By Paul Goodman
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"Well, gentlemen, I see we have a good gathering tonight," said side-burned Forth, like a teddy boy relishing a dust-up with some mods at the local disco. "I think we ought to have a discussion of what this group believes in. I must say I always thought we believed in lower taxes, locking up more criminals and standing up for Britain. But now I am told we stand for something called REACHING OUT! He shrieked the words with melodramatic disgust."
This morning's account in the Times (£) of a "dinner table plot to unseat the coalition" turns out to be the second subtantial leak from the No Turning Back Group - the right-of-party-centre backbench dining club of Conservative MPs of which I was once a member. The first is chronicled in loving detail in Simon Walters's romp, Tory Wars, and I quote from the words of the late, great Eric Forth - whose attack on Michael Portillo opens the account. (It followed Portillo's speech to the Conservative Conference in 2000.)
Over ten years on, how fortunate we are that these contentious issues have been put to rest!
A word on the Times's story and the NTB itself. The Times refers to some MPs “chuntering” about a leadership contest. If that's all that took place, what took place wasn't a "plot" - so the headline is a bit out of proportion. The Times mentions the idea of a "mandate referendum" to precede the In-Out one to which David Cameron is committed. There's no great mystery about whose idea that is. It's Davis's. We know that because...he set it out publicly at a ConservativeHome conference last autumn.
Finally, note the names quoted in the Times story: Davis, Redwood, Liam Fox, Bernard Jenkin. Chris Grayling. These names are those of very senior MPs. The report also says: "it is understood that about a dozen MPs were present". If that's right, it sounds like a gathering consisting almost entirely of senior and older MPs. I wonder if the NTB is replenishing its membership. At any rate, no member of the 2010 intake, which now constitutes half the Parliamentary Party, is quoted in the story.
When I was a member of the NTB in the last Parliament, about 20 or so MPs would turn up regularly, including John Baron, Mark Harper, Jonathan Djanogly, Andrew Turner, and Angela Watkinson. Clubs of Tory MPs spring up all the time - for example, the Free Enterprise Group, which gave very public advice to Osborne earlier this week - and the more established ones must renew themselves to stay at the cutting edge. One thing's certain: the NTB will this morning be undertaking a leak enquiry.
By Matthew Barrett
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The annual newspaper index report by Hanover Communications into media coverage of MPs shows that 12 of the top 20 most-mentioned politicians are Conservatives. The index, which measures newspaper coverage over the last year, shows few Labour frontbenchers have media profiles, with only Ed Balls and Ed Miliband featuring in the list.
I list below the top twenty politicians and the number of mentions they received:
By Matthew Barrett
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Yesterday, the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond announced plans to bring the Territorial Army - or Army Reserve, as it will be known in future - up to the size and standard of a more professional level than the reputation the TA has sometimes had as being "weekend soldiers". He also announced more benefits for employers of soldiers who chose to serve with the Army Reserve. These are all ideas suggested by the Duke of Westminster, which I wrote about last month. The proposals for strengthening the role and duties of reservists was, mostly, met with a positive reception by Conservative MPs. Below are some of the best contributions to yesterdays' statement.
Former Defence Secretary Liam Fox wanted Philip Hammond to learn from international examples of reservist forces:
"Dr Liam Fox (North Somerset) (Con): I very much welcome the creative and supportive way in which my right hon. Friend set out the Government’s approach to the reserves. Will any legislative changes be required to guarantee that reservists can be used for the full range of military tasks? As part of the consultation, will the Government make available to the House the experiences of how other countries incentivise employers? Other countries, particularly the United States, have a much better record than most of being able to use reservists in a full range of tasks and ensuring that they have a full range of promotional opportunities."
Liam Fox is MP for Woodspring and a former Defence Secretary
weekend sees the celebration of Trafalgar Day. Two hundred and seven
years ago this week, Nelson finally managed to engage the French and
Spanish fleets decisively in battle. That victory off the Cape of
Trafalgar would ensure British dominance of the world’s oceans for a
century and, in securing our trade routes, the rise of Britain to the
global power it is today with the world’s fourth largest defence budget.
