HC Deb 09 July 1996 vol 281 cc163-5
7. Sir Michael Neubert

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what recent representations he has received in support of Britain's independent nuclear deterrent. [34903]

Mr. Portillo

The contribution made by the United Kingdom's independent nuclear forces to overall deterrence and security in Europe continues to be widely recognised, including by our North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies.

Sir Michael Neubert

Was my right hon. Friend as surprised as I was to read recent reports that the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Foreign Secretary have suddenly become strong supporters of Britain's independent nuclear deterrent? Does not the picture of former members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament thrusting forward to put their finger on the nuclear button strain credulity to breaking point?

Mr. Portillo

I confess that I am at a complete loss to understand it. I do not know why the Leader of the Opposition was a determined opponent of nuclear weapons while we faced the Soviet Union, but is now strongly in favour of them. I do not know why the Leader of the Opposition has not seen fit to give the House an explanation of his change of view. My hon. Friend is too generous to the Opposition: as I understand the position, the Leader of the Opposition is in favour of pushing the button, the defence spokesman has said clearly that he would not be in favour of pressing the button and the shadow Foreign Secretary has said that he is glad that the decision would not be for him. If a decision were to be made by a Labour Cabinet, the Prime Minister of that Labour Government would be in favour of using the nuclear option, the Defence Secretary would be against it and the Foreign Secretary would leave the Cabinet Room to wash his hands.

Mr. MacShane

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the Ministry of Defence is in talks with the French Ministry of Defence about nuclear collaboration? Can he further confirm that British war planes will fly down the Champs Elysées on Sunday to salute the French revolution and its slogan of liberty, equality and fraternity? Many people in this country are glad that the Ministry of Defence is the most pro-French and pro-European Ministry—in practice, if not in rhetoric.

Mr. Portillo

I am pleased to find that the French have the most pro-British Ministry of Defence. President Chirac has again and again paid compliments to British armed forces, to the defence costs studies, to the way that we have gone about reforming our armed services. He has said on a number of occasions that he wishes to remodel the French forces with an eye on the professionalism of the British forces. There is a good deal of admiration in this country for French forces; we admire them very much and we co-operated with them in Bosnia. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the feeling is mutual.

Mr. Bill Walker

Does my right hon. Friend agree that not only have we won the argument about retaining a nuclear capability based on the Clyde in Scotland, where CND used to practise its marches and other activities, but we have demonstrated clearly that the Labour party is divided on the issue, defence is unsafe in its hands and it is unfit to govern?

Mr. Portillo

We won not only the argument, but the cold war. We would not have won the cold war had we followed the policies of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which were supported by hundreds of Opposition Members and by the Leader of the Opposition. If today in eastern Europe hundreds of millions of people enjoy freedom and if today in Russia people are voting for their Government in a democratic state, those hundreds of millions of people enjoying those freedoms owe nothing to the Labour party.

Mr. Spellar

Does the Minister agree that Complete and general nuclear disarmament remains a desirable and ultimate goal"? [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah!"] It appears that one or two Conservative Back Benchers do not recognise those words, which are probably familiar to the Minister; they are from the Conservative Government's Defence statement in 1994. Does he accept that Labour policy clearly states that a new Labour Government will retain Trident and that we will press for multilateral negotiations towards mutual balanced and verifiable reductions in nuclear weapons? Is not it about time that he stopped trying to score cheap party political points and put the national interest first?

Mr. Portillo

The British Government will continue to observe their obligations under article 6 of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which are to pursue in good faith measures towards nuclear disarmament.

The hon. Gentleman failed to tell me two things during his intervention. He failed to correct my impression, which is that the defence spokesman is not in favour of using nuclear weapons if it were necessary for the defence of this country, and that he did not commit himself to replace the Trident nuclear deterrent. So we have had only a limited amount of movement from the Labour party, and it is now time for Labour to come clean on the rest of its policy.

Mr. Duncan Smith

Is not one of the key reasons for retaining and upgrading our nuclear weapons the real problem of the threat of nuclear proliferation, which, despite the fact that we have a treaty, is going on? Does he agree that what divides us from the Opposition is the fact that we will say to any potential enemy, "We are prepared to use these. Dare you at your own risk?" whereas they would say to a potential enemy, "We are not sure whether we might use these. Dare you? We are not sure. We might pack it in first"?

Mr. Portillo

My hon. Friend is right. We have moved out of a cold war into an era when many dangers could be presented to this country and to her allies. This is not a time to lose nerve or to send uncertain signals. We have always made perfectly clear the fact that we have a nuclear deterrent, and that that means that, ultimately, we would be ready to use it in the defence of our country and of our allies.

The message that comes from the Labour party, which purports to want to form a Government, is that now the Leader of the Opposition says that he is in favour of the nuclear deterrent—who can believe him when he has been against it for 10 years?—that the defence spokesman is against the nuclear deterrent and that the shadow Foreign Secretary is merely pleased that it is not his decision to take. What sort of signal does that send about Britain's determination?