24 Apr 2015

Election 2015: too late to talk foreign policy?

Until today two words have been missing from the general election 2015 campaigning: foreign policy.

Only the hardened manifesto reader will make it to sections on Britain’s role in the world – for all the main parties you have to get 90 per cent through their documents before any detail on foreign policy.

On Friday Ed Miliband brought foreign policy into the debate, partly through a perceived attack on David Cameron over migrant deaths in the Mediterranean.

Mr Miliband said the Mediterranean tragedy “could have been avoided” and linked it to the “failure of post-conflict planning” under the Conservatives. The Conservatives accused Mr Miliband of “shamefully” playing politics with migrant deaths.

Foreign policy is not something you can discover 13 days before the election. William Hague

Mr Miliband also said he believes David Cameron has “presided over the biggest loss of influence for our country in a generation”. The prime minister responded that people will look at Mr Miliband’s “ill-judged remarks” about blame for migrants’ deaths and “reach their own conclusions”, adding that it was “criminal gangs” who were responsible for migrant deaths.

Asked by Channel 4 News Presenter Jon Snow if he regrets the “let them drown policy” that saw the reduction of search and recue missions, Mr Cameron said: “I think it is true that the policy hasn’t been working, which is why it is right to revisit the policy as we did yesterday in Brussels.”

And former foreign secretary William Hague said foreign policy is “not something you can discover 13 days before an election”.

Read more: Mediterranean migrant deaths - where British parties stand

Mr Miliband could argue that he has referenced foreign policy before – during the televised leaders’ interviews. During a grilling by Jeremy Paxman, Ed Miliband justified his claim that he is “tough enough” to be prime minister because he “stood up to the leader of the free world” when he blocked a vote on potential military intervention in Syria.

Downing Street responded furiously in August 2013 after Ed Miliband scuppered a bill that would have said parliament would consider military action against the Assad regime – following a chemical weapons attack in Damascus that left more than 300, including children, dead – saying Mr Miliband was “playing politics”.

And it is indeed that moment that some diplomats have said is responsible for the UK withdrawing from the foreign stage.

Lindsey Hilsum writes: "Is British aid effective? Is the balance of forces in the British military right for the 21st century? Is there really nothing we can do about the unfolding tragedy in Syria? Could we at least admit a few more Syrian refugees?
These are the non-issues of the British election, the critical questions that won’t be debated.
I suppose Labour don’t want to say much about international affairs because under Tony Blair they did too much, and the Tories shy away from it because they have done so little... Read more.

Since then, David Cameron has been seen to take somewhat of a back seat in relation to Ukraine, with France and Germany leading negotiations – something that Mr Miliband was keen to point when he said: “The government he (David Cameron) leads has stepped away from the world rather than confidently towards it.”

Above – clockwise from top left: Syrian child victims of Damascus chemical attack in hospital, Russians celebrate anniversary of annexation of Crimea, a British air strike in Libya, unnamed migrants who died in the mediterranean are buried.

But Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, wrote recently that both Labour and the Conservatives are ignoring “some of the most important issues facing the UK”.

He argued that the UK should be increasing defence spending in response to Vladimir Putin’s “adventurism in Ukraine”.

“It is unfortunate that some of the most important issues facing the UK are being ignored in the country’s current election campaign,” he wrote.

“Whatever the outcome when voters head to the polls on 7 May, the next government will have to deal with reality. The country’s defence posture and Russia’s threat to European security are sure to be near the top of the next prime minister’s agenda.”

Key issue?

One reason could be that foreign policy does not rank highly among voters as an important election issue. A poll by YouGov at the end of March asked which of four issues – the economy, public services, immigration and foreign policy – did they think would be of most importance for the average voter. No-one said foreign policy.

However, the latest YouGov poll on election issues, conducted over Tuesday and Wednesday, found 31 per cent of voters believe foreign policy is not being addressed enough.


A brief summary of main parties foreign policy manifesto positions.

  • The Conservatives say they will “ensure Britain is a major player on the world stage” through diplomacy, will generate new trade and investment opportunities, will maintain a world class armed forces and will uphold the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on international aid.
  • Labour pledges to return Britain to a leadership role in the EU (whilst ensuring the relationship works for Britain), outlaw discrimination against and abuse of members of the armed forces, and push for global targets to tackle inequality and promote human rights.
  • The Liberal Democrats say they will ensure the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals aim to end poverty and protect the environment, ensure Britain plays a constructive role in the EU, work to secure a binding agreement on global emissions and focus on giving the armed forces the training they need.
  • Ukip claims it would increase defence spending and cut overseas aid. It would build a dedicated military hospital and said the country would “have to be clear” that the UK cannot commit troops to conflicts around the world at the drop of a hat. The Green party champions a “holistic and consistent approach to peace and defence” focused on genuine peacekeeping and respect for sovereignty.
  • The Green party says it would write off and write down unpayable international debt, and would oppose military intervention in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq.