Lib Dem MPs must behave before the grassroots will

If the party's MPs want the leadership debate to go away, then they should stop talking about it.

Well, I’m in trouble. Me and the other 40,000 activists in the Lib Dems. As has been well documented, there has been more than a touch of debate about the party leadership ahead of conference (we’re at 10% in the polls - of course there has!) and the word on the street is that , generally speaking, this isn’t going down well with the Westminster crowd. Apparently the received wisdom is that if we don’t show a united front in Brighton, there’s a chance the world may spot that the membership isn’t entirely comfortable with the way things have been going to date. You reckon?

Well apart from the fact that it just wouldn’t be Lib Dem conference if there wasn’t a barney about something or other (in the last three conferences it’s been around the NHS, the NHS and the NHS), there’s a touch of physician heal thyself about all this.

It all started with Vince saying "I don't give any time to these personal criticisms of Nick Clegg which are being made at the moment", which is, by all accounts, code for declaring war on the leadership. Plenty of others in Westminster have been just as guilty. Adrian Sanders, for example, declared that Clegg must stop "bumbling along worrying about the future".

But it’s not all one-way traffic is it? I notice the term "the continuity SDP" has been slipped causally into the press to describe anyone who thinks the party may have just edged slightly to the wrong side of the centre ground. Then we had Ming declaring of the Cable-Miliband texts: "The truth is that the success of this coalition depends upon everyone who participates in it being a full subscriber, and we were using the expression pick and mix a little while ago. I don’t think it helps a partnership to suggest that you may already be looking for another partner."

Finally, Malcolm Bruce weighed in this weekend, declaring (in a fairly obviously targeted message) that we shouldn’t be laying the ground work for a coalition with Labour. Well, we should actually. And we should be laying the groundwork for another coalition with the Tories. And if the arithmetic works out in 2015, we need to be prepared. We were last time. So were the Tories. Labour, put simply, wasn’t, and, in any case, the electoral arithmetic didn’t stack up. Next time, (if there is a next time) we should take longer about the process– and all the major parties should be ready to negotiate whatever deal the will of the electorate throws up. (Plenty of readers have rushed to the comments section to shout "you see, you’ll deal with anyone who keeps you in power". No we won’t. We’ll talk to anyone the British people tell us too. Doesn’t mean we’ll do a deal).

But more to the point, the folk in Westminster can’t tell the grassroots to show a united front and then bicker amongst themselves through the pages of the press. If they really want the leadership debate to go away, then they should stop talking about it – no matter who you think is parking tanks on whoever’s lawn. But as long as they’re slipping quotes to the press, I don’t see why the rest of us shouldn’t stick our oar in.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Liberal Democrat Conference.

He's behind you, Nick. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.