x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Nick Clegg: king-maker with his own agenda on world affairs

The election leaves the Liberal Democrats, trailing in their usual third position in the polls, as king-makers.

The votes are in but the verdict is not. When the Conservatives issued their manifesto in the lead-up to this general election, they called it "An invitation to join the government of Britain". Yesterday, they had to extend that invitation to the Liberal Democrats. Change was the mantra of this election, with the main opposition Conservatives looking to sweep Labour out of government after 13 years and the Liberal Democrats looking to gain significantly more seats after a strong showing in television debates. Neither materialised.

Instead, there is simply uncertainty. No single party won the majority needed to form a government. This leaves the Liberal Democrats, until a few weeks ago trailing in their usual third position in the polls, as king-makers: if they form an alliance with the Tories, David Cameron will become prime minister. If they move in, grudgingly, with Labour - to whom they are closer ideologically - Gordon Brown might remain PM. And would the country ever forgive them?

As this newspaper went to press, there were no clear answers. Indeed the political horse-trading may yet take days. But what is clear is that the Conservatives intend to attempt to form the next government, perhaps taking the Lib Dems along for some of the ride. Thus a government alliance or coalition - the terms have not been agreed yet - is likely with the head of the Tories being swayed by the hearts of the Lib Dems. What might their positions mean for foreign policy - for Afghanistan and Iran, for Palestine and the rest of the world?

The answer, curiously, lies in Europe. One of the few clear foreign policies to come out of the parties over the election period was the Lib Dems' insistence on closer ties to Europe. Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, is a thoroughly European politician in a way that would seem unremarkable anywhere else in the EU but Britain: he worked in Brussels for many years, is married to a Spanish lawyer and speaks several European languages. Some British newspapers have taken this as a sign of his "foreignness".

Closer ties would be a hard sell for most Tories, always sceptical about devolving powers to Europe, and David Cameron explicitly ruled it out. Yet there is agreement on the basic idea of recalibrating Britain's links with the United States. The Conservatives want stronger connections separate from the US and Europe - they have spoken of expanding cultural, educational and military alliances with South Asia, Latin America and emerging Arab states.

On Afghanistan, the Tories have proposed no major changes to Labour's current strategy. Cameron's government wants to stay the course in Afghanistan and is committed to the US role there. Yet the Lib Dems have spoken of bringing troops home by the end of the next parliament in 2015. As domestic cuts begin to bite, it will be harder to sell the idea of long-term engagement in Afghanistan. That may push the Liberal Democrats to agitate for a swifter withdrawal, or at least a timetable - potentially leading to a clash with the Americans who, come the next election in two years, will be looking for good news from the war.

By then, of course, there may be another war in the region. The Tories follow the American position that no options should be off the table in dealing with Iran. The Lib Dems want to rule out military action, saying the approach to Iran's purported nuclear weapons programme must be multilateral and political. They have made the convincing point that closer involvement in the European Union can go some way to solving the confrontation: they point out that, for example, the EU remains Iran's largest commercial partner, giving it significant economic leverage. Iran will be a sticking point and without sufficient votes in parliament, the Tories are unlikely to be as hawkish as they might like.

On the situation in Gaza and the wider Arab-Israeli conflict, a government with the Liberal Democrats is likely to be progressive and push for real progress. The Conservatives have said publicly they would be a committed friend to Israel, while the Lib Dems have spoken out more clearly than the other parties about the crisis in Gaza, calling it a "humanitarian catastrophe". Although it is a relatively minor issue for the British electorate, if the Lib Dems form a coalition - and with Obama taking a tough line in the US - there may be a chance for limited progress.

Foreign affairs is far from a priority for the Conservatives; their focus is the economy. Yet having failed to win enough votes for a clear mandate, they find themselves trying to work with a party whose manifesto is the most left-wing of the major parties. Only time will tell whether the flirtation of yesterday can turn into a long-term relationship, but for now David Cameron's "Big Society" just got a lot bigger.

* The National