The leaders’ foreign policy debate gets interesting

What a fascinating occasion this Thursday’s election debate between the three party leaders on foreign policy promises to be. No-one expected foreign policy to be any kind of election battleground: Ipsos MORI’s election scene-setter (pdf), published on 1 April, had not one foreign policy issue in the top 10 voter concerns. (Afghanistan, climate change, Iraq and defence all scored 5% or less; instead, it was the economy, health, education, asylum and tax that former the big five, followed by unemployment, crime and benefits – see slide 24.)

But given the extraordinary Liberal Democrat surge following Nick Clegg’s performance in last week’s debate on domestic affairs – the party is now up ten points in a week – a lot is suddenly riding on what happens this Thursday night. Gordon Brown and (especially) David Cameron will be desperate to take Clegg down. But how?

Over at’s Westminster blog, Alex Barker reckons the five key issues for Tory/Lib Dem skirmishing will be Iraq, Afghanistan, Europe, Trident and Iran. Of these, he reckons the Lib Dems’ generally cautious positions on the Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran will give Clegg the upper hand.

He reckons that Trident is a vulnerability for the Lib Dems,though he allows that the ace in Clegg’s hand is the fact that General Sir Richard Dannatt – a Tory adviser – supports the Lib Dem line on the issue.  (Also worth noting that the Lib Dems’ foreign affairs spokesman Ed Davey used yesterday’s debate between foreign affairs leads to stress the Lib Dems’ opposition to unilateral disarmament). I suspect, though, that Lib Dem opposition to Trident might in fact play to their advantage. This isn’t the SDP in 1983. The Cold War is over, and Obama and Medvedev just signed a nuclear deal. Moreover, as Barker notes, Trident looks awfully expensive as public sector cuts loom ever larger. If Clegg plays it right, he ought to be able to use this as another issue on which to position himself as the insurgent, in contrast to more ‘establishment’ positions from Labour and the Tories.

So that leaves Europe out of Barker’s five issues. Barker observes that most people disagree strongly with Lib Dem policy on Europe, but that Cameron’s dilemma is over how hard to push it, given that the Conservatives’ obsession with Europe has backfired in past elections. I’d go further than that. The problem for the Tories isn’t just that Europe was toxic for the Tories under Major, Hague, Howard and Duncan Smith. There’s also the more current issue of the Conservatives’ withdrawal from the EPP in Europe – which is starting to look like an albatross around the party’s neck (David Cameron must have assumed that no one except Eurosceptics would even notice their withdrawal from the bloc, much less care – heaven knows how he must have felt when the Obama Administration started briefing their annoyance).

So this is an issue on which Brown and Clegg can comfortably unite for another “I agree with Nick” double act. (Note that this was the very first issue on which Hague was pressured in yesterday’s foreign policy debate.) Perhaps the best defence for David Cameron will be to try to focus the debate’s Europe section instead on entry to the Euro – an area where he and Gordon “5 economic tests” Brown will be much closer, and where past Lib Dem enthusiasm for entry looks questionable given the ongoing drama [or should that be drachma?] of the Greek bailout.

So what’s missing from Alex Barker’s list?

Well, one area where Labour sense Tory vulnerability is David Cameron’s misstep in last week’s debate in which he suggested that China could potentially pose a nuclear threat to the UK – a position seized on with glee by David Miliband, who accused Cameron of behaving with “appalling immaturity” towards a fellow member of the P5 and strategic partner for the UK.

Then there’s the whole area of international development. The Conservatives have sought to erode Labour’s electoral advantage on this issue by committing to 0.7%, leading to Labour attempts to renew dividing lines on the issue (as for example in this Labour co-ordinated letter published in Sunday’s Observer). Perhaps the most substantive such dividing line is on the potential diversion of aid to climate finance, where the Tory position is genuinely weaker than that of Labour or the Lib Dems. But while that dividing line matters a lot for the small group of voters who put development in their top 10 issues, it might backfire if it become too conspicuous to wider voters – who may already be wondering why aid spending is protected, but their local SureStart centre is not. (See this from the ONE Campaign for more on what parties are promising on development.)

But the most striking omission from Alex Barker’s list is the question of Brits stranded abroad as a result of the ash cloud. As David has already noted here on GD, governments have been behind the curve on this story since it kicked off. And as every Foreign Secretary learns sooner or later, consular assistance stories can become big news, very fast. (Nor are they usually as tough as this one – when was the last consular emergency when the Brits in trouble were everywhere, rather than concentrated in one place?)

The ash cloud presents two wild cards for Thursday’s debate. First, Cameron and Clegg will need to compete over who would be better in a crisis – which may come down to who has more experience of government. Cameron was a special adviser at HM Treasury during the last Tory government. But Clegg also has more experience than is widely recognised: as well as being an MEP, he spent five years in the Commission, including in Leon Brittan’s private office – where he led Europe’s negotiating team on Russian and Chinese accession to the WTO.

But at the same time, neither Clegg nor Cameron can really point to many examples of real crisis management experience on their CVs (unless David Cameron wants to count Black Wednesday). Gordon Brown, on the other hand, does have this – though see Andrew Rawnsley’s new book for a cogent critique of some of Brown’s crisis management credentials.

But then there’s the other ash cloud wild card: who will end up getting the blame, given that UK media outlets are determined to make this someone’s fault (rather than what it is – a risk management challenge in conditions of uncertainty and imperfect information). The European Union, viciously criticised for yet another co-ordination snafu in the New York Times? The poor old Met Office? Or the government (and especially the PM) – as the Times, for one, is already warming up to argue?

The ash cloud story has already proven itself to be totally unpredictable – even just in the last few hours, during which stories about Europe’s airspace reopening have been superseded by newer oh-no-it-isn’t stories. Who knows where things will have got to in another 60 hours’ time…