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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496