Nick Clegg attends a press statement in German Ministry of Economy on November 26, 2014 in Berlin. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why the TV debates would hurt the Lib Dems

Without a distinctive message to offer, Nick Clegg's party could be left looking irrelevant. 

For the Lib Dems, the 2010 TV debates were a boon. Although they couldn't sustain the dizzy heights of "Cleggmania", the party won a million more votes than in 2005, despite the fading of the Iraq factor and the close contest between the Conservatives and Labour (making it theoretically easier for the big two to squeeze them). True, the Lib Dems won five fewer seats but they would likely have performed even worse in the absence of the debates. 

Should the face-offs be repeated, however (and David Cameron remains notably equivocal), the Lib Dems will now likely be among the losers, rather than the winners. The proposed 7-7-2 format is perhaps the worst outcome they could have hoped for. As Cameron somewhat cruelly noted during a recent session of PMQs, the Lib Dems, despite their role in government, are now being treated as a "minor party". Rather than taking his place alongside the PM and Ed Miliband in a repeat of 2010's three-way (as he hoped), Nick Clegg will now be one among many in the two proposed seven-ways (featuring the three main parties, Ukip, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru).

For the Lib Dem leader, this is a baleful fate. His party's election pitch has been defined by splitting the difference between Labour and the Tories, vowing to gift the former a "spine" (through greater fiscal conservatism) and the latter a "heart" (through greater social justice) in the event of another hung parliament. Had Clegg won a place in the proposed three-way, that moderating message may well have resonated with voters who don't trust Labour with their money, or trust the Tories with public services. 

But it is far harder to deliver on a stage crowded with seven participants. Next to Ukip, the Greens (currently eating into the party's base) and assorted nationalists, the Lib Dems will struggle to stand out. It is precisely this lack of distinction that has troubled figures on the party's left, such as Tim Farron, and on its right, such as Jeremy Browne, both of whom, in different ways, have called for a more radical affirmation of liberal values. As Browne told me when I interviewed him last year: "I don’t think you want to stand up and say, 'Vote for us, we’ll split the difference between the two parties. Vote for us, we’ll modify them.' I don’t think that is a compelling pitch ... If you go to church, you might be happy to hear a bit about the fundraising appeal to mend the roof but you go to church because you want to hear about God."

Sidelined in the seven-way, and locked out of the two-way, the danger for the Lib Dems is that the debates would leave them looking more irrelevant than ever. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.