Share on FacebookShare on WhatJeremy Corbynhas suffered a major blow to his authority after a bid by the Labour leadership to force a vote on the renewal of the Trident nuclear programme was overwhelmingly rejected at the party’s conference.
Hours after the opening of the event in Brighton, Britain’s largest trade unions and the party membership spurned a call by Corbyn to allow the conference to hold a debate and a vote on whether Britain should renew Trident.
In a severe embarrassment to Corbyn, who won the support of the main trade unions in the leadership contest, his call for a debate on Trident was supported by just 0.16% of the trade union vote. The support among constituency Labour parties was little higher at 7.1%.
Shadow cabinet members, who had earlier welcomed a signal by Corbyn that he would allow a free vote on Trident, were scathing about the new leader’s conference debut. “Chaos and confusion rule the day,” one frontbencher said.
Another senior figure said: “Delegates did not feel they wanted the party to have to debate such a divisive issue. Common sense has prevailed.”
The decision to spurn a debate on Trident, which came hours after Corbyn had told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show he would like the issue to be debated, shows that the new leader’s room for manoeuvre will be severely limited. His deputy chief of staff, Anneliese Midgley, had lobbied members of the conference arrangements committee (CAC) to include the motion under the headline “Britain’s defence capability” on their priorities ballot for contemporary motions that are debated at conference.
Tom Watson, the deputy leader, who supports the renewal of Trident, is understood to have urged caution in recent days on such a divisive issue. Watson made clear where his priorities lie when he made a rallying cry at a lunchtime fringe meeting for Labour to campaign more passionately and effectively against the government on austerity.
Corbyn had tried to give himself some room for manoeuvre in his BBC1 appearance by joking that he could not dictate to the agenda in Brighton. He said: “Sadly, the Labour leader has no dictatorship over the conference arrangements committee or anything else. I think probably there are going to be a series of alternatives put there and we will see what happens.”
But he made it clear that he hoped to have a debate. He said: “I hope to persuade them that a nuclear-free world is a good thing, that fulfilling our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and promoting a nuclear weapons convention is a good thing. They are all signed up to multilateral disarmament, by the way.
“There are many people, military thinkers, who are very concerned and indeed opposed to Trident because they don’t see it as part of modern security or defence, because they don’t see any situation in which Trident would become an option you would think about using.”
The rejection of a debate and vote on Trident means that Labour is still officially committed to renewing the deterrent. This means that shadow cabinet members who favour its renewal, led by Watson and the shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, will say they have the right to vote in favour of Trident.
This suggests Trident will be renewed when MPs are asked to vote on the “maingate” decision next summer, possibly in June. The combination of centre-ground Labourfigures such as Watson and Benn and the vast bulk of Conservative MPs would provide enough votes to defeat Corbyn if he joins forces with the SNP’s 56 MPs to oppose Trident.