Has Nick Clegg helped the case for a war crimes tribunal?

Clegg’s gaffe over the “illegal” war could strengthen case for involvement of the international cour

Nick Clegg raised more than a few eyebrows yesterday when he called the Iraq war "illegal" while standing in for David Cameron at PMQs.

Clegg might have made a habit of condemning the war while in opposition, but appeared to forget that his partners in government now include neocons such as George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith, who voted in favour of the conflict. During a heated exchange with Jack Straw, he said:

Maybe [Straw] one day -- perhaps we will have to wait for his memoirs -- could account for his role in the most disastrous decision of all, which is the illegal invasion of Iraq.

The obvious issue is that he has highlighted a division in the coalition, but has Clegg also strengthened the case for legal action?

The Guardian today quotes senior lawyers wondering whether his statement is legally significant because it was made while speaking in the Commons:

Philippe Sands, professor of law at University College London, said: "A public statement by a government minister in parliament as to the legal situation would be a statement that an international court would be interested in, in forming a view as to whether or not the war was lawful."

The No 10 press office has done some hasty damage limitation. A spokesman said that Clegg had been speaking in his capacity as leader of the Liberal Democrats, rather than Deputy Prime Minister -- slightly odd, perhaps, given that he was standing at the despatch box, answering questions on behalf of the government at PMQs.

The coalition government has not expressed a view on the legality or otherwise of the Iraq conflict. But that does not mean that individual members of the government should not express their individual views. These are long-held views of the Deputy Prime Minister.

The issue of the war's legality has rumbled quietly on since 2003. My colleague Mehdi Hasan wrote in January that:

The New Statesman has learned from a senior legal source that not one member of Britain's new 12-justice Supreme Court believes that the war was lawful. One former law lord, Johan Steyn, has called on the Iraq inquiry to publish an interim report before the general election declaring the war illegal.

A recent Sunday Times poll showed that a quarter of the public wants to see Blair stand trial. The International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor even said in 2007 that he could "envisage" a scenario where this took place.

In theory, a senior minister negating the war's legal basis could add force to the argument for a tribunal, should the international court consider the case. But somehow -- particularly as it does not signify a change in the government's official position, and the Chilcot inquiry is not seeking to apportion blame on this point -- that seems distinctly unlikely.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.