Almost 100 years after the Act of Union, Nelson’s fleet was a British fleet with sailors drawn from all corners of the United Kingdom. Amongst them was Scotsman, Captain George Duff, a celebrated commander within Nelson’s Navy and entrusted with a key part in Nelson’s plan to finally force the Combined Fleet in to battle.
By Paul Goodman
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Even the most cursory glance at today's ConHome newslinks demonstrates that Philip Hammond had a torrid time in the Commons yesterday. I think it is worth listing a selection of the questions he was asked from his own backbenches, and I hope and believe that the one below is representative of those asked.
Readers will see that only one question was supportive, and it came from Peter Luff, who was recently dismissed from the MOD during the reshuffle. (The Defence Secretary will be grateful to Mr Luff for rallying round, especially since he was apparently expected to stay in the department: it was another curious dismissal.)
I have edited Mr Hammond's replies in order to keep this summary reasonably brief, and I think and hope, again, that the result is not unfair to him. The full Hansard record is here. Paul Waugh reports elsewhere that Rory Stewart, who knows more Afghanistan than any other MP, forced William Hague to admit yesterday that 75% of attacks on our troops are not by the Taliban.
Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay): "This announcement threatens to blow a hole in our stated exit strategy, which is heavily reliant on these joint operations continuing until Afghan forces are able to operate independently and provide their own security following ISAF’s withdrawal...What is our mission in Afghanistan? Clarity is required. If we are remaining true to our original mission of eliminating al-Qaeda from Afghanistan, should we not now be doing more to encourage the Americans to conduct non-conditional talks with the Taliban in order to explore possible common ground?"
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Philip Hammond): "I am clear that the mission we are carrying out in Afghanistan is to protect Britain’s national security by denying Afghan space to international terrorists. That is our mission, and that is the mission we will complete."
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East): "The reason why, in opposition, the shadow Defence ministerial team opposed naming an advance date for withdrawal was the fear that the Taliban would redouble their efforts in the run-up to that date. Given that we are where we are with such a date, is it not obvious that a move towards a strategy of maintaining one or more long-term strategic bases in Afghanistan would show the Taliban the need to negotiate a solution and a settlement? Without that, it will not happen."
Hammond: "I can tell the House that the UK Government have no appetite for a long-term combat role in Afghanistan, and have made it very clear that we will be out of the combat role by the end of 2014."
Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): "The Secretary of State made the welcome comment that the international forces wished to lower their profile at a time of trouble, but then he seemed to imply that that applied only to American forces. What action has been taken to protect British forces? What is the approach to their having to co-operate with people who may intend their death, and would he not move more quickly to Afghans policing dangerous places in Afghanistan?"
Hammond: "There is much evidence that there is a much lower risk where long-term partnering arrangements are in place—in other words, where a group of troops are working with a group of Afghan troops on a daily basis—and much more risk where these partnering and mentoring activities are on an ad hoc basis, so that relationships are not built."
Dr Liam Fox (North Somerset) (Con): "Mentoring is one of the most important ways in which we have increased the capability of Afghan forces, and the Secretary of State has made it clear today that the instruction from ISAF in Kabul will not alter the British relationship to partnering. Does he not recognise, however, that the nuances between tactics and strategy can be lost on insurgents, and that the timing of this is unfortunate, so we must redouble our efforts to make it clear to the forces of terror that they cannot push our strategy off course?"
Hammond: "Of course my right hon. Friend is absolutely right: this is the crucial message that needs to be sent to the insurgents."
Mr James Arbuthnot (North East Hampshire) (Con): "My right hon. Friend said that the new measures announced by ISAF were prudent but temporary. In what respect are they temporary? In what respect can they be?"
Hammond: "General Allen has indicated that he intends to review the order in the light of the evolving security environment, and to return to normal operations, as he described it, as soon as possible."
