Page last updated at 19:39 GMT, Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Is this end of Trident debate?

By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

Tony Blair may have survived a sizeable backbench revolt and won the day over replacement of the Trident nuclear deterrent, but few believe this will be the end of the matter.

Trident submarine
Mr Blair won the vote to replace Trident
And many on the Labour benches resent the fact that, for the second time on a piece of contentious legislation, the prime minister has relied on Tory votes to get his way.

Close to 100 of his own MPs refused to be swayed and voted against his policy of replacing Trident - the second largest revolt since the Iraq war vote four years ago.

On the way to the votes, three junior government members resigned in protest at the policy.

And frantic attempts to limit the size of the rebellion appear to have had little or no real effect.

The vote came after an eleventh-hour letter to MPs from Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett and Defence Secretary Des Browne suggesting the issue would be addressed again in the future.

And the prime minister underpinned that during question time when he said it would remain open to a future Parliament to decide whether or not to put out contracts for new submarines to carry the Trident missiles.

Tory votes

The remarks were all seen as part of the campaign to appease rebels to minimise the size of the revolt. Whips were also said to have given parliamentary private secretaries permission to abstain without facing the sack.

But, even so, it was clear there was going to be a sizeable rebellion and that the prime minister was going to rely on Tory votes just as he did with controversial education reforms last year.

Anti-trident protesters
Protests have greeted government policy
That will leave a bitter taste for some on the Labour benches who were already angry, believing they were being rushed into an unnecessarily speedy decision by an overly eager prime minister.

Many were equally unhappy that Gordon Brown had emphatically supported the policy.

The last thing Mr Brown wanted was for this battle to mar the early days of his premiership - assuming he takes over from Tony Blair later this summer.

Out of power

Mr Blair's decision to press ahead with the vote - something he appeared keen to do as part of his legacy - appears to have removed that threat even though the issue is likely to return in a few years' time.

Few issues can divide Labour so instantly or comprehensively as this one and the party spent much of the 1980s with a unilateralist manifesto which, it is claimed by New Labour politicians, helped keep them out of power.

During the latest debate, party bosses often abandoned attempts to argue the case for and against Trident with rebels, resorting instead to warning them of the dangers of a return to those days.

In the end the opponents were left able to claim the government may have won the vote, but had failed to win the argument.

They will certainly want to ensure this is not the last time they get their say.

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