After the very unusual television debate among the candidates for UK Prime Minister, the Liberal Democrats have, according to some polls, shot into the lead. (The poll numbers above are from one of those instant response things; the race is much closer.) That is all the more fascinating, since the LibDems have been the least enthusiastic about what they call “like-for-like” replacement of the UK’s Trident ballistic missile submarines.

I called Paul Ingram, Executive Director at the British-American Security Information Council, to chat about what LibDem leader Nick Clegg means for the UK’s arms control and disarmament policies.

After a long chat, Paul sent along his thoughts on UK politics, the rise of the LibDems and the prospects for Trident replacement in the UK:

Last Thursday Britain had its first ever election leader TV debate, and it confounded the pundits, not only for being more interesting than anyone expected, not only because it turned out to be a genuinely three-horse contest (why should that be surprising when you put three horses in the track?), but also because little-known Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg (Nick who?) raised the cost of Britain’s Trident replacement plans not once, nor twice, nor thrice, but four times, before the other two were forced to respond. Tory leader David Cameron reluctantly responded with the usual response about defending the UK but committing: “I say we should always have the ultimate protection of our independent nuclear deterrent”, followed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who after describing the need for a united front against potential proliferators, said, “I don’t favour Nick’s proposal which would unilaterally abandon our nuclear deterrent when we know Iran and North Korea and other countries are trying to get…” Since the debate the universal media and public opinion is that Clegg scored a hit on the night (not necessarily on this issue) and the Lib Dems are soaring in the polls. So, is there something exciting going on around Britain’s nuclear deterrent? Could we see some sort of momentum behind a policy shift? What?s the background?

The Lib Dems could end up holding the balance of power, so their opinion is important. But don’t expect an FDP moment — where after last October’s elections Germany’s new Foreign Minister is pushing hard within NATO for the withdrawal of US B-61s from Germany — there is strong cross-party and public support for such a move in Germany where it does not yet exist in the UK. Even in their own party the Lib Dems are badly divided on the issue of what to do, and national representatives have been on all the UK media since the debate clarifying that they are not in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament, simply looking for cheaper alternatives to buying UK nukes systems off the US shelf. As far as they are concerned, the real economics can wait ? they are looking for a small ask, that the issue be considered within long-awaited the Defence review promised by all major parties contesting the election (13 years after the last one). Beyond this, don’t expect anything substantial from the Lib Dems, as they will likely be spending what political capital they have after any indecisive election looking for deals on electoral reform.

So great — the nuclear issue has been raised in the election (tick), and the argument put that the UK’s deterrent needs to be reconsidered in the forthcoming defence review (tick). All to the good. But wait a minute, is there another side to this coin? Prior to Cameron’s response, Conservative Party policy, voiced in some detail by Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague, appeared to be supportive of the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, and the linkage between non-proliferation and multilateral disarmament. Hague and his foreign policy team have been clear — bury hopes of any unilateral disarmament, but they are well and truly in the game practiced by Obama — maintain nuclear deterrence for now, but work vigorously to create the conditions for disarmament. Hague’s boss, David Cameron, calls into question the honesty of the Party in following this approach. It’s worth repeating his words: “I say we should always have the ultimate protection of our independent nuclear deterrent”. What message does that send to the rest of the world, and not least our closest allies who need us to play the Obama game if chances of tightening up international rules that prevent nuclear proliferation are to have any hope of getting the necessary consensus?

It may look like a courageous act from Nick Clegg in pointing to the Emperor’s nudity. Actually, there was little courage involved — he had everything to gain as a larger proportion of the British public supports unilateral disarmament than his party, and his position is quite vanilla. It was a classic case of an opportunistic race for the middle ground. But our problem is that this could simply push his opponents into making irreversible commitments to replace the UK system in an election period where such commitments appear to make electoral sense? only to close the door to rational options once the election is over and the full horror of the state of the public finances are realised. It is yet too early to tell. I could be wrong, but the British electorate and the media that has so much influence on it, has not yet shown the maturity to have an informed debate on its nuclear deterrent, without base appeals to jingoism and the stirrings of fear of the unknown.