Gibraltar row '“ Is armed conflict with Spain really possible?

Of all the politicians one might expect to start a diplomatic incident, former Tory leader (Lord) Michael Howard wouldn't be high up many people's list.

Gibraltar. Picture: TSPL
Gibraltar. Picture: TSPL

Lord Howard appeared on no fewer than three news programmes yesterday to discuss the Gibraltar situation, and comparing Theresa May’s approach to Spain with that of Margaret Thatcher declaring war on Argentina.

That he made the comparison, saying it was relevant because we had a ‘female Prime Minister’ dealing with a ‘Spanish-speaking country’ on a number of different occasions shows it was no slip of the tongue.

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The inflammatory tone struck by Lord Howard came after the draft Brexit demands from the EU leaked, which said that a deal shouldn’t apply to Gibraltar without the permission of Spain.

Those terms prompted a strong reaction from across the political spectrum, with some Remain backing politicians saying it was just one of the unintended negative consequences of leaving the EU.

Some Leave MPs maintain that this is just the usual arm-chancing from Spain, which has often claimed sovereignty over Gibraltar, and that a Spanish ‘veto’ won’t work in practice.

But with the distinctly martial tone struck yesterday, just how likely is it that post-Brexit Britain could find itself in a conflict with Spain.

Howard’s Way

It is firstly important to know that Lord Howard was speaking for himself, not the Government, in his interviews yesterday.

He isn’t a Cabinet Minister, or even an adviser, despite being a senior member of the House of Lords, so certainly isn’t capable of firing any starting gun (figuratively or literally) on Britain’s approach to any perceived Spanish aggression.

However, the reluctance of Downing Street to completely disavow the remarks of Lord Howard are significant, even as controversy raged yesterday.

While Howard had been given the afternoon to ‘cool off’ as Spanish diplomats suggested, he still appeared later on Channel 4 news to double down on his comments.

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As that happened, the official spokesman of Theresa May said that it was important for Lord Howard to establish the resolve of Britain in defending the sovereignty of Gibraltar.

That reluctance perhaps is a symptom more of Mrs May’s recalcitrance in offending the pro-Brexit media or her more hawkish backbench MPs, rather than any desire to have Lord Howard’s comments go on record as her official policy.

What the others Say

So it was left to some of Theresa May’s more reliable public faces to articulate the Government’s view on the Gibraltar issue.

Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, said on The Andrew Marr show ahead of Lord Howard’s contentious interviews that the UK would go ‘all the way’ to protect the rocky outpost, which still hosts a British Army base.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson “I think the position of the Government is very, very clear.

“The sovereignty of Gibraltar is unchanged and it’s not going to change, and cannot conceivably change without the express support and consent of the people of Gibraltar and the United Kingdom.”

Theresa May told reporters on her trip to Gulf states that it was ‘definitely jaw-jaw’ in an attempt to laugh off the situation.

That doesn’t mean that the talk wasn’t condemned, with Lib Dem Leader Tim Farron saying that it was ‘inflammatory rubbish’.

One of Boris Johnson’s predecessors as Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, said that the idea of going to war with Spain was ‘absurd and reeks of 19th century jingoism’.

How Realistic is it?

Despite what some people say, and despite the obvious sabre-rattling, any armed conflict with Spain remains distinctly unlikely.

As one wit pointed out online, the Article 5 treaty of Nato would mandate Britain to declare war on itself if it declared war on Spain.

There is little comparison to be made with the situation in the Falkland Islands which motivated Britain to go to war with Argentina.

What the row does show, is how influential outbursts like these, even from relative political non-entities like Lord Howard, can be as ‘reluctant remainer’ Theresa May tries to govern for Brexit Britain.

The Prime Minister has walked and talked an awful lot like a leave voter since taking over from David Cameron, and that leaves her in an awkward position when situations like this arise.

As for Gibraltar, eyes around the world will watch with interest as the EU deals with a dispute that was previous between two member states, but is now between a Britain on the outside and a staunchly pro-EU member in Spain.