The future of the Trident nuclear weapons system is hanging in the balance after a junior defence minister confirmed that the final decision on its renewal could be delayed until after the next general election.
Addressing the Liberal Democrats' party conference, Nick Harvey said that the “main gate” decision to spend billions of pounds on new nuclear submarines could be postponed from 2014 until 2015.
But this option would still see the coalition government spending money on initial procurement prior to that date.
Harvey's words were welcomed by conference delegates, but are likely to disturb the party's coalition partners in the Conservative Party. The Tories are firmly committed to Trident replacement, while the Liberal Democrats agreed to go along with it as part of the coalition agreement, on the understanding that their MPs could abstain.
Harvey's words follow an overwhelming vote at the Liberal Democrat Conference yesterday (22 September) in favour of including Trident in the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). The coalition has agreed to exclude it from the Review.
The issue had originally been excluded from conference debate but was inserted into the agenda as an emergency motion.
The motion was proposed by the new MP for Cambridge, Julian Huppert, who said he would “scrap Trident today” if it were up to him. No-one spoke against the motion.
Harvey spoke in favour, as did Liberal Democrat peer Shirley Williams. Ironically, Williams left the Labour Party in 1981 partly because her own support for nuclear weapons contrasted with Labour's then anti-nuclear position.
But Williams yesterday described Trident renewal as “ludicrous”. She told the conference that when Tory Defence Secretary Liam Fox said cancelling Trident would wreck the “special relationship” with the US, he had clearly forgotten that George Bush is no longer president and that Barrack Obama is working for a nuclear weapons free world.
Two speakers referred with concern to jobs that could be lost at Barrow-in-Furness where the Trident submarines are made, but both said that the priority should be for Liberal Democrat ministers to press for proper retraining and redeployment for the skilled workforce at the site.
The vote was enthusiastically welcomed by Kate Hudson, General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. She said, “This conference has made clear that Liberal Democrat principles will not be swept aside and they will make full use of their right to pose alternatives to Trident replacement, up to and including disarmament”.
She urged Liberal Democrat ministers to “vigorously pursue the outcome of this motion to ensure Trident is indeed included in the Strategic Defence and Security Review”.
Alarm is already apparent amongst Conservatives. Tory MP Julian Lewis has predicted that Liam Fox would rather resign than allow a delay to Trident renewal. Fox has previously described opposition to the ownership of nuclear weapons as "national self-loathing".
Developments could now depend in part on the result of the Labour Party leadership election, which will be announced on Saturday (25 September).
The only candidate to oppose Trident is Diane Abbott. But Ed Miliband, one of the two candidates thought to have a good chance of winning, has suggested that Labour should vote for Trident to be included in the SDSR, allying with Liberal Democrat MPs to defeat the Conservatives. But the favourite, David Miliband, appears to have ruled out this option.
The Green Party, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party all oppose the retention of nuclear arms by the UK government.