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Thursday, 3 May, 2001, 14:17 GMT 15:17 UK
Cook denies missile defence U-turn
President Bush with US servicemen after his speech
Bush's plan - no backing yet from UK
Foreign Secretary Robin Cook has insisted no decision has yet been made on whether to support America's 'Son of Star Wars' missile defence plan.

But answering an emergency question in Commons, he said the government "warmly welcomed" the promise by US president George W Bush to consult European allies on the project.

Robin Cook
Robin Cook will meet US delegation
On Wednesday - less than an hour after Tony Blair had sidestepped questions on the scheme in the Commons - the prime minister's official spokesman told journalists it was a "good idea".

Shadow foreign secretary Francis Maude told MPs on Thursday that the House should feel "extremely angry that it has been treated this way".

Mr Cook said the government looked forward to meeting a US delegation next week to discuss missile defence.

Mutual confidence

"We also welcome the commitment to dialogue with Russia to develop a new co-operative relationship based on openness and mutual confidence," he added.

Mr Cook praised Russian President Vladimir Putin for his concern about the threat of missiles from "rogue states" and President Bush's commitment to cut the number of American nuclear weapons.

Neither the technology for missile defence or the "diplomatic context" of its use had yet been decided by Washington, the foreign secretary insisted.

Asked by Mr Maude to repeat the words of the prime minister's spokesman, he added: "I do think it is a good idea that the US president is able to say to the US people that they are secure against ballistic missile attack."


In noisy Commons exchanges, Mr Maude said: "Yesterday the prime minister deliberately equivocated when questioned on the subject here.

"Not 10 minutes later his official spokesman [Alastair Campbell] said that missile defence was a good idea.

"The House is entitled to feel extremely angry that it is treated in this way."

He demanded that the government should speak with "a single authoritative voice" to the Washington delegation.

Alastair Campbell
Alastair Campbell: Missile defence "a good idea"
"How otherwise can Britain expect to have influence either with America or with our European partners?" asked Mr Maude.

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell said: "There is a substantial difference between what the prime minister told the House and what his spokesman told journalists.

"It is highly unsatisfactory that a change of emphasis in policy should be revealed in this way."

Nothing inevitable

Mr Cook denied there was a difference of emphasis, and quoted from a note of Mr Campbell's comments to journalists in which he said "nothing was inevitable".

Veteran Labour anti-nuclear campaigner Tony Benn told MPs that the UK found it impossible not to support the US defence policy as its own nuclear deterrent was supplied by America and relied on its satellites to function.

He said the government was being cautious before the general election because of "widespread opposition at the threat of an arms race that could include this country.

National missile defence (NMD) has sparked international concern and raised fears the UK could be turned into a missile target.

To work, the system may need radar bases in Britain, such as Menwith Hill in North Yorkshire.

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See also:

01 May 01 | Americas
Bush backs missile defence
01 May 01 | Americas
Hurdles for US missile defence plans
01 May 01 | Americas
Bush's missile defence diplomacy
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