Britain has not rejected America nor abdicated its role in the world. The Sun’s reports of the death of the special relationship are exaggerated. Thursday’s vote may have given John Kerry a chance to indulge his Francophillia (‘our oldest ally,’ purred the Swiss-educated State Secretary) but this was not us chickening out. It was a very British omnishambles. Today’s Daily Telegraph splash carries the depressing details of what went wrong.
This is not the first time Cameron has conjured up an historic defeat from nowhere. Remember the Health Bill? The 2012 Backfiring Budget? The 71 U-turns? You could add the general election campaign, perhaps the biggest self-inflicted wound of all. The Syria vote fits a trend. And it highlights a few tips that the government can usefully follow in the future:-
Rule No1: Don’t call a vote on an issue as fundamental as war and peace unless you think you can win it. Cameron can be forgiven for failing to win around Ed Miliband. The worse offence is misjudging the mood of his own party, wrongly thinking they’d back him. The Telegraph has more: Alan Duncan and David Gauke say they’d been given permission to stay away. Tory sources dispute this. Justine Greening and Mark Simmonds claim not to have known the vote was on, so they missed it. So Cameron staked his credibility on a vote he could not organize. It’s more Carry On Governing than House of Cards.
Rule No2: Put a bit of stick about. The US has just seen House of Cards for the first time – a Netflix remake which stars a new Machiavellian fixer. Its moral: a leader needs someone who understands the needs, ambitions and foibles of vote-wielding politicians. Cameron is leading a tribe and can’t forget the tribesmen. Yet No10 is wired up as the Dave Machine, to accommodate the Prime Minister’s speeches, ambitions, trips, relations and news appearances. It works very well: Cameron is a brilliant performer, whose eloquence brings immense credit to the country. But he’s less good leading the parliamentary party, too quick to think that he’s home and dry if they bang their desks loud enough in the 1922 Committee.
Rule No3: Nurture allies. Ones that can defend you. To Cameron, politics is social. As he sees it, people back him if they like him and rebel if they don’t. He likes to befriend, rather than persuade. But politics is about ideas and shared goals, not Chequers invites, and No10 makes very little effort to recruit allies who can help it make the case. (It has only just appointed an External Relations co-ordinator, the estimable Gabby Bertin). As a result, when Cameron’s in the soup, hardly anyone pops up to defend him. Not does he have nearly as many advocates as he needs in the parliamentary party. I have been amazed, as a Cameron supporter, to see him forced into U-turns on issues he should have won easily.
Rule No4: Politics is about making and winning arguments. The Cameron operation tends to spring ideas on a surprised party: the Big Society, the need for radical NHS reform, the pasty tax and gay marriage, not mentioned in its lengthy manifesto. This is because the Cameron operation itself arrives at ideas very late and seldom plans more than 48 hours in advance. Contrast this with successful health and welfare reform: agendas drawn up years in advance, carried out with radicalism but plenty explanation and helped by a coalition of supporters.
Rule No5: When proposing war, know your enemy. At the very least, know his name. Just after the vote, the Defence Secretary was on national television speaking about the need for action against “Saddam Hussein”. The audio is below.
This may give American readers some idea of the uncertainty projected by Cameron’s government when trying to convince parliament. I suspect that if Obama had a clear, credible plan to actually depose Bashar Assad, invade Syria, stop the war and put in a democracy than he’d be backed by Parliament and by the British public. But the case for firing missiles targeted so as not to weaken Assad’s barbaric regime? It would have been a war without a purpose, as our leading article in The Spectator says.
The above dismays those of us who believe in what Cameron is trying to do, and who want to avoid the calamity of a Miliband government in 2015. “The incompetence is staggering” a pro-Cameron MP tells the FT today. Cameron was elected to save Britain, not Syria, and he’s doing his day job very well. Even recalling parliament is a sign of a laudable Cameron reform. What he gets right vastly outweighs what’s going wrong. But his government has a depressing habit of pretending otherwise.
One final thing. Those around Cameron hate admitting to bungling things, which is why they keep doing so. But they should be careful about blaming parliament – or, worse, the public – for this. Lord Finkelstein says in today’s Times that “the position we have taken for 75 years no longer enjoys popular support and confidence… we have woken up to a different country.” I’m not so sure. We have woken up to the same country where, not so long ago, regime change in Libya was backed by the public and Parliament (by 557 votes to 13) which was convinced by Cameron’s plan to depose a dictator. But Britain has learned, after Afghanistan and Iraq, that the case for war needs to be carefully thought-through. This one just wasn’t.
And if the Cameroons believe so fervently in Britain’s stature being affected by the ability to deploy military force, then maybe they should have thought twice before cutting the defence budget and while stuffing DFID like a foie gras duck.
Still, the outside world can be forgiven for seeing last week’s vote as a sign that Britain is losing its nerve. After all, ‘omnishambles’ does not translate into many languages. It seems to be a very British political disorder.
UPDATE: The New York Times on Sunday says that:-
“Mr. Obama was annoyed by what he saw as Mr. Cameron’s stumbles, reflecting a White House view that Mr. Cameron had mishandled the situation”.
So I suppose “stumbles” is the closest American English equivalent to “omnishambles”.Tags: Big Society, Daniel Finkelstein, Omnishambles, Syria