Foreign affairs are rarely at the forefront of the public’s attention. Yet woe betide the politician who thinks that foreign affairs do not matter. For if diplomacy fails and the nation’s security seems to be at stake, the embers of voter interest can suddenly turn into a blaze.
Indeed when that happens, foreign affairs can make or break a politician’s reputation. In Margaret Thatcher’s case, what hitherto had seemed a somewhat difﬁcult and politically perilous time in ofﬁce was transformed in 1982 by the successful recapture of the Falklands following an Argentinian invasion of the remote British territory.
In contrast, Tony Blair’s reputation as prime minister never recovered from the decision to join the US invasion of Iraq 2003, on the grounds that the Middle Eastern country possessed weapons of mass destruction that, in the end, were found not to exist – a decision that cost Labour dearly in the 2005 general election.
Foreign affairs briefly came to dominate our headlines once again this spring. At the beginning of March, a former Russian spy and his daughter were poisoned in Salisbury by the nerve agent novichok – victims, it seemed, of an assassination attempt that had been planned and executed by persons associated with the Russian state.
Then in April it was alleged – not for the ﬁrst time – that a Syrian regime supported by Russia had used chemical weapons on its own civilians, leaving the West to decide whether it should – and if so, how – make good on its pledge to uphold the international ban on the use of such weapons.
These two events were bound to represent something of a challenge for an opposition leader accused by his critics of unwarranted sympathy for the West’s principal protagonist during the Cold War. It might have been Jeremy Corbyn’s job to test the strength of the government’s arguments, but it was, perhaps, all too easy for the questions that he posed to be portrayed as undue scepticism.
In the case of the Salisbury poisoning, the British government appeared to have the backing of the public. According to YouGov, nearly three-quarters thought that Russia was certainly or probably responsible.
If voters were critical of the government over the poisoning, it was because they were inclined to feel that its response had not been tough enough, rather than because they felt it had overreacted. Indeed, 29 per cent felt that the measures did not go far enough, while just ten per cent said they went too far. It is therefore not surprising that Theresa May’s reputation emerged from the incident in better shape than Corbyn’s.
However, the Prime Minister was batting on a much stickier wicket when it came to Britain’s response to the alleged chemical attack in Syria. Multiple polls found that more people were opposed to missile or air strikes in Syria than were in favour. What’s more, there was widespread public support for the notion that parliament should have been consulted by the government before any action was taken.
So on this second issue, at least, there seemed to have been plenty of voters who might have been sympathetic towards the opposition leader’s view that the action was “legally questionable” – a stance echoed in the Labour Party’s 2017 manifesto on the need to use diplomatic action to resolve conﬂict.
Yet once again Corbyn did not emerge with much credit in the eyes of voters. According to Survation, just 19 per cent believed he had handled the situation in Syria well, while 36 per cent felt that he had done so poorly.
Here, then, is an important lesson for the opposition leadership. It is not enough to develop and promulgate a foreign policy stance that is popular with voters. Labour also has to convince voters that it has the ability to deliver its policies effectively; the party’s sticking point when it comes to handling foreign affairs.
In a question that is asked regularly by YouGov in polls for the Times, an average of just 18 per cent say that they think Labour would handle defence and security best, well below the 34 per cent who believe that the Conservatives would do so. On no other issue covered by YouGov’s questioning is Labour so far behind.
The tragedies in Salisbury and Syria helped bring this underlying doubt over Labour’s abilities to the forefront of voters’ minds – and may well have cost the party electorally.
Prior to the Salisbury poisoning, the polls were, on average, putting Labour on 42 per cent, enough to put the party narrowly – if only narrowly – ahead of the Conservatives. But by the end of April, as the local elections were about to take place, that ﬁgure dropped three points to 39 per cent, leaving the party trailing its principal opponents.
Of course, nobody can be sure that the differences in May and Corbyn’s handling of these two events were the sole reasons for the drop in Labour’s popularity; plenty else went on in British politics during March and April, including the continued row over alleged anti-Semitism in the Labour party and the never-ending cross-party debate over Brexit.
But that Labour’s poll rating took a bit of a knock at exactly the same time as Salisbury and Syria were dominating the headlines, events that put Corbyn’s leadership abilities in a poor light in the eyes of some voters, must at least be regarded by Labour as a reminder of the potential electoral importance of a party leadership’s perceived ability to make the right judgement calls about the country’s external affairs.