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U.K. government under pressure over nuclear missile test misfire

The U.K. government is under pressure to answer questions about an alleged cover-up of a failed Trident missile test that happened just one month before parliament voted for a £40 billion ($50 billion) renewal of the nuclear deterrent.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • A report in the Sunday Times details a failed test of the Trident missile system that took place in June 2016. The test was of an unarmed Trident II D5 missile – fired from the HMS Vengeance located 5,600 miles off the coast of Florida – and intended to hit a sea target off the coast of Africa. A senior naval source told the paper that the missile “veered off in the wrong direction toward America.”


  • Downing Street and the Ministry of Defense issued a joint statement confirming the test took place but notably failing to deny the claims made in the Sunday Times report. “In June the Royal Navy conducted a routine, unarmed Trident missile test launch from HMS Vengeance, as part of an operation designed to certify the submarine and its crew.”

  • The timing of the test failure is critical. It occurred just one month before the Commons voted by 472 to 117 to back a £40 billion renewal of Trident. This raises serious questions as to whether Theresa May — who took over as prime minister in the meantime — knew about the test failure before she gave a speech in the Commons seeking support for Trident.

  • May was asked four times in an interview on Sunday if she had known about the failure of the test before she gave that speech. She avoided answering the question, simply saying she had “absolute faith” in the system.

  • Downing Street later said that the prime minister was informed of the failed test when she took office:

  • Greg Clark, the business secretary, told the Today program that the government never talks about nuclear tests — successful or not — but as the BBC’s political editor points out, this has not always been the case:

  • The opposition Labour party has called for answers about the possible cover-up surrounding the misfire. Leader Jeremy Corbyn, who voted against any Trident renewal in July, called the failed test “a catastrophic error” and has called for a “serious discussion” about the issue. His party colleague and shadow chancellor John McDonnell said it was “extremely worrying” that Parliament had not been told about the test, while Labour’s shadow defense secretary Nia Griffith has called on May to give a “full explanation” to MPs.


  • Others are suggesting the fault lies with the previous administration. Conservative MP Julian Lewis, who chairs the the Commons defense committee, placed the blame squarely on former Prime Minister David Cameron:

“In fairness to the present prime minister, one has to accept that she has been dealt a rotten hand because this matter, the decision to cover it up, if there was such a decision, as appears to be the case, was taken in the dying days of the Cameron administrations when spin doctors were the rule in Number 10 Downing Street,” Lewis told the BBC’s “Today” program on Monday.

  • The Scottish National Party, which voted en masse against the Trident renewal due to its base being located in Scotland, has called for “full disclosure” of who knew about the misfire and when they knew.

  • Kate Hudson from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament criticized the U.K. government, despite no warhead being used during the test: “This is a very serious failure of the Trident system and there’s absolutely no doubt this would have impacted on the debate in Parliament on Trident replacement. The government’s motivation for holding back this vital information is therefore clear.”