Peter Hoskin

No clear winner in the foreign affairs debate

No clear winner in the foreign affairs debate
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Only defuse.  That seemed to be the approach of all three participants in the Daily Politics' foreign affairs debate this afternoon.  The frequent questions from Andrew Neil and Mark Urban put David Miliband, William Hague and the Lib Dems' Ed Davey on the collective back foot.  It was all they could do to take some of the sting out of proceedings.

In Miliband's case, that meant Iraq and defence spending.  On the former, he started with one of the bluntest statements we've heard from any government minister on the issue: "If we knew then what we know now," he said, "we wouldn't have gone into Iraq."  You can see the thinking: distance the Brown Government from Blair's War.  But I imagine most people will regard this simply as admission of culpability from Labour.  And as for equipping our troops, Miliband recited his lines from the Brown copybook: saying that defence spending has risen in real terms over the past 13 years.  Yes, Mr Miliband – but we've fought two major wars over the same time period.  And they were both conducted on peacetime budgets, rising or not.

For Ed Davey, the tough questions were over Europe and Trident.  Selling the Lib Dems' Euro-federalism is probably Nick Clegg's biggest problem ahead of Thursday's debate – so Davey did his best to downplay it.  "The state of the economy and Sterling means there's no way we will join the Euro in the next few years," he stressed, adding that "if we thought it was a good idea, we'd hold a referndum so the British people could decide."  Hm – so far, so new politics.  But he sounded wobblier on Trident – wavering between whether the Lib Dems would hold a review into a nuclear deterrent, or whether they had a definite policy in mind already.  Cue Davey's opponents claiming that he was playing politics with our national security.  

Which leaves William Hague.  The shadow foreign secretary was in uncharacteristically subdued form, I thought.  He made a spirited defence of David Cameron's comments about Trident and China last week, and started half an attack on Labour's spending on helicopters.  But little of what he said really sticks in the mind.  And it didn't help that both Davey and Miliband ganged up on him over the Tories' ties in Europe, in particular.  Hague did deploy one of his parties' trump cards, though, by mentioning how the other two had instigated a "betrayal of democracy" over the Lisbon Treaty.  Word from the doorsteps suggests that this is a more important issue than most politicos realise.

Overall, I'm reluctant to call it either way.  All three participants seemed to be treading water, and gasping for air whenever their heads bobbed above the surface.  Miliband was undermined by the last 13 years of government.  Davey downplayed his party's European outlook, and managed to drop in soundbites about the "old parties".  Hague was efficient, if not quite sparkling.  And ... well ... that's about the sum of it.