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Mr. Cook: The answer to the last point is that President Bush himself has said that the United States is constrained

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by the ABM treaty. After all, that is why he is seeking dialogue with Russia and why we are urging both sides to find a way in which they can go forward.

In reference to the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks, at risk of wearying the House by repeating what we have already said, that is precisely what the Prime Minister said yesterday and what I have said today. This is an issue that we are obliged to look at. We will look at it responsibly. We will look at it with the national interest in mind, unlike the Conservative party, which is looking at it irresponsibly and without the national interest in mind.

Mr. Ivan Lewis (Bury, South): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the decision is of immense strategic importance to this country, that party politics has no part to play in such a decision, which is related to the national interest, and that the British people would expect a responsible Government to wait for the detail of any such proposals before reaching a decision that will have wide-ranging implications not only for this country, but for the international community?

Mr. Cook: I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. Those members of the public who are watching this exchange can make up their own minds as to which side is engaged seriously in the issue and which side has treated it as a matter of levity and party prejudice. They can also resolve for themselves whether it makes more sense to know firmly what we are being asked to answer or to give the answer now, whatever the question may be, as Conservative Members are doing.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that, once upon a time, this nation gave facilities to the Americans to bomb Libya and that the people in the United Kingdom who paid the highest price for that bombing were the people of Northern Ireland, who suffered because a large number of weapons were imported from Libya? Given that such consequences flowed from that decision, can we have an assurance from him that this country will fall well within any protective umbrella should missile defence be created?

Mr. Cook: I cannot give the hon. Gentleman such an assurance at present. Indeed, it would be odd if I were able to do so, given that there is no precise missile defence system yet proposed by the United States. However, I can assure him and the House that, obviously, that issue will be a major factor in consultations that we have over the coming months.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): The Foreign Secretary has already said that we are not party to the ABM treaty, but does he agree that we were a vital party to the nuclear non-proliferation review conference last year at which it was agreed that maintaining and strengthening that treaty was part of the agreement to which all the countries involved signed up? Surely, therefore, we have an important interest in ensuring that missile defence does not undermine the whole non-proliferation and arms control regime.

Is not it vital that the United States engage in discussions not only with Russia, but with China and other countries? Should not we consider the suggestion made by the Secretary-General of the United Nations that we

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should call a conference of all countries, including those that are not party to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, to discuss how best to reduce the risks of nuclear weapons?

Mr. Cook: I fully agree with my hon. Friend's support for the text of the NPT review conference. Indeed, the British Government were influential in securing the agreement on that text. Our problem is that the countries of greatest concern in relation to the proliferation of missile technology are outwith the NPT regime. I absolutely agree with him that if we could strengthen that regime by bringing those countries into it, a lot of the tension and anxiety would be removed from the United States' debate. We can all continue to press those countries to sign up, and to point out to them that if they do not do so, there will unavoidably be consequences. However, the United States has to take account of the countries that have not signed up, and continue to develop the means of missile delivery of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

None of that is inconsistent with the further cuts in nuclear offensive missiles to which we committed ourselves in that text, and I welcome the fact that President Bush's speech on Tuesday repeated that commitment on behalf of the United States. I hope that he will be able to take it forward through bilateral dialogue with Russia.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): Are not the divisions in the Labour party and the hard left anti-defence lobby that sits on the Benches behind him the real reasons why the Foreign Secretary will not say whether he, in principle, favours missile defence?

Mr. Cook: I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government will take a collective decision when the time comes, in which we will all participate. The reason that we are not saying now what our answer will be when we are asked a question is that we are in government, we are responsible and realistic, and we want to know what the question is first. The fact that Conservative Members are prepared to answer the question without knowing what it is demonstrates that they do not really ever expect to be in government.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton): Can I tell my right hon. Friend how welcome his reaffirmation is of the Prime Minister's position, as set out in the House yesterday? Will my right hon. Friend also join me in condemning the Conservative party for once again showing its knee-jerk enthusiasm for as yet non-existent proposals purely and simply for electioneering purposes?

Mr. Cook: I do not think that anybody studying the text of these exchanges or watching them this afternoon will come to the conclusion that a single thing has been said by Conservative Members that would enhance the security of Britain, or strengthen the security of her alliance.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Does the Foreign Secretary recall--on the day on which he is possibly making his last outing as Foreign Secretary--those happy, carefree times when he used to describe it as nonsense on

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stilts for Britain to pretend to be a nuclear power? Does he recall his reactions when the American President of the day originally proposed ballistic missile defence? Will he accept the sympathy of those Conservative Members who have consistently supported nuclear deterrence for his position now, as he finds himself attacked from his own Back Benches by people who stick to the views that he used to stick to but has now abandoned? Does he realise that many of us understand why he has recently taken to lowering his voice when he answers these embarrassing questions?

Mr. Cook: I am happy to say to the hon. Gentleman that I can resist the temptation to accept his sympathy in any circumstances whatsoever. I invite him to reflect on the proposal that I understand him to be supporting, which is that we should support missile defence. Will he reflect on the fact that missile defence is a clear statement that the many people in the United States who support it no longer have the faith in nuclear deterrence in which he still seems to be mired?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Is my right hon. Friend aware that Bush got elected with the help of a massive amount of money from the defence industries, principally in America, and that he fiddled his way to victory on the back of that money? Is he aware that now is payback time? I suggest that he should be very careful about how the Government tread in the next few weeks. I believe that the Tories are as wrong on this issue as they are on the economy, and on almost every other political issue.

Mr. Cook: I have no problem in assenting to my hon. Friend's proposition that the Conservatives are wrong on a range of issues. I find it startling that there are still Conservative Members who appear to believe that the Government's real success is not in substance, but in spin. The reason why the Conservatives are in opposition is that they presided over the two worst economic recessions in British history, and the reason why they will stay in opposition is that this Government have presided over a sound, healthy, growing economy. Those are issues of substance, not of spin.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): All hon. Members will agree on the importance of this issue, but when we are reduced to considering how effective Mr. Bremner is as a parody of Government and when Downing street is acting as a parody of Bremner, is it not about time that the Government stood aside for people who will deal with the issue in a serious fashion?

Mr. Cook: I am conscious that we are appearing in the House of Commons now, and seeking to debate these matters seriously. I will not enter into any studio comedy with the hon. Gentleman.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): May I record the grave concern felt by many of my constituents, and shared by me, about missile proliferation and the threat posed by rogue states? Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that the Government's position remains that we will await a firm proposal from the Americans before deciding on the merits of any such proposal? Will he put clear blue water--or clear red water--between the parties, by confirming that we will not do what the Conservatives

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have done and blindly rush in to support any proposal that the Americans come up with before they have even decided on a proposal?

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