We must fight the next election on defence and expose Labour’s dangerous position on Trident
With Corbyn a lifelong pacifist and opponent of the UK strategic nuclear deterrent, Conservative MPs might want to rethink the judgment that there are no votes in defence, writes Julian Lewis MP
Working at the Conservative Research Department in the 1990s, I came across some striking opinion poll findings: if a group was asked to choose which of the two main parties it trusted more on particular policy areas, it gave widely differing answers according to the various subjects considered.
Two policy areas stood out, above all: on health the Labour party was hugely more trusted than the Conservatives, and on defence the Conservatives were hugely more trusted than Labour. Yet, these were the very same people whose trust in each party varied so markedly according to which policy area was presented to them. From this it followed that a general election prominently featuring defence rather than health would be far more likely to result in a Conservative victory, and vice versa.
In other words, it is better to fight on your strongest ground, and your opponents’ weakest, rather than the reverse. Indeed, the truth of the theory had already been demonstrated in the 1983 and 1987 general election campaigns. Michael Foot’s and Neil Kinnock’s one-sided nuclear disarmament pledges had been central to both and had helped to deliver landslide victories for Margaret Thatcher. Unilateralism was Labour’s electoral albatross.
Conservatives should be doing more to highlight defence. It still ought to be their strongest subject, especially since the installation of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader – much to the consternation of many moderate Labour MPs.
Jeremy is a lifelong opponent of the UK strategic nuclear deterrent. He joined the unilateralist Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) over 50 years ago, subsequently serving as its vice-chairman until appointed as a CND vice-president in October 2015. That happened a month after he won the Labour leadership election.
Most Labour MPs strongly supported the renewal of our Trident submarine fleet when, on 18 July 2016, the Commons approved it by a massive 355-vote majority. Nevertheless, their own leader has made it absolutely clear that – regardless of Labour’s official policy to keep the nuclear deterrent – he as prime minister would never allow any of its missiles to be launched.
Having debated this subject with Jeremy many times, both inside and outside Parliament, I have no doubt of the depth and sincerity of this commitment. Consequently, there can be no mystery at all about the contents of the letters he would write to the commanding officers of our four Trident submarines, to be opened if a nuclear strike against the United Kingdom wiped out the government.
Another general election is not far away, though the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act may delay it longer than we like. When it arrives, the ‘internal contradiction’ of Labour’s nuclear weapons policy (as the Marxists might say) will become lethally clear. The official opposition will campaign to keep an ultimate deterrent which cannot deter anyone who knows that its leader has set his face against nuclear retaliation to nuclear aggression.
Too many Conservatives have convinced themselves that there are no votes in defence – a self-fulfilling prophecy if they insist on allowing the next election to be fought on Labour’s ‘strong-ground’ issues, rather than their own.
We are living in an age of Russian revanchism which has already led to territorial seizures from non-NATO states. When the Defence Committee visited Estonia recently, we were told in no uncertain terms that a similar land-grab would have happened there, but for the deterrent effect of NATO membership.
In the case of Brexit, we see Parliamentarians struggling to reconcile their own opinions with a previous pledge to accept the referendum result. It is an internal contradiction, and internal contradictions bring chaos.
Where the nuclear deterrent is concerned, decent dedicated pro-defence Labour MPs will face another one. They will be asked: “what was the point of voting to renew the Trident deterrent fleet – Labour’s official policy – when your own leader is utterly determined never to let it retaliate to a nuclear attack on our country?”
I wish them luck in finding a credible answer.
Julian Lewis is Conservative MP for New Forest East and chair of the Defence Committee