Lobby ship unions over Trident, Philip Hammond tells ministers

Defence secretary’s move follows warning that support across parliament for £80bn renewal is beginning to wane

Philip Hammond has told his defence ministers to privately lobby the shipbuilding unions because of concern within government that Labour MPs are turning against Ed Miliband’s decision to back plans to replace the Trident nuclear deterrent.

According to a number of Westminster sources, the defence secretary decided to make the unusual move after junior ministers warned him that parliamentary support for the £80bn Trident renewal was beginning to ebb, particularly on the Labour backbenches.

Senior Tory MPs have recently voiced doubts about the wisdom of replacing Trident and the Liberal Democrats are committed to finding alternatives.

Defence officials confirmed that Hammond told his junior ministers, including Mark Francois and Lord Astor, that they needed to lobby Labour’s union supporters within the shipbuilding industry to stop the party going soft on the issue.

“The Tories don’t want Labour having a wobble on this,” said one Whitehall source. “Hammond clearly doesn’t like what he has been hearing.”

Another source added: “Ed Miliband would be insane to reopen the Trident debate before the election. But everyone knows there are a number of MPs in his party who are not behind him on this.”

Labour said Hammond should “keep his nose” out of the party’s affairs.

“He would be better off spending his time trying to sort out of the mess he has made of the Ministry of Defence budget. Ed Miliband has made clear his commitment to replacing Trident.”

Neither of the main parties wants Trident to become an issue at the next general election, but the huge cost of building four new submarines to provide “continuous at sea deterrence” has led senior MPs across Westminster to question whether the country can afford such a commitment at a time of continued austerity.

The money for the successor submarines will come out of the already stretched MoD budget, which is still under huge pressure, despite tens of thousands of civilian and military redundancies.

The Tories were shaken when James Arbuthnot, their former defence minister, who is now chair of the defence select committee, revealed that recent cuts had encouraged him to speak out about his own doubts about Trident renewal. “Nuclear deterrence does not provide the certainty that it seemed to in the past. It’s not an insurance policy, it is a potential booby trap,” he said.

Hammond was warned that the mood in Labour was also divided and that some in the party were calling on the leadership to adopt a more neutral stance.

There have also been rumours sweeping Westminster – denied by Labour – that members of the shadow cabinet have been pushing for a change in posture.

Hammond suggested intense lobbying of the Keep our Future Afloat group, which campaigns for the future of ship and submarine building at Barrow-in-Furness, in Cumbria.

The group is part-funded by the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions. This alliance includes Unite, which is Labour’s largest donor, having raised almost £800,000 in the three months to last September, and the GMB, the third …read more