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): "Will my right hon. Friend comment on the fact that American soldiers who are mentoring seem to be slightly safer than our junior NCOs, young officers and soldiers, because they are not right on the front line? It worries me a great deal that we continue to allow our solders to go right to the front line, where they are seemingly in greater danger than their American colleagues."
Hammond: "I do not accept that our soldiers are in greater danger, but it is the case that our model differs from the American model, in that it includes routinely mentoring at company, or tolay, level. That is the model that we have deemed most effective."
Peter Luff (Mid Worcestershire) (Con): "The Secretary of State has made it commendably clear that it is in our vital national interest to stick to the strategy that has been set in Afghanistan. When it comes to the security of British troops, does he take comfort from the words of Brigadier Bob Bruce, who will be leading the 4th Mechanised Brigade in its forthcoming tour of Afghanistan, who has said that we are sending to Afghanistan“the best prepared and the best equipped…Task Force the United Kingdom has ever put into the field?"
Hammond: "I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been a stalwart supporter of the policy and the strategy, which, as I have emphasised this morning, has not changed."
Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con):
"The Secretary of State mentioned earlier that a motive for the attacks
was the despicable video that was published on the internet. Does he
agree that another motive, which I have mentioned to both him and the
Secretary of State for International Development, is the use of drone
strikes, which have killed nearly 1,000 civilians in Pakistan and a
higher number in Afghanistan? Does the Secretary of State not agree that
we urgently need to look at reviewing the use of drone strikes, which
is considered on the front page of The Times today?"
Hammond: "The use of unmanned aerial vehicles to carry out strikes is continuously reviewed, but I do not believe there is any need for a wholesale change to the current approach, which is that UAVs will be used where they are the most appropriate way to execute a particular operation."
A section of the Defence Secretary's statement that particularly caught my eye was another part of his answer to Dr Fox:
"As I said yesterday, the stepping up of these insider attacks is, in fact, a reflection of the success of partnering and mentoring operations."
Given the rising number of green-on-blue killings, I'm not sure that this is an argument I would have used. The chart below is from the Guardian.
Their view in a nutshell is that Afghanistan cannot be transformed into a western-style liberal democracy and that British military commitment to it should be minimal.
By Matthew Barrett
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My series profiling the backbench groups of Tory MPs has so far mainly featured groups founded or mostly composed of 2010 intake MPs. Last time, I looked at the Thatcherite No Turning Back group, founded in the 1980s. This week's group is somewhere between the two. The Cornerstone Group is the main group whose defining mission is to represent socially conservative Members of Parliament. The group was formed in 2005, and presented some challenges for David Cameron's leadership. In this profile, I'll see how the group is doing now.
Origins of the group
Cornerstone was founded by Edward Leigh and John Hayes, who still chair the group. Leigh has been the MP for Gainsborough since 1983, and is a former Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department of Trade and Industry, who was sacked for his opposition to Maastricht, and John Hayes, who has been the MP for South Holland and the Deepings since 1997, and the Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning since 2010.
Cornerstone admired the work done during Iain Duncan Smith's time as leader to promote a more communitarian, Burkean conservatism, and wanted to ensure IDS' work on this front was carried on.
When the group launched formally in July 2005, it released a pamphlet, which criticised Michael Howard's election campaign for being too quiet about tax cuts, public service reform and family values. Strongly condemning the personality politics and liberalism of New Labour, Leigh wrote:
"We believe that these values must be stressed: tradition, nation, family, religious ethics, free enterprise ... Emulating New Labour both lacks authenticity and is unlikely to make us popular. We must seize the centre ground and pull it kicking and screaming towards us. That is the only way to demolish the foundations of the liberal establishment and demonstrate to the electorate the fundamental flaws on which it is based."
The group first exerted its influence during the 2005 leadership contest. A group of about twenty Cornerstone supporters interviewed David Cameron, David Davis and Liam Fox. Fox apparently put in the best performance, while David Davis was, reportedly, not able to take criticism well. This meeting, combined with David Davis' alienating stint as the Minister for Europe under Major, and Davis' reluctance to support Iain Duncan Smith's compassionate conservatism programme wholeheartedly, is thought to be why many Cornerstone supporters first voted for Fox, and then switched to Cameron.
