Labour has accused the Tories of ‘playing games’ over the future of Trident after Defence Secretary Michael Fallon revealed there would be no Commons vote on renewal until after May’s elections.
The Ministry of Defence had been planning to stage a vote before Easter but Mr Fallon has admitted that it is now “unlikely” in the current Parliamentary session, which is expected to end in late June.
Mr Fallon also revealed that any Commons vote would not be on “a single main-gate” decision to go ahead with the £41bn procurement project, but would instead be on the “principle” of renewal of the nuclear deterrent.
With Labour MPs set to split over the issue, critics have long suspected that Downing Street wants to delay the showdown to maximise their opponents’ divisions during the party’s defence review taking place this summer.
Shadow Defence Secretary Emily Thornberry is due to deliver her interim report on Trident and alternatives by June, and Unite has its policy conference in July.
She told The Huffington Post UK: "In one breath, Michael Fallon says that the renewal of Trident is of paramount importance for our national security. In the very next, he says he is having to fight for Parliamentary time, and only wants yet another decision in principle, rather than the maingate decision he has previously promised.
"It is yet more proof that - for the Tories - the debate on our future nuclear deterrent is not about national security, but just an excuse to play petty politics."
With little Parliamentary time due after the EU referendum in June, a Commons vote could now even be postponed until after Labour’s annual conference in September, when the issue is set to explode as rank-and-file unilateralists back Jeremy Corbyn and Labour MPs insist on renewal.
Many of the thousands of Labour members who swept Mr Corbyn to his landslide in the Labour leadership contest last year are fully behind his drive to replace Trident with cheaper alternatives that take the UK a 'step down the nuclear ladder'.
The Labour leader last week addressed a CND anti-Trident rally in London, sparking disquiet among several Labour MPs worried about the impact on the party's reputation among marginal seat voters and on defence jobs.
Labour divisions over the issue are also being exploited by the SNP and the Tories in the run-up to May’s Holyrood elections and Mr Fallon will address the Scottish Tory conference tomorrow with a £136m contract for new submarines being built in Scotland.
Labour's only surviving Scottish MP, Ian Murray, has previously insisted that the party could have different policies on renewing Trident north and south of the border.
Mr Fallon told the Daily Record that the Trident vote had slipped. “We have to fight for parliamentary time and the current session is ending so it is unlikely to be in this session,” he said.
He also confirmed the vote will be only on the ‘principle’ of Trident, not a so-called “main-gate” decision. “We don’t envisage one single main-gate decision, because that would reduce our bargaining position with the supply companies,” he said.
The Defence Secretary told the Record that a single "main-gate” decision on Trident was no longer necessary because expenditure was approved in the Commons Estimates, Parliament’s annual budget.
A Labour source told HuffPostUK: "This proves what we've been saying for some time: the Tories are more interested in playing politics than dealing seriously with the UK's defence."
Labour MP John Mann today also seized on the shift in position.
So Fallon and Cameron playing games with UK defences. If they are still in jobs by then of course https://t.co/1MFyx5XVdN— John Mann (@JohnMannMP) March 3, 2016
Last week, deputy Labour leader Tom Watson urged the Government to get on with the Commons vote and revealed he had offered his support to David Cameron to back renewal.
Speaking to the GMB, many of whose workers in the defence industry are relying on the massive new contracts to build four Successor nuclear submarines, Mr Watson made clear he and other Labour MPs would defy Mr Corbyn.
“There are enough Labour MPs to guarantee that the vote is won. I know the PM is currently pre-occupied with the European Referendum but I happen to believe that the sooner this vote is tabled, the greater certainty we can give to industry, our allies and our enemies, that British Industry will deliver the Trident project in good time.
“I have made it clear to David Cameron that if he honours his promise of a vote on Trident I will support it.”