Jeremy Corbyn has faced criticism from senior Labour colleagues for saying he would not fire Britain’s nuclear weapons if he were prime minister.
Shadow defence secretary Maria Eagle said the words were “not helpful”, while shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn said Mr Corbyn should abide by the party’s decision on renewing Trident. In answer to some criticism on the matter Mr Corbyn said nuclear weapons “didn’t do the USA much good on 9/11”. He added that he was elected leader on a platform opposing Trident renewal.
Prime Minister David Cameron said Mr Corbyn’s comments showed Labour could not be trusted with Britain’s national security.
As it turns out it’s one of the first questions that new prime ministers face — and one of the most chilling. Tony Blair is said to have been “very quiet” when asked, and few of the country’s top brass are willing to reveal their answer. At least Corbyn answered the question, the fact he would not use nuclear weapons is unlikely to come as a shock — he was Vice Chair on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s 2014-15 council after all and until recently chair of StopTheWar Coalition.
The incoming premier is usually tasked with writing the four “letters of last resort” within a few days of taking office. The letters contain the PM’s instructions of what to do in the worst-case nuclear scenario: the obliteration of the UK state. Unused letters are destroyed without being read: the weightiness of the decision, perhaps, being offset by the fact that no-one will ever know what one chose except in the most desperate circumstances.
Only one prime minister has said his decision on the record: Jim Callaghan.