Britain, the Prime Minister will be pleased to learn, once had a nuclear weapon named the Tony. (It was a prototype warhead to be fitted to the Bloodhound surface-to-air missile, tried in the 1950s but never developed.) The record books of our great nation’s early nuclear experiments also yield something called the Peter (appropriately enough, a trigger device for a larger explosion) but, alas, no Alastair, no Gordon (though there was, perhaps in anticipation of the late Robin Cook, another prototype unhappily christened the Pixie).
The first-generation Tony, produced by trench-coated chaps with soldering irons in a collection of sheds just off the A340, was reassuringly cheap. Hidden under a thick 1950s bedsheet of secrecy, it was also free from specific public controversy. The new generation of nukes now being planned by Mr Blair — the Tony II — will be neither.
Officially, of course, ‘no decision has yet been taken’ to replace Britain’s existing Trident ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) system, as the Prime Minister and his Defence Secretary, John Reid, continue to insist whenever they are asked. Last month, indeed, Mr Reid called for the nation to begin a ‘debate’ on the subject. But, in truth, the non-decision on a successor to Trident enjoys the same status within government as, say, the non-decision to invade Iraq did in the latter half of 2002.
During the election campaign, in one of those classic forked-tongue promises increasingly treasured by collectors, the Prime Minister proclaimed: ‘We have got to retain our nuclear deterrent. That decision is for another time. But I believe that is the right thing.’ He used a similar form of words in the Commons last week. The public can have all the debates it wants. But within Whitehall the only debate remaining is exactly what form the new system will take, and the only ‘decision for another time’ is when to lift the curtain and reveal it to the public.