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.