By Matthew Barrett
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In my series profiling groups of Tory MPs, most groups I've looked at have been mostly or wholly composed of 2010 intake MPs. The next group is bit different, as it was founded more than 25 years ago. The No Turning Back group has a proud history of celebrating and promoting Thatcherism. How is the group doing now? In this profile, I'll be examining what No Turning Back, the backbench group for Thatcherites in Parliament, is doing now.
Origins of the group
No Turning Back was founded in 1985 to defend Mrs Thatcher's free-market policies. The 25 founding members included, amongst others, now-Deputy Chairman Michael Fallon, now-Defence Minister Gerald Howarth, and the late, great Eric Forth.
The name of the group comes from Mrs Thatcher's famous conference speech given in October 1980:
"To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the “U” turn, I have only one thing to say. “You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning.” I say that not only to you but to our friends overseas and also to those who are not our friends."
There are about 100 members of the group, which is chaired by John Redwood, including "quite a lot" from the 2010 intake. Members include such big beasts as John Redwood, David Davis, Bernard Jenkin, Peter Lilley, Lord Forsyth, and Liam Fox. Current Conservative officeholders who are members of the group include the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith; David Cameron's PPS, Desmond Swayne; Nick Clegg's Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Mark Harper; the Minister of State for Transport, Theresa Villiers; a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, Jonathan Djanogly; three government whips, Angela Watkinson, Mark Francois and Greg Hands; the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, Greg Knight; and the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, John Whittingdale, who was Mrs Thatcher's Political Secretary in the late 1980s.
By Joseph Willits
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Yesterday was Phillip Hammond's first opportunity to answer defence questions. Hammond's address to Parliament also followed a recent, first trip to Afghanistan, where the Defence Secretary marked Armistice Day with 3,000 British troops at Camp Bastion. Whilst in Afghanistan, Hammond said:
''British troops are making significant progress in Helmand to rid the country of a brutal insurgency that is a threat to our country and the people of Afghanistan."
In Parliament yesterday, Hammond echoed the remarks he made at Camp Bastion, describing the "fantastic job" and "progress" British troops are "making both in reversing the momentum of the insurgency and in training the Afghan security forces to defend their own country". Hammond's assessment was that "the security situation in central Helmand has improved" and that improvements had been made in the capability and numbers of British trained Afghan national security forces.
Hammond was asked by Nicholas Soames MP, if he had come to a decision about "which particular areas we will specialise in training Afghans after 2015". In response, the Defence Secretary reiterated Cameron's "commitment that Britain will take the lead role in the Afghan national officer training academy" just outside of Kabul, which hold responsibility for training the "bulk of officer recruits to the Afghan national security forces".
By Paul Goodman
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As I've written before, I didn't get to know Liam Fox well during my ten years in the Commons. Our paths didn't cross during the 2001-2005 Parliament, and I voted for David Davis as leader during the next one (which didn't exactly draw us closer). He ran a bright, sharp, effective campaign during that contest, made a punchy speech at Party Conference, and was unlucky not to make it into the final ballot - where Team Cameron definitely didn't want him. I've always thought he is a jaunty, fluent professional with authentic Conservative views, and a real doctor to boot, with a real interest in such unfashionable matters as mental health. If anyone could claim to be the leader of the right in Cabinet, it was probably Liam Fox.
He has just made a personal statement to the Commons, and it was a model of how to get a message across. In this case, its emotional core was that although he resigned "without bitterness or rancour" he has recently experienced "vindictiveness and hatred". That this is a mixed message goes without saying, and the stress inevitably fell on the last part of it - which, as Fox will have known in advance, is what reports of his statement will lead with. Talking of stress, the former Defence Secretary looked shaken by recent events: almost anyone would be. It is astonishing that the first Defence Secretary to resign since Profumo is this consummate politician - on-message enough to have chosen a bright blue tie for his appearance.
