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.

Grant Shapps on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Grant Shapps resigns over Tory youth wing bullying scandal

The minister, formerly party chairman, has resigned over allegations of bullying and blackmail made against a Tory activist. 

Grant Shapps, who was a key figure in the Tory general election campaign, has resigned following allegations about a bullying scandal among Conservative activists.

Shapps was formerly party chairman, but was demoted to international development minister after May. His formal statement is expected shortly.

The resignation follows lurid claims about bullying and blackmail among Tory activists. One, Mark Clarke, has been accused of putting pressure on a fellow activist who complained about his behaviour to withdraw the allegation. The complainant, Elliot Johnson, later killed himself.

The junior Treasury minister Robert Halfon also revealed that he had an affair with a young activist after being warned that Clarke planned to blackmail him over the relationship. Former Tory chair Sayeedi Warsi says that she was targeted by Clarke on Twitter, where he tried to portray her as an anti-semite. 

Shapps appointed Mark Clarke to run RoadTrip 2015, where young Tory activists toured key marginals on a bus before the general election. 

Today, the Guardian published an emotional interview with the parents of 21-year-old Elliot Johnson, the activist who killed himself, in which they called for Shapps to consider his position. Ray Johnson also spoke to BBC's Newsnight:


The Johnson family claimed that Shapps and co-chair Andrew Feldman had failed to act on complaints made against Clarke. Feldman says he did not hear of the bullying claims until August. 

Asked about the case at a conference in Malta, David Cameron pointedly refused to offer Shapps his full backing, saying a statement would be released. “I think it is important that on the tragic case that took place that the coroner’s inquiry is allowed to proceed properly," he added. “I feel deeply for his parents, It is an appalling loss to suffer and that is why it is so important there is a proper coroner’s inquiry. In terms of what the Conservative party should do, there should be and there is a proper inquiry that asks all the questions as people come forward. That will take place. It is a tragic loss of a talented young life and it is not something any parent should go through and I feel for them deeply.” 

Mark Clarke denies any wrongdoing.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.