27 February 2017

Those two impostors

When the Sunday Times ran an exclusive on 22 January 2017 about a Trident missile having “experienced an alarming failure after being launched from a British submarine off the coast of Florida in June last year”, they went into the “What did they know, and when did they know it?” mode much-beloved of investigative journalists. Readers of the story, which derived from “a senior naval source”, were told that
The incident happened shortly before Theresa May became prime minister but she omitted any mention of the failed test when she persuaded parliament to spend £40bn on new Trident submarines in her first big Commons speech on July 18. The revelations are likely to cause a political storm. MPs will want to know why such important information … was withheld …
As Cameron remained PM until 13 July, this line was not exactly supported by
The source had told this newspaper that the test took place at the end of June – about the time of the Brexit vote on June 23.
or by a story in The Times the next day, US urged Britain to keep Trident blunder secret:
Officials from the Obama administration asked David Cameron’s government not to comment on the malfunction during a test of the Trident nuclear deterrent in June, it is understood.
The Sunday Times returned to their story on 29 January, sticking with “the serious malfunction [having] been covered up by Downing Street” but shifting the emphasis to “problems with the gyro within Trident’s guidance system” and US documents, backed up by “A source close to the US military”.

Neither of the Sunday Times reports made anything of the closeness of the British Trident test (actually on Monday 20 June – see below) to the date of the EU Referendum. A post here last year looked at the opinion polling in the days leading up to the Referendum and any impact of the death of Jo Cox MP and suspension of the campaign on Thursday 16 June. Parliament was recalled on 20 June and campaigning resumed the following day. At this point Remain seemed to be doing better in the polling than hitherto, or as it turned out, on the day.

The Sunday Times’s political editor, Tim Shipman, has written in depth about the Referendum in a highly-regarded book, All Out War.  At the end of a chapter on the aftermath of Cox’s death, he records:
… Another senior figure in the campaign described Jo Cox’s death as ‘a disaster’ for Stronger In: ‘That weekend , I bet the papers would have splashed on a five-point Leave lead in the polls, and I think on Monday and Tuesday the markets would have crashed. We would have had a cycle which was much closer to Scotland. Actually it took the sting out of the campaign. It meant that the bounce back to the status quo never really happened. That was something we were banking on happening”. 
Cox’s death also meant Mark Carney’s final intervention on the day of her killing received almost no publicity. ‘He was just wiped off the news agenda, and that was devastating from our point of view’, a Tory source said. … (page 388)
The next chapter of Shipman’s book deals with the final ‘Great Debate’ of the campaign held at Wembley on Tuesday 21 June. By then the news of the test failure would have reached Whitehall - which raises an interesting point: what effect, if any, the news might have had on the campaign.  In so far as it could appear to the public as being a loss of face for the government and the prime minister, it might have been considered as unhelpful to the Remain side and even as undermining its authority. 

Two other, albeit less intriguing, points about timing lurk in all this. Firstly, if the story didn’t break surface last summer soon after the event, why should it emerge in January, seven months later? Perhaps it should be noted that President Obama’s period of office ended on Friday 20 January and the new Trump staff in the White House would have had no interest in responding to The Times’s story on Monday 22nd, if they were even aware of it.

Following the Sunday Times story, a Labour MP, Kevan Jones, put down an Urgent Question on 23 January:
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the test firing of a Trident nuclear missile in June 2016.
The Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, responded:
In June last year, the Royal Navy conducted a demonstration and shakedown operation designed to certify HMS Vengeance and her crew prior to their return to operations. It included a routine unarmed Trident missile test launch. Contrary to reports in the weekend press, HMS Vengeance and her crew were successfully tested and certified as ready to rejoin the operational cycle. We do not comment on the detail of submarine operations, …
Lines which he continued to take in response to questions. Another MP, John Spellar (Labour Minister for the Armed Forces, 1999-2001), asked:
Will the Minister confirm that in Lord Hennessy’s book “The Silent Deep” there is a full description of a previous firing?
Spellar could have asked the book’s author who must have been in Westminster, for later the same afternoon in the House of Lords, Earl Howe, Defence Minister, repeated the statement Fallon had made earlier (although the words “In June last year” were replaced by “On 20 June”) and Lord Hennessy would speak:
My Lords, I declare an interest in that I witnessed the launch in question from the survey vessel two and half miles away from where the missile came out of the sea. I put it to the Minister, with great respect, that it would make it much easier for those of us who very powerfully support the independent deterrent, and the building of the four “Dreadnought” submarines in the successor class, to make the case generally in the country when we are interviewed in the media if the Minister could assure us that a full analysis has been successfully made of whatever went wrong—I have no knowledge at all of the nature of what went wrong—and that remedies have been put in place. I understand that every particle of a D5 missile is riddled with the highest security classifications, but in this case, such an assurance could be possible and would be very welcome.
Earl Howe replied:
My Lords, the most important assurance is the one that I have already given: this is a system in which we have absolute confidence. It has never been the practice of government to give Parliament details of submarine operations or of the systems and subsystems that are tested during a demonstration and shakedown operation. But I hope I have said enough to reassure noble Lords about our deterrent and its reliability.
Peter Hennessy, as well as witnessing the June 2016 launch, had been present at launches in May 2009 and October 2012 (The Silent Deep, page 638). By yet another near coincidence of timing, the paperback edition of his book had come out on 2 June 2016. The Submarine Service seems to have embraced Hennessy as warmly as the civil service used to in the days when his books on Whitehall would admiringly recount how “down these mean corridors a man must go”. But perhaps he shouldn’t book his flights to Florida for 2020, say, too soon, in view of Fallon’s response to Spellar’s question above:
… I have already made it clear that, of course, earlier Governments in different circumstances took different decisions not to share details with Parliament, but to release information publicly about the completion of tests. We have to take our decision in the light of the circumstances that prevail at the time and the national security considerations.
And if 2020 turns out to be the next year a British submarine tests a Trident missile, do not expect it to take place before 7 May!

Fallon must have been left wishing that in the past others had adopted the reticence implied in Kipling’s advice:
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster  
And treat those two impostors just the same

No comments:

Post a Comment