Britain’s ruling couple, Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy, Nick Clegg, have ventured onto sticky military terrain, the first appearing to belittle Britain’s armed forces, the second suggesting the UK had taken part in an "illegal war".
So much so, it seems, that they even time their war gaffes to match – despite the PM and his deputy being an ocean apart and talking about two very different conflicts.
Cameron was in the US this week for his first official visit to the White House.
With his trip clouded by BP’s woes and new twists in the Lockerbie affair, Cameron worked hard – perhaps too hard – to appease and flatter his ally.
On Wednesday, he sought to remind the US that Britain remained “a very effective partner”, if only “a junior partner”.
That was simply stating the obvious. But Cameron then went on to say that “We [the British] were the junior partner in 1940 when we were fighting the Nazis,” neglecting the fact that the US did not join World War II until December of the next year.
For Britain, a country priding itself in having stood alone against Nazi Germany and its allies, Japan and Italy, for over a year, the gaffe was somewhat embarrassing.
The opposition Labour Party was swift to pounce on the prime minister’s remarks.
“1940 was our finest hour. Millions of Britons stood up and gave their lives to defeat fascism,” said David Milliband, the shadow foreign secretary, describing Cameron’s words as “a slight, not a slip”.
Asked about the prime minister’s remarks, a spokeswoman for No.10 Downing Street told the BBC that Cameron had emphatically not sought to belittle the efforts of British troops.
In a heated exchange on Wednesday with Jack Straw of the opposition Labour party, who was foreign secretary when the Iraq war began, Clegg, the government’s No2, called on Straw to "account for [his] role in the most disastrous decision of all, which is the illegal invasion of Iraq."
The remarks, coming from a staunch and consistent opponent of the war, would have raised few eyebrows had Clegg not become a member of government and -- more importantly -- had he not been representing the prime minister in the weekly question-and-answer session with members of parliament.
Unlike Clegg, Cameron supported the Iraq war, as did most of his Conservative party.
Perhaps more worryingly for the government, a legal expert quoted by British daily the Guardian said Clegg’s remarks could be seized upon by international courts investigating the conflict.
Clegg later insisted he had spoken in his capacity as leader of the Lib Dems, while a spokesperson for Downing Street rushed to say that Clegg’s words were not government policy.
"The coalition government has not expressed a view on the legality or otherwise of the Iraq conflict," he said in a statement. "But that does not mean that individual members of the government should not express their individual views."
Downing Street also said it was looking forward to receiving the conclusions of an inquiry into the run-up to the war, the so-called Chilcot inquiry.
In the meantime, it appears members of parliament will have to guess on who they will see next time Clegg stands in for Cameron, the Lib-Dem leader or the deputy prime minister.
Date created : 2010-07-22