Jeremy Corbyn has said nuclear weapons “didn’t do the USA much good on 9/11,” as an extraordinary row over Trident engulfed his shadow cabinet.
The Labour leader said he would “not press the nuclear button” if he were prime minister and restated his opposition to renewing Britain’s nuclear weapons system.
He said: “Nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction that take out millions of civilians. They didn’t do the USA much good on 9/11.”
Several members of his shadow cabinet have broken ranks to openly criticise their leader’s position.
Shadow defence secretary Maria Eagle said his remarks were “unhelpful”.
She added: “I think it undermines to some degree our attempts to get a policy process going.
“As far as I’m concerned we start from the policy we have… I don’t think that, a potential leader answering a question like that, in the way which he did, is helpful.”
Her remarks prompted a tweet by shadow international development secretary Diane Abbott: “Surprised that Maria Eagle criticises JC for making his position clear on Trident nuclear weapon system.”
Meanwhile Angela Eagle, the shadow business secretary, said that ruling out the use of a nuclear deterrent rendered it redundant.
She said: “We have Labour Party policy on having a nuclear weapon. I don’t think anyone in their right minds would want to get to a situation where it would be used.
“But I think if you do get to that situation… you have to be prepared to use it… Jeremy will have to justify his own decisions and his own comments and I think you’ll have to talk to him about that.”
The party is bitterly split over defence issues – and in particular on Trident.
Labour’s official policy remains to support the deterrent, despite the party leader’s opposition.
There has also been division on whether Labour would support airstrikes on Islamic State targets in Syria – something that Mr Corbyn opposes but several members of his shadow cabinet have indicated they would back.
If these fractious issues are put to a parliamentary vote, it is likely that Mr Corbyn would have to allow MPs a free vote on the issue or face multiple resignations from his top team.
Shadow home secretary Andy Burnham said he would “find it difficult” to remain in position if Labour changed its policy to favour scrapping Trident.
He said: “I believe we should renew our nuclear deterrent… as I look around the world… I see Russia flexing its muscles, China parading its nuclear weapons… personally.. I don’t think now is the time to drop our defences.”
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon accused the Labour leader of “effectively saying he would lower Britain’s defences”.
He said: “Having nuclear weapons and our enemies knowing that we’re prepared to use them in the most extreme circumstances of self-defence is vital to keeping our country safe.”