Cameron had little choice today. At PMQs he played it sober and he played it statesmanlike. The Afghan issue, which is close to becoming a crisis, dominated the session. Both main party leaders were standing shoulder to shoulder, and Cameron used five of his six questions asking the same thing. ‘Are we both right in thinking we’re both right?’ Yes, said the PM, we’re right.
Afghanistan’s salvation lies in the usual mantras. More ‘training up’ of security services, more help for the economy, greater attempts to root out corruption etc. It must all be ‘better targeted’ and ‘more focused’. The question of a ‘single, strong co-ordinating figure’ is being discussed in Washington. Nothing has been decided.
Only Nick Clegg showed signs of chipping a hole in the façade. ‘How much time is the prime minister giving President Karzai to clean up his government?’ Brown repeated his earlier arguments but his answer didn’t matter. Clegg’s question conceals the key point. ‘How much time?’ Evidently Clegg thinks Karzai has had ample opportunity to straighten out his bent regime and he should be put on notice and perhaps threatened with withdrawal. The LibDems have sorely missed the ‘Not In My Name’ effect, and with the Iraq issue moribund they need a new war to protest against. Here it is. The clock is ticking, not so much for Karzai as for the LibDems. It can’t be long before they suspend their support for the mission. Machievellian pacifism, for sure, but if they can complete the hand-brake turn before the election it may save them a few seats.
Labour backbencher David Winnick echoed this sentiment. ‘The country is entitled to know how long troops must stay.’ But Brown and Cameron are contemplating nothing as robust as a timetable. They boasted competitively that they had witnessed impressive mentoring programmes in Afghanistan. One wonders about the value of such trips. A visiting politician is bound to see only well-motivated Afghans snapping to attention and beaming with joy at the training initiatives that help feed their families.
The consensus seemed a mite too sweet and cosy today. Paul Flynn split the fig open and laid out its bruised and grainy innards.
‘Does the prime minister have confidence that Afghans will be prepared to slaughter their brother Afghans in support of a foreign power and a corrupt president who has just rigged his re-election?’
Put like that our mission appears – and can only appear – like an occupation. And it won’t matter to the Afghans if the new colonists arrive with shiny new social policies, equality initiatives, burqa-free zones, unisex playgroups and No Smoking signs. As for the mysterious ‘co-ordinator’ who may or may not be appointed, he too will seem like a sinister proconsul despatched from the capital of a distant empire.
There were a few lighter moments today provided unwittingly by Labour’s whips. These parliamentary gangsters had spent a busy morning getting backbenchers to memorise questions. Here was their plan. (Decide for yourself how brilliant it was.) The stooge was ordered to refer to a promise Labour has fulfilled thus providing the PM with a chance to needle Dave over the Euro-referendum. Brilliant or not, the scheme misfired. Asked about cancer waiting times Brown cheerfully launched into ‘a quote from the shadow health secretary’. Mr Speaker promptly cut him dead. ‘I don’t think we need to go into that today, prime minister.’ The yellow card should have warned David Blunkett to alter his question but, no, he surged onward into the waiting trap. ‘What does the prime minister think of the credibility of a party leader who has made a cast-iron guarantee that turns out to have been made of plywood?’ The Speaker instantly ordered Brown to refer only to government policy. This effectively muffled the PM’s guns.
During the occasional moments of levity, Brown seemed in a jolly mood today but he didn’t realise the joke was on him. Briefed to keep mentioning Labour’s ‘cast-iron’ promises he continually repeated the phrase ‘iron-cast promises’. Time for this idiot incompetent to call an election general.