The crucial moment of this year’s Labour conference came not via a speech or indeed anything that happened inside of the hall. It occurred in an interview Jeremy Corbyn gave to the BBC yesterday morning. When asked, if he were prime minister would he ever use nuclear weapons, he gave a straight answer: “No”.
It was so defining because as he said it, I could imagine it appearing on Tory leaflets already. If Britain is attacked, PM Corbyn will not protect you. If Jeremy Corbyn becomes prime minister, it will give every other nuclear power licence to attack the UK with impunity, should one of them choose to do so. All of that will be overblown and not exactly what Jeremy said. He said “No” to the question because as someone with an abhorrence to nuclear weapons, he can’t imagine ever using them, ever. But it has left a huge stick for the Tories to beat him with nonetheless.
The problem that Corbyn doesn’t seem to get is this: nuclear weapons aren’t really expected to ever be used by anyone – they are supposed to be a means of deterring others from using theirs. So thus, if you have nuclear weapons and then you say to the world, “Well, I have these things but I’m never going to use them, even if someone drops a bomb on Manchester” then they aren’t really a deterrent anymore. I get that Jeremy doesn’t want to renew Trident and so he thinks having said deterrent isn’t important anyhow, but there really, really is no point in having it if you are announcing to the world you’ll never use it.
I recall having a meeting with someone senior in Ed Miliband’s team pre-election on the subject of Trident renewal. He told me in no uncertain terms that any whiff of Labour not supporting full renewal would be politically unthinkable. Now look at how far we’ve moved away from that in less than half a year: we have the leader of the Labour Party saying on BBC radio that not only does he not support Trident renewal, if he were prime minister he would effectively nullify the nuclear deterrent just by being in Number 10 anyhow.
It is hard to say just how large a gift this is for the Tories. Imagining what the reverse equivalent would be is actually quite difficult. The leader of the Conservative Party saying he plans to solve Britain’s poverty problems via mass executions for those earning under a certain threshold comes close. Corbyn has simply massively underestimated how vulnerable British people feel in an era of Russian revanchist tendencies and the Middle East situation getting worse by the day. I never thought he had a shot at Number 10 before – now I know he doesn’t for sure. Whatever else he does from here, he’s the guy who should he find himself prime minister would effectively end Britain’s nuclear deterrent. It’s a politically fatal place to be.