Iran - the threat of war grows

Parliament to debate Iran policy on Monday as more MPs urge government to rule out war.

With the prospect of a pre-emptive Israeli attack on Iran growing ever more likely, Westminster is finally beginning to respond. In a little-noticed move, Conservative MP John Baron, who resigned as a Tory health spokesman over the Iraq war, has tabled a parliamentary motion calling on the government to rule out military action against Iran. He rightly warned that the use of force by Israel or anyone else would be "wholly counter-productive and would serve only to encourage any development of nuclear weapons."

However, 22 MPs, including Malcolm Rifkind and Margaret Becket, have already put their names to an amendment supporting the government's stance that "all options remain on the table". In an interview in today's Daily Telegraph, William Hague says: "It is not our way of dealing with this to have assassinations or to advocate military action. Although I do stress again, we are taking nothing off the table."

More than anything, this is a negotiating stance but if, as seems likely, Israel takes military action, the government will be forced to take a position. As I noted earlier this week, the issue of Iran has the potential to split the coalition and the Lib Dems. The Lib Dem manifesto explicitly ruled out the use of force against Iran ("[W]e oppose military action against Iran and believe those calling for such action undermine the growing reform movement in Iran," read a passage on p.68) but Nick Clegg has since remarked that "you don't in a situation like this take any options off the table". Unlike Clegg, most Lib Dems are explicitly opposed to military action by Britain or Israel.

For instance, the recently-knighted backbencher Bob Russell told me:

We should condemn, now rather than after the event should it happen, any moves by Israel (with or without the backing and involvement of the United States) of a pre-emptive strike against Iran.

The consequences to world peace, not just in the Middle East, are immense.

Ming Campbell warned that military action would have the "effect of setting fire to the Middle East" and, asked if he was opposed to military action, Martin Horwood, co-chair of the Lib Dem parliamentary party committee on international affairs, commented:

Yes - and that was a Lib Dem manifesto commitment. Events move on and of course if British minesweepers were attacked in the Gulf or something like that, we would have to respond. But as things stand, the answer is clear.

As today's Guardian reports, the US now believes that sanctions will fail to deter Iran from pursuing its nuclear programme, with an Israeli strike likely to follow in September or October. All of which will lend Monday's parliamentary debate on Iran a rare urgency.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.