Top British civil servants are quoted as telling Washington that the U.K. would renew the Trident nuclear deterrent, contradicting the Prime Minister.
The London embassy sent a secret cable back to Washington last autumn reporting conversations with the two civil servants, Richard Freer and Judith Gough, in which they cast doubt on the significance of Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s announcement at the U.N. general assembly that Britain might cut the number of planned new Trident submarines from four to three.
It is not clear from the cables whether or not the Britons were speaking to the Americans on Mr. Brown’s authority. In the dispatches, U.S. embassy officials describe them as “HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] sources” and mark that their identities should be protected.
Mr. Freer is one of London’s most influential officials and now a member of the present Prime Minister, David Cameron’s, small team of private secretaries at Number 10 Downing Street.
According to the leaked cables, U.S. anxiety about the future of Britain’s Trident missiles followed Mr. Brown’s speech at the U.N. in September 2009 on global nuclear disarmament.
In London, Mr. Freer and Ms. Gough told the Americans that Mr. Brown’s words came as a surprise to them because there was no actual change of British nuclear policy under way. There would continue to be “no daylight” between the U.S. and the U.K. on the existing £20 billion Trident replacement scheme, the Americans were assured.
One U.S. dispatch, classified “secret... noforn”, meaning only for American eyes, says: “[Brown’s] announcement of a proposed fleet reduction caught many in the MoD, FCO [Ministry of Defence, Foreign and Commonwealth Office] and Cabinet Office by surprise.” It continued: “Dr Richard Freer (strictly protect) head of defence and security policy ... told Poloff September 23 that ‘in an ideal world we’d have done a bit more pre-vetting [of the speech]’ One of Freer’s Cabinet Office deputies was blunter, separately telling Poloff that the announcement was ‘unexpected’ ...
“Both Freer and Judith Gough (strictly protect), deputy head of the security policy group at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, stressed to Poloff that HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] has not formally decided to scale back the deterrent but would only do so if a government defence review determines, in Freer’s words, that it would be ‘technically feasible’ to maintain ‘continuous deterrence patrols’ with three submarines ...
“Freer criticised media for exaggerating the significance of Brown’s announcement, opining that it was ‘not really a major disarmament announcement’” The cable added: “Julian Miller, the deputy head of the foreign and defence policy secretariat at the Cabinet Office, assured the political minister counsellor September 24 that HMG would consult with the US regarding future developments concerning the Trident deterrent to assure there would be ‘no daylight’ between the U.S. and U.K.” A Foreign Office spokesman refused to say on Wednesday whether or not the two officials had authority to talk to the U.S..
U.S. concern about the future of Trident had first surfaced a few weeks earlier, before Mr. Brown’s speech to the U.N., when British media carried unattributable political briefings which suggested the Labour government intended to defer crucial Trident replacement decisions.
The nuclear-armed French, like the Americans, initially believed this news was significant, with one French official telling the U.S.: “The U.K. is starting to seem really convinced that disarmament is possible, since it may abandon its Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile programme.” In Paris the French were so upset that they protested to U.S. diplomats that Labour ministers were acting like “demagogues”. Mr. Brown’s stance that nuclear weapons in general were immoral was, by implication, threatening “an essential part of French strategic identity”, they complained.
British civil servants gave the U.S. reassuring information, saying that the hints of disarmament were confined to the Cabinet Office.
The U.S. charge d’affaires, Richard LeBaron, told Washington that Ms. Gough had also named the British official behind the off-the-record media briefings. “Judith Gough (protect) ... told Poloff July 21 that the unnamed official who had briefed the press was Simon McDonald, the Cabinet Office head of foreign and defence policy. She said that press reports about HMG plans to defer Trident replacement design work ‘came as news’ to FCO and MoD officers ...
“Diana Venn (protect), an officer in the Cabinet Office’s foreign and defence policy secretariat, told Poloff July 23 that there had been a ‘slight misunderstanding’ when McDonald briefed the press. She stressed that ‘Trident is not on the table ... we won’t disarm unilaterally.’” The new Conservative administration is described as pro-Trident in the dispatches. “Conservative party defence sources have privately affirmed to embassy officers their commitment to the Trident deterrent,” diplomats cabled before this year’s election, which brought the Conservatives to power as the senior partner in a coalition government.
The coalition government’s current public position is that a Trident replacement decision is being deferred for several years, past the next general election.
Trident missiles are leased from the U.S. The cables detail how Britain’s submarines, which carry the missiles with nuclear warheads, depend on “substantial American design assistance”.