The news from Libya, Bahrain and elsewhere has turned any joy that greeted the first flickers of rebellion in north Africa into a grim realisation that the world is now a far more complex place. The foreign office has been blamed where it did not deserve blame—over delayed evacuations and a bungled SAS operation—and avoided flak where it deserved heavy fire, over its flawed support for dictators, its failure to predict unrest and its feeble response when the crisis flared up. The unrest has also sparked sharp confrontation in the cabinet. Education secretary Michael Gove was reported to be “messianic” as he led demands for a more forceful response to the Libyan crisis while William Hague, true to foreign office tradition, was far more cautious, disgracefully arguing that it would be wrong to “pick winners” as events unfold.
So far, the internal debate has been between Tory hawks and doves. There are inevitable differences of opinion between optimists excited by the potential spread of democracy in the Arab world and self-styled realists adopting a more typical conservative position of non-interference. The prime minister has emerged as something of a liberal interventionist, leading international calls for the west to take action over Libya.
But the bigger question as we confront this unruly new world order is how far could the Lib Dems go if Britain becomes embroiled in a new conflict overseas? Having abandoned their pledge on tuition fees, one has to wonder if they would have the stomach for a messy foreign incursion. Their defining issue in recent years has, after all, been opposition to the Iraq war.
There is a solution: press Paddy Ashdown into service as foreign secretary. The unfortunate truth is William Hague has looked unconvincing in the spotlight of diplomacy—indeed, many in the party wonder if the fire has gone from his belly when it comes to politics. So why not move Hague into the party chairmanship or some other key role in which his undoubted talents would be better used, and bring Lord Ashdown back into the political frontline?
He has an impressive record on foreign affairs, especially during the break-up of Yugoslavia, when he showed political courage in lobbying for action to halt the atrocities. Given his unstoppable energy, his military record and his diplomatic service in Bosnia, he could, if necessary, reassure both his party and the nation that supporting oppressed people demanding civil society is very different from supporting a US president seeking to impose democracy in Iraq.
Ashdown has been a vociferous cheerleader for the government despite his initial doubts, and has strong personal links on both sides of the coalition. He might need a hardline Eurosceptic as Europe minister to reassure the Tory right, but the former Lib Dem leader is a popular figure even in those quarters. And it is hard to see a stronger contender among senior Conservatives.
Such a move would be a bold measure to underpin the coalition, while providing valuable support for both the prime minister and his deputy. Ashdown wanted a cabinet post under Tony Blair. He rejected one under Gordon Brown. Perhaps his time has finally come under David Cameron.