Fox emphasised that no breach of propriety or national security has been found, but that he accepts personal responsibility for his mistakes. He attacked uncritical reporting of the claims of Harvey Boulter; praised his family and friends, paid due tribute to David Cameron and didn't mention Adam Werritty. But he did say that "you don't turn back on family and friends in times and trouble". Love and friendship matter to nearly everyone, loyalty counts politicians in a particular way, and Fox clearly values it very highly. What brought him down was carrying into Government a private support network that should have ended with opposition - an astounding lapse of judgement. I hope he is able to come back to office in future stronger for having learned from his mistakes.
“I am pleased that the report makes clear that the two most serious allegations, namely of any financial gain sought, expected or received by myself and any breach of national security, have no basis. As I said in the House of Commons last week, I accept that it was a mistake to allow the distinctions between government and private roles to become blurred, and I must take my share of the responsibility for this.
“More care should have been taken to avoid the impression that anyone other than Minsters and Officials were speaking on behalf of the Government, as this was not the case. Although there were no actual conflicts of interest I acknowledge that in order to avoid any possible perception of this, all private interests should have been fully declared to the Permanent Secretary.
“I welcome the recommendations in this report which will provide greater clarity for Ministers, officials and private individuals in the future.”
By Paul Goodman
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Here is the Defence Secretary's statement, and below are questions from Conservative MPs with his answers. It's worth noting that Fox went out of his way to disagree with former serviceman Kris Hopkins - who features in Gazette this morning - that the incident was a dark day for the army as a whole, rather than for the individuals responsible. Ministers usually strive to avoid disagreeing with colleagues on the floor of the Commons, and Fox is an extremely skilful performer in the Chamber. That he felt he had to make the distinction reflects its importance to him (and I think he was right).
By Paul Goodman
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We will have a proper look at the Hansard list after it's published, but in the meantime it's worth noting that Iain Duncan Smith, Liam Fox and Owen Paterson supported the amendment in the lobbies earlier this afternoon.
These are probably the three leading representatives of the right in Cabinet, and their united presence is bound to be noted. A senior source told me earlier that at least two of them - Duncan Smith and Paterson - spoke in advance. Fox indicated in advance that he'd probably support the amendment.
PoliticsHome (£) has an intitial reckoning here.
Earlier today in the House of Commons, Liam Fox clashed with his opposite number after The Sun revealed the sacking of 38 long-serving soldiers via email and, yesterday, The Telegraph reported that a quarter of the RAF's trainee pilots were to be "culled".
Dr Liam Fox MP, Secretary of State for Defence: "As a result of the strategic defence and security review and the comprehensive spending review, it has, sadly, been necessary to plan for redundancies in both the civil service and the armed forces. At all times this should be done with sensitivity to individuals concerned, and with an understanding of the impact that it will have on them and their families. There are two recent cases in which this has not happened. Let me deal with them both.
by Paul Goodman
So much happens in the Commons that isn't picked up by the media. If you want the core of the Government's view of the present position in Afghanistan, here it is - as presented to the House yesterday by Liam Fox, in the latest of the regular and very welcome quarter reports.
"In central Helmand, as General Petraeus has said, we have not yet seen success or victory, but we are seeing progress. It is fragile and not irreversible, but it is progress. The increase in Afghan and ISAF forces has enabled us to take the fight to the insurgency and, understandably, this has led to an overall increase in the number of violent incidents. But over the past three months, although the number is still higher than in previous years, we are seeing a trend of falling security incidents. For example, in the Marjah district of Helmand province, security incidents have fallen from a high of around 25 a day at the height of summer to just three or four a day at present. There is a seasonal pattern, as many insurgents, especially those fighting for financial rather than ideological reasons, return to their homes for the winter. This year, however, with the unusually mild weather and with winter arriving late, and the increased activity by ISAF and the Afghan national security forces, the fall in the number of incidents is more likely than in previous years to be an indicator of progress. However, I have to say to the House that casualty numbers are once again likely to rise in spring this year as insurgent activity increases.
