Why the Lib Dems are silent on Syria

While leaving the door open to military action, the party's MPs know that the evidence required to justify intervention hasn't been presented.

The media is full of folk pontificating that 'something must be done about' Syria. There’s an implication in the fact that Miliband was called into Downing Street yesterday, that it’s been decided that the 'something' involves flying cruise missiles into buildings where we suspect bad things happen. Parliament’s recalled and we all look forward to seeing if we’re going to be presented with a dodgy dossier and a refusal to publish the Attorney General’s legal advice (ring any bells?).

Yet in the midst of all this, my lot are strangely silent. Nick’s identikit statement to Cameron’s aside, there’s been almost nothing said, in the mainstream media or on social media, by anyone in the Lib Dems since it was announced that there’s going to be a vote. I can hazard a guess why.

Last time Parliament was asked to support military advice, there was a UN resolution already in place, and the remit of the military was clear – they were to protect civilians. Not too hard to support that. But this time it’s rather different.

Firstly, there’s no UN resolution in place. As the House of Commons Defence Committee Report on the Libyan conflict made clear: "we are concerned that the abstentions of five Council members, particularly the veto wielding countries of Russia and China, may make obtaining United Nations support more difficult for similar situations in the future".

They had that right.

Secondly, there’s apparently no mandate here to defend civilians, nor any pretence of such. This is about punishment. Setting down a marker. Letting other chemical weapon-hording dictators know that there’s a red line you just don’t cross. You can almost hear advisers whispering in Cameron’s ear that "there’s only one language these people understand". 

Thirdly, when Lib Dem MPs voted to 'defend civilians', I suspect most expected it not to extend far beyond enforcing the no-fly zone requested by some members of the Arab League. I wonder how many of those trooping through the lobby realised they were voting for regime change by military intervention (recall that the NATO operation was shut down just 11 days after the death of Gadaffi). What wording will they be asked to support this time – and what lies behind those words?

These are difficult issues for all MPs. But for the Lib Dems, with our proud record of opposing the Iraq war, it’s especially hard. Of course Iraq-is-not-Libya-is-not-Syria. But until there’s a UN resolution, and clear proof of who used chemical weapons on whom, it’s hard to see how Lib Dems can support military action. And sure the Prime Minister can tell us he’s seen that proof. But we’ve been there before, haven’t we?

I suspect Lib Dem MPs are under severe pressure to do what the political glitterati are telling them is their, ahem, moral duty, but in their heart of hearts they know the evidence hasn’t yet been presented to them to make that case. And while they are leaving the door open - hence their silence - the wider political leadership is going to have to work a lot harder to get them on side.

At least I hope so.

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

Danny Alexander, Nick Clegg and Simon Hughes at last year's Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

Photo: Getty
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Why there's never been a worse year to leave the EU than 2017

A series of elections will mean Britain's Brexit deal will be on the backburner until at least January 2018. 

So that's it. Theresa May has invoked Article 50, and begun Britain’s formal exit from the European Union.

Britain and the EU27 have two years to make a deal or Britain will crash out without a deal. There are two ways out of that – firstly, it's possible that Britain could withdraw its invocation of Article 50, though the European Court of Justice has yet to rule on whether Article 50 is reversible or not. 

But if the government reaches the end of the two-year window, the timetable can only be extended with the unanimous agreement of not only the heads of the 27 other member states of the European Union, but the United Kingdom as well. Although both sides would suffer economic damage from an unplanned exit, no-one has done particularly well betting on economic self-interest as far as either Britain or the European Union in general is concerned, let alone when the two’s relationship with another is the subject.

For May in particular, the politics of extending the timetable are fraught. Downing Street wants Brexit done and dusted by 2019 to prevent it becoming a destabilising issue in the 2020 election, and in any case, any extension would provoke ructions in the Conservative Party and the pro-Brexit press.

But the chances that the EU27 and the UK will not come to an agreement at all, particularly by March 2019, are high. Why? In a stroke of misfortune for Britain, 2017 is very probably the worst year in decades to try to leave the European Union. Not just because of the various threats outside the bloc – the election of Donald Trump and the growing assertiveness of Russia – but because of the electoral turmoil inside of it.

May will trigger Article 50 at exactly the time that the French political class turns inward completely in the race to pick François Hollande’s successor as President enters its final stretch. Although a new president will be elected by 7 May, politics in that country will then turn to legislative elections in June. That will be particularly acute if, as now looks likely, Emmanuel Macron wins the presidency, as the French Left will be in an advanced state of if not collapse, at least profound transformation. (If, as is possible but not likely, Marine Le Pen is elected President, then that will also throw Britain's Brexit renegotiations off course but that won't matter as much as the European Union will probably collapse.) 

That the Dutch elections saw a better showing for Mark Rutte's Liberals means that he will go into Brexit talks knowing that he will be Prime Minister for the foreseeable future, but Rutte and the Netherlands, close allies of the United Kingdom, will be preoccupied by coalition negotiations, potentially for much of the year.

By the time the new President and the new legislative assembly are in place in France, Germany will enter election mode as Angela Merkel seeks re-election. Although the candidacy of Martin Schulz has transformed the centre-left SPD's poll rating, it has failed to dent Merkel's centre-right CDU/CSU bloc significantly and she is still in the box seat to finish first, albeit by a narrow margin. Neither Merkel's Christian Democrats or Schulz's Social Democrats, are keen to continue their increasingly acrimonious coalition, but it still looks likely that there will be no other viable coalition. That means there will be a prolonged and acrimonious period of negotiations before a new governing coalition emerges.

All of which makes it likely that Article 50 discussions will not begin in earnest before January 2018 at the earliest, almost halfway through the time allotted for Britain’s exit talks. And that could be further delayed if either the Italian elections or the Italian banking sector causes a political crisis in the Eurozone.

All of which means that May's chances of a good Brexit deal are significantly smaller than they would be had she waited until after the German elections to trigger Article 50. 

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