Labour backbenchers will step up the pressure on Jeremy Corbyn over Trident by publishing a “myth-busting” report backing the case for building a new generation of submarines to house Britain’s nuclear deterrent.
As David Cameron prepares to call a vote on the renewal of the system, Labour’s backbench defence committee will argue that there are no plausible alternatives to a full-blown replacement of Trident.
“As the Trident renewal vote gets nearer, this extensive study informed by leading pro and anti figures will hopefully help Labour colleagues expose the myths from critics who have been busy inventing new reasons to oppose the programme,” said the committee’s chair, John Woodcock.
The shadow defence secretary, Emily Thornberry, a known Trident sceptic, was commissioned by Corbyn to carry out a review of Labour defence policy. She is due to deliver an interim report in late June after the EU referendum, to feed into a wider international policy commission. That commission will report in turn to Labour’s national policy forum.
Corbyn, a longtime anti-nuclear campaigner, is thought to regard shifting his party’s position on the issue to be a key aim of his leadership. Backbench Labour MPs, many of whom are critical of their leader, chose Woodcock, whose Barrow constituency houses the shipyards where the submarines would be built, as the chair of their defence committee.
He and his vice-chair, Christine Crawley, have held public hearings with witnesses, including former defence ministers and technology experts. The report aims to pre-empt Thornberry’s, by knocking down many of the arguments she has mooted, including the idea that underwater drones could eventually make nuclear submarines detectable.
It also takes aim at Corbyn’s idea, which he voiced in an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr in January, that new submarines could be built – saving jobs in Barrow and elsewhere – but that the warheads could be left off them, calling it “unilateral disarmament by the back door”.
The idea of building three submarines instead of four – the minimum number needed to maintain a continuous at-sea deterrent – would, the report claims, “reduce UK security and credibility without making significant savings”.
He argued that if a vote was called soon, the Labour leadership should stick to the position rubber-stamped by the party’s annual conference last year, and whip MPs to back the renewal of Trident, a decision originally made by the Labour government.
Given Corbyn’s stance on nuclear weapons, Woodcock, a former aide to Gordon Brown, said the leader could “absent himself” from the vote. “This report shows why there must be a three line whip in favour of the renewal programme we started in government, with Jeremy Corbyn given special dispensation to be absent from the Commons on the day of the vote,” he said.
That view is echoed by the pro-Trident trade union the GMB, which represents many of the workers at Barrow. Its national political officer, Cath Speight, is co-chair of Labour’s international policy commission, which will consider Thornberry’s review, after Ken Livingstone was forced to step down from the role when his party membership was suspended after he was accused of making antisemitic remarks.
Sources close to Corbyn said with Thornberry reviewing Trident and the potential alternatives, as part of a foreign policy commission which will feed into the party’s national policy forum, the leader considers the party’s policy to be under review. The source added: “No decision has yet been taken, but all whipping decisions are up to the leader.”
Corbyn’s allies argue that there is no need for the government to call a so-called “main gate” vote giving parliamentary approval to the construction of the new generation of submarines, as a number of votes have already underlined MPs’ support for the plans.
The prime minister, whose Tory party has been riven over Europe in the run-up to the referendum, is thought to be keen to exploit Labour divisions over the nuclear deterrent, having recently accused Thornberry of being “anti-defence”.
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