This year will be just as difficult as 2010, but there will be distinct differences. The increased number of ANSF and ISAF forces allows us to arrest the momentum of the insurgency in more areas. Afghan forces will also begin to take the lead for security as the first districts and provinces begin the process of transition. There are now over 152,000 Afghan national army and 117,000 Afghan national police. This is on schedule to meet the October 2011 growth target to deliver 305,600 Afghan national security forces. But as the quantity increases, quality must not be neglected. One example is improving literacy to ensure that orders can be communicated in writing as well as orally, so that there is less scope for misinterpretation. Currently, around 85% of ANSF recruits are illiterate on entry. Literacy training is now mandatory for all recruits. The training is to be conducted by Afghan teachers, creating employment and boosting the economy, and significant progress is being made."
I wrote recently about the difficulty of trying to create a strong central state in Afghanistan, and asked whether an effective Afghan army would be in place by 2015. Adam Holloway, who I cited in my article, returned to these points, as did others. It's well worth noting the tone of the questions -
Mr Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): There are many Afghans outside the ruling clique who believe not only that the exit strategy will not work in the long term, but that it is fatally flawed and in fact cannot work. General Petraeus's strategy has been described as "Fight, then talk". Does the Secretary of State think that we ought to be fighting and talking, and that this should include talking to all modes of the insurgency?
Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, and particularly for his last few words on involving the international players around Afghanistan in a final settlement. Can he say more about who will lead the political settlement around which we hope stability will be maintained as British and American troops withdraw later in this decade? May I point out that cautious optimism represents painfully slow progress 10 years after this war started, and that a lasting settlement is possible only if there is a political settlement that involves talking to our enemies?
Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): I also recently visited Afghanistan and can testify to the excellent job that our armed forces are doing in carrying out their duties. I do not believe that the same can be said of President Karzai or Members of the Afghan Parliament, and this is not just a capacity or knowledge issue: there is also too little focus on human rights and the quality of life of the Afghan people. Does the Secretary of State agree that we must address the political deficit, to ensure that in the long term the blood and treasure that this country is spending for the benefit of both our countries will not be in vain?
Not a single questioner expressed confidence in the political (as opposed to the military) strategy.
By Jonathan Isaby
At yesterday's Defence questions, the Tory MP for Watford, Richard Harrington, sought Liam Fox's assessment of Iran's potential nuclear capability.
The Defence Secretary replied:
"Iran does not yet have nuclear weapons as assessed. However, it continues to pursue uranium enrichment and the construction of a heavy water research reactor, both of which have military potential, in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions. We share the very serious concerns of the International Atomic Energy Agency about Iran not having adequately explained evidence of possible military dimensions to its nuclear programme. We will therefore respond accordingly."
"I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, but in the light of recent comments by Meir Dagan, who recently retired as the head of Mossad, about Iran's first nuclear weapon possibly being ready by the middle of this decade, will he make a statement on how the Government intend to proceed in their approach to Iran's nuclear programme?"
"My hon. Friend raises perhaps one of the most important questions at the present time, which is: how do we assess Iran's intentions and how do we assess the time scale? Despite his long experience, I think that Mr Dagan was wrong to insinuate that we should always look at the more optimistic end of the spectrum. We know from previous experience, not least from what happened in North Korea, that the international community can be caught out assuming that things are rosier than they actually are. We should therefore be clear that it is entirely possible that Iran may be on the 2012 end of that spectrum, and act in accordance with that warning."
An exchange then followed with Julian Lewis, a Tory defence spokesman in opposition, whcih raised the subject of Trident:
Dr Julian Lewis: What sort of signal does it send to Iran and other hostile would-be proliferators that our nuclear deterrent could be put at ransom in the event of another hung Parliament, as a result of our not having signed the key contracts and the hostility towards the replacement of Trident evinced by the Liberal Democrats?
Dr Fox: The Government remain committed, including in the coalition agreement, to the renewal of our nuclear deterrent. As I am sure my hon. Friend would expect, I will be campaigning to ensure that the next Parliament is not a hung Parliament, but one in which we have a majority Conservative Government.
The issue of Trident was then revived later in the session by a couple of Liberal Democrat MPs: