Until now the party’s policy affirmed by its conference has been to support a “continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent” but the leadership is to argue that the position has changed since a review of defence policy that began on Friday.
Asked whether Labour is still in favour of renewing Trident, the aide said: “Labour has a policy, which is in review and that gives it a special character.
“The policy is in review and if there is a vote in parliament, depending on how it is framed, there will then be a decision about how to deal with that,” said the senior source.
“But Jeremy Corbyn has made clear repeatedly that it is going to be an open process and all differences will be respected in the shadow cabinet and the whole party and the whole parliamentary Labour party.”
The view is likely to antagonise pro-Trident Labour MPs. Tom Blenkinsop, Labour MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, immediately responded: “He can say what he likes, but he doesn’t speak for the party. September 2015 conference set policy and [it] is quite clear.”
He also contradicted the idea that it was Corbyn’s responsibility to decide the party’s policy on any parliamentary vote on Trident, tweeting: “Er no it isn’t. Back in your box.”
Last week, Jonathan Ashworth, a shadow cabinet minister, asserted the primacy of the position decided by the party conference in an interview with the TV programme Daily Politics. “The position of the Labour party, the manifesto we fought the last election on and what we call in the rule book the party programme is to support a continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent.
“That is the position of the Labour party … We will have to have a discussion. We know that Jeremy feels very strongly about the issue and people have to respect his mandate but from a Labour party policy rule book point of view, the policy of the Labour party is to support a continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent and that can only be changed by a two-thirds vote at the party conference.”
Jeremy Corbyn is not able to change the party’s policy-making process before its next conference in the autumn but arguing that the status of the policy is undecided will make it easier for him to oppose the government’s plans for renewal of Trident when there is a vote in parliament, possibly as early as the spring.
There were also strong hints that Corbyn would allow a free vote of shadow cabinet ministers during a parliamentary vote on renewing Trident, as the aide said there would be “no need for anyone to resign over anything”.
He said the position of the frontbench on the Trident vote, if it happens, would “ultimately a matter for the leader”.
Corbyn is strongly opposed to the renewal of Britain’s Trident programme. However, he faces a battle within the party because the major trade unions are worried about the loss of jobs if it is scrapped and more than half of the shadow cabinet are in favour of supporting the programme.
Over the weekend he floated a possible compromise involving construction of the submarines without nuclear arms on them, which was mocked by David Cameron in the House of Commons on Wednesday.
In response to suggestions that Labour’s policy had been inspired by the Beatles song Yellow Submarine, Cameron said: “There is a comic element to sending submarines to sea without missiles but, in fact, it is absolutely serious because the deterrent has been on a cross-party basis an absolutely key part of our defence and making sure we have got the ultimate insurance policy, which we support on this side and we should vote on in this house.
“All I can say, when it comes to Beatles songs, I suspect the leader of the opposition prefers Back In The USSR.”
However, Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, who published the report looking at the reasons for Labour’s election defeat this week, dismissed the splits within the party about Trident.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Some of this conversation, frankly, is going to be irrelevant by the time of the next election because major decisions about Trident will have been made.”
This article was written by Rowena Mason Political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 20th January 2016 19.56 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010