevertheless helps his prospects in his tight marginal Edinburgh South constituency – if there hadn’t been just a hint that Brown might be prepared to forgive this act of conscience and employ Griffiths in future? Only he knows.

And we may never find out, because the way things are going, Gordon Brown is unlikely to make it to Number Ten. It’s too early to say Tories have won an election that is more than two years away. But what we can say is that, if Labour go on like this, they have certainly lost it.

The Cameron Conservatives have been returning their best polling figures since 1992. This could become habit forming. There is no law that says that people cannot start voting Tory again, in England at least.

Tony Blair has done Brown and Labour a huge disservice by allowing Cameron to get his feet under the table at Westminster. The new Tory leader has grown visibly in stature and authority while the Prime Minister’s has drained away.

Last week was another bad one for Labour as the Olympic costs tripled, Sir Hayden Phillips called for a cap on election donations from unions and Cameron’s hair style upstaged the Climate Change Bill. A bad Blair day, that

A collapse of Labour support in the Scottish elections in May could be the beginning of the end for Labour in the UK. The party has been piling up the negatives as if determined to alienate as many Scottish voters as possible. Trident is another nail in the coffin.

Renewal of the submarines, which will be based on the Clyde, was rejected by a clear majority of Scottish MPs – something the SNP will not let Labour forget. As we report today, one poll suggests that two thirds of Scots believe it is unacceptable to stationTrident here given the opposition of the Scottish MPs

The Blairites want to blame Brown for any Scottish disaster, and the Brownites want to blame Blair – but they are both likely to get a kicking. Labour’s electoral credibility will be the first casualty. Following the Trident vote, there is nothing now to stop the dissidents from dissing the party establishment.

It’s not that long ago that rebellion on such a key issue as national security would have led to disciplinary action against errant Labour MPs. Or at least a severe spanking from the whips. Not any more.

Trident shows that Labour MPs can now exercise their consciences without fear of the consequences. That loss of fear is immensely significant. The systems of party discipline and authority which defined New Labour Labour in the early years of this administration have broken down.

Remember the ‘pager clones’? They’re gone the way of the electronic messaging device after which they were named. Labour MPs don’t give a toss any more, and are increasingly becoming an opposition within their own government. Brown be warned.

Meanwhile Tony Blair is becoming a government leader-in-exile, relying on Conservative votes in parliament to impose policies, from university funding to defence, which his own party oppose. It’s a weird reversal of roles.

The PM is so close ideologically to the Tories on education, Iraq, nuclear power, Trident, terrorism, attitudes to the White House, public services etc..that there is almost a defacto coalition operating in Westminster. You could hear it in David Cameron’s’ voice last week in the Commons.

The Tory leader, increasingly performs the role of deputy Prime Minister and chief whip. Cameron is there to echo the pronouncements of the PM on the great issues of state, and to ensure that he gets his way in parliamentary divisions by delivering votes.

You wonder why Tony Blair doesn’t cross the floor and be done with it. If you were a conspiracy theorist, which of course I am not, you might have wondered wither Tony Blair has been a kind of Tory mole all along. It’s difficult to see how be could have made his departure more protracted and damaging to Labour if he’d tried.

Will Brown be able to put the party back together again? Restore discipline, provide vision and leadership? Inspire and enthuse a party which has lost the will to govern if not the will to live? Possible, but it’s beginning to look like lost cause. British voters don’t favour divided parties. A house divided is a house defeated.

The chancellor of course is a towering intellect and one of the greatest politicians of his age, as he’ll no doubt demonstrate in his last ever Budget this week. But is looking old and tired. He has compromised himself on many of the key issues that are causing his party to disintegrate – like Trident which he supported.

On issues such as defence, Brown is going to have to find some way of addressing the moral revulsion at the renewal of this system.

My own view is that Brown may, in future, try to restore moral legitimacy by seeking to decommission Trident as part of the 2010 round of nuclear non-proliferation talks. I see no evidence that Brown is interested in nuclear weapons for their own sake. Since there are no targets for this Cold War weapon system, designed to cause massive civilian casualties, it would be a logical step to stop sending the boats to sea.

This could be used as an inducement to other countries to disarm. I can’t help thinking that Brown would like to take a moral lead on nuclear disarmament, if he ever gets the chance.

But then, what do I know. No one can see in to the mind of Broon – a brooding enigma wrapped in a mystery. As on so many issues, the nuclear cards are held very close to the chancellor’s chest. There is now a very real possibility now that they will stay there, and Brown will take his secrets to the political grave-yard.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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