The Coalition gives Clegg a veto on arming Syria

Nick Clegg has suffered all manner of barbs about entering a coalition, but the greatest vindication of his decision to take his party into government may still be to come


It is no exaggeration to say that when the last general election produced a coalition, it came as a huge surprise. Three years on, that surprise remains almost as fresh as it was then. Deep down, we remain convinced that a coalition is practically impossible under our first-past-the-post system, and that coalition is something peculiar to the Continentals. We are doomed to swing from one majority government to another, with nothing in between.

In fact, despite all the forecasts of discord and collapse, the Coalition has proved remarkably durable. When there have been splits, they have had nothing on the venomous divisions between “wets” and “drys” in the Major government or between “New” and “Old” Labour under Tony Blair. Indeed, much of the criticism directed against this government has related not to any incoherence, but to the apparent closeness of the two party leaders and the sense that both have forgotten their party roots.

The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, has repeatedly come under such fire. It began when he dropped his election pledge not to abolish university tuition fees, leaving his large student constituency (and their parents) feeling betrayed, and it will not stop before the next election. Criticism of Clegg, though, is not limited to policies. By entering government at all, he has had to suffer barbs about the dire fate that awaits junior partners in coalitions generally and accusations that he has sold his own, and his party’s, soul for a short-lived taste of power. At best, it is said, Clegg has ruined the election chances of the Liberal Democrats for decades to come; at worst, their very survival as a political force is threatened.   

This seems too harsh. My own judgment is that Clegg and Vince Cable between them have not done too badly, not least in constraining the wilder ambitions of hardline Conservatism. The result is a Government, and a set of policies, that have been more attentive to the law, more humane, less Europhobic and greener than they would have been, even under a modernising, centrist Conservative Government led by David Cameron.  

The greatest vindication of Nick Clegg’s decision to take his party into government, however, may still be to come. Over the past week, there have been persistent reports that the Cabinet is split on the foreign policy question of the day: whether to arm the Syrian rebels. Two weeks ago, Cameron went to Brussels to argue for the European Union not to extend its arms embargo on Syria, a move that would open the way for the supply of weapons to those   seeking to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. After a long, and by all accounts stormy meeting, Cameron emerged to claim victory. Although the decision was hedged about with caveats and many EU leaders expressed serious misgivings, the embargo was, in effect, lifted.

If Cameron had hoped to be met on his return as a conquering hero, however, he was disappointed. As The Independent reported, at least five Cabinet ministers, including Clegg, raised “serious reservations” about any move by Britain to increase its involvement in Syria. With backbenchers expressing concern as well, it is possible that Cameron will have to concede a vote in Parliament before the Syrian rebels are sent any arms.

There are ominous signs, though, that Cameron may be trying to shore up his more interventionist stance. The Foreign Secretary   made a flying visit to Washington yesterday, where Syria – as well as, no doubt, intelligence matters – loomed large on his agenda. The US administration is also split about engagement in Syria, with much of the military establishment dead against. But you only have to think back to certain UK-US meetings in Washington in 2002 and 2003 to fear the potential damage from such bilateral encounters.

Which is where Nick Clegg and his party come in. Remember 2002-3 and the political impotence – in terms of actual policy decisions – of the Liberal Democrats then. They actually had more MPs than they do now. They campaigned as effectively as a third party can; they had swathes of public opinion on their side. But their opposition to the Iraq war was in vain. Without a representative at the top table, the opponents of the war could be brushed aside. Given that the Tories generally favoured intervention, the Liberal Democrats were no more than an irritant.   

As Deputy Prime Minister, with other party members in the Cabinet, Nick Clegg is in quite a different position to Charles Kennedy then. He can make representations as an equal at the top table and be guaranteed a hearing. If it is “sofa government”, he has a place there, too. He can be a rallying point for other reluctant interventionists. Best of all, though, he has a real weapon at his disposal: ultimately, he could take his party out of the Coalition.

Opposing armed intervention in Syria is a cause for which the Liberal Democrats should be prepared to break the Coalition. And the benefit could be twofold. Not only would they do the country a service, by pre-empting another costly act of national folly, but in so doing they would also win a chance to escape the fate of most junior coalition partners and increase the party’s vote next time around.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

Mike Read’s Ukip calypso is mesmerisingly atrocious — but it's not racist

Matthew Norman
Shirley Shackleton, wife of late journalist Gregory Shackleton, sits next to the grave of the 'Balibo Five' in Jakarta, in 2010  

Letter from Asia: The battle for the truth behind five journalists’ deaths in Indonesia

Andrew Buncombe
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London