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Lib Dem foreign policies - Clegg's achilles heel?

By Jonathan Rugman

Updated on 22 April 2010

Nick Clegg will be promoting the Lib Dem cause in latest TV debate - but could his party's foreign policies be his downfall? Jonathan Rugman reports.

Nick Clegg (Getty)

A week ago, not many people outside the Liberal Democrats were taking Nick Clegg's foreign policy seriously. But a week is a long time in politics, so I have been trying to get the measure of what Mr Clegg might say tonight.
Perhaps the best clue is the speech Clegg gave to Chatham House last month, when he depicted this election as being as much about foreign policy as anything else.

Clegg will tonight try to make his approach to the outside world the latest example of the clear blue water he believes exists between himself and his opponents. And if he succeeds in striking that "refreshingly different" pose, as he did last week, he could again do well.
Pivotal moment
Clegg depicts the Suez crisis as the pivotal moment in modern British foreign policy, as the "greatest page-turning moment in post-war British history".

For the Lib Dem leader, failure at Suez enshrined the British view that "our primary interests in the affairs of the world are served by us maintaining an allegiance to the United States". And it is this, he says, which he now seeks to change.
Special relationship
After the Bush years, after Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Iraq, this post-Suez argument may well resonate tonight, though Mr Clegg may not sound very different from David Cameron on it. The critical difference is that Cameron supported the Iraq war - and because Clegg's party did not, the Lib Dems could lead by example.
"We first need to acknowledge the fact that we still too readily put ourselves in a position of unthinking subservience to American interests", Clegg has said, lambasting what he calls a "lopsided asymmetrical relationship".
Clegg will insist that he is not anti-American, merely repositioning that relationship. But his attack does open him up to a potential counter-attack from Gordon Brown.

A senior intelligence source recently told me that the US gives the UK four times the amount of intelligence that we give them. If Brown made more of the advantages of this intelligence-sharing in the battle against terrorism, then the accompanying scandals of torture and "extraordinary rendition" might lose some of their sting from Clegg tonight.
Ironically for Clegg, the "special relationship" has already cooled, though this has happened at Washington's end. George Bush was an Anglophile, while Barack Obama does not seem to be.

And on the UK's supporting role in Afghanistan, Clegg cannot take the political risk tonight of striking that "refreshingly different" pose, because British troops are dying there and because Obama has said American troops will start leaving next year anyway. Expect the phrase "critical support" for the Afghan mission, or a version of that phrase, and a Cameron-like attack on Brown for allegedly failing to equip front line forces properly.
Trident missles
The Lib Dem leader could come across as weak on his decision not to renew Trident nuclear missiles, but he might well place this within the context of the strategic realignment with Washington that he wants. In other words, the Trident decision reflects Clegg's vision of Britain's independence, not a loss of it.
On the thorny issue of Europe, the plight of tens of thousands of British travellers could well serve as the backdrop for Clegg's arguments about our current relationship with the continent and, implicitly, the need for more European integration, not less of it.

And Clegg may well cite Downing Street's closeness to the White House as having been far more damaging than our relationship with Europe - as he has put it, a "loss of real sovereignty about which I never hear the swivel-eyed Eurosceptics worry about at all".

And that's potentially a neat riposte to the central Cameron charge that Clegg will cede more power to Brussels, as well as a way of distancing Clegg from Brown.
And look how Clegg can temper his European enthusiasm when he wants to, with this Tory-like scepticism of the EU: "It's a club that took 15 years to define chocolate. I was an MEP for five years; I suffered from traipses down to Strasbourg, costing you the tax-payer money for no reason other than satisfying the French. I know the grubby deals that take place."

If Clegg carries on like that, he will spend much of the evening distancing himself from Cameron, but sound very similar as and when it suits him.

Iran and Europe 
What also stands out from his Chatham House speech are his references to Gaza and Israel's crippling blockade of the Palestinians, which could set him apart if he repeats them tonight: "Why then, whilst this blockade is carrying on, why has the EU entered into two new agreements with Israel, on aviation and fisheries? Why don't we apply any conditionality in the Middle East?"
But this potential positive - appearing to break the mould in Britain's relationship with the Middle East - could be offset by what Clegg says about Iran.

The Lib Dem manifesto opposes military action against Iran. If Clegg is boxed into a pacifist corner, if he refuses to say that all options should remain on the table, will that, along with his arguments against Trident, make him look weak?
His biggest potential weakness, though, is surely the euro. Interestingly, I cannot find any reference to the euro during Clegg's Chatham House speech.

With the currency facing its greatest trials in the past few weeks, the Lib Dem leader will not be allowed to get away with silence tonight. His manifesto says it is "in Britain's long-term interest to be part of the euro", and his promise of a referendum on joining the currency may not be enough to allay voters' fears that a multilingual former Eurocrat married to a Spaniard will cede monetary independence.

Tune in to tonight for the leaders debate liveblog.

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