David Cameron’s globetrotting, self-proclaimed “jobs mission” was apparently intended to both reiterate Chancellor George Osborne’s message that Britain has reopened for business and embrace foreign secretary’s William Hague calls for a new diplomacy that reduced our overreliance on America and sought closer ties with the emerging powers of tomorrow. A new blunt diplomatic style has certainly emerged from the Prime Minister but it is questionable whether or not it shall prove fruitful for the nation’s interests.
In interviews over the course of the trip Cameron has admitted that in coalition it takes longer to get MPs from his own party on board. Perhaps this loss of immediate influence over Conservative MPs has encouraged the new Prime Minister to be more assertive and presidential in speeches, or “frank” as he puts it, so that he can exercise power elsewhere. What Cameron has hurriedly defended as honesty others see as risky brutality. In Turkey he referred to Gaza as a “prison camp” in a shameless attempt to please his hosts and has followed this of course with the more widely publicised criticism of Pakistan’s terror links whilst in India. Cameron appears to have been trying to score easy points with his host nations by verbally attacking their old enemies, whilst apparently forgetting the all seeing eye of modern media and the importance of the UK’s relations with Israel and Pakistan as well as Turkey and India. In the case of Pakistan his comments were particularly misguided as progress was being made and will only ever continue with close cooperation from the Pakistani government and military. Inflammatory comments likely to destabilise a fragile but necessary partnership in security will not serve Britain’s interests, even when the PM insists that his comments only referred to widely known truths.
Cameron’s defence of his behaviour has shown his naivety as a leader and statesman. Repeatedly he has insisted that he would not feel comfortable being dishonest and he sees no reason to not say what he thinks and point out the realities of situations. This sort of answer might please voters at home and indeed it seems that the Prime Minister is more comfortable as leader of the opposition, using his bluntness as a tool for political gain through his “Cameron Direct” meetings. The fact is that even though Cameron has merely stated the widely known reality of situations, diplomacy, particularly when you are seeking to gain from it, requires subtlety and the judgement to pick which issues you are blunt and firm about.
Given that Cameron insisted the whole huge trip, entourage and all, was about securing jobs for British people and markets for recovery, he has missed an enormous opportunity to take a worthwhile gamble instead of being reckless in other areas for reasons of image. I have examined the idea of a “New Politics” on my blog before and whether or not this is something Cameron truly believes in or simply a political tool his first foreign policy tour has been a failure. Firstly if we assume that Cameron uses the idea of a “New Politics” largely as a politic tool, which frankly I do, Cameron has blundered over Afghanistan as well as Pakistan. By committing to a withdrawal date in 2015 he has not only placed an unwanted burden upon the armed forces but started a countdown towards political suicide; in the likely event that the situation on the ground does not permit a total pull out in the time limit he has agreed to, mostly to appease President Obama. Secondly then, if we take the idea of “New Politics” seriously, Cameron missed a perfect, opportune moment to take an inspirational stand against non-renewable energy in the wake of the BP Oil spill and call for a new way forward.
Whilst in America Cameron made a lot of noise about not simply pandering to the Americans anymore, being realistic about the nature of the special relationship, calling us a “junior partner” but insisting he would get a better deal for the UK out of future relations. However what actually happened was that Cameron downplayed the significance of his own nation, abandoned the Scottish legislature, branding their decision to release Megrahi as wrong (whether it was or not, did he need to come down so hard on the Scots?), and failed to defend an oil company vital to thousands of Britons’ interests that is also full of American shareholders, executives and only exists because of the world’s richest nation’s unquenchable thirst for the black gold.
If Cameron was the prophet of “New Politics” he claims to be he would have expressed deep regret at the damage caused by the oil spill and agreed that it was right BP clean it up (whilst insisting it would do no good to destroy BP as a company). He would then have referred to President Obama’s previous description of the spill as a disaster on the level of 9/11 and recognised this as his moment to touch the hearts of the world as Tony Blair did in the wake of that attack and unite two nations across the Atlantic. He would have argued that the tough truth exposed by the spill was that our way of life was dangerous and destructive as well as unsustainable, and therefore required a more urgent solution. He should have appealed to America and Britain’s joint legacy of leading the world against new challenges and offered to support and partner President Obama in pioneering a new generation of renewable, clean energy sources that would provide jobs and investment in the short term and vital energy security in the long run. He would have pointed to his government’s commitment to deficit reduction to show that he believes in sustainability in all areas of government but also urged the President to set aside funds for replacing the dependency on oil with innovative, inspiring new technologies. He should have left America with this message for green jobs and carried it to his meetings with all world leaders as the defining aspect of his diplomacy and insisted green restructuring be closely tied to economic recovery as it continued. This universal, unifying message would have been far more suited to a Prime Minister on his first foreign policy trip and far more inspirational than cheap, undignified point scoring. It would also clearly state Britain was open for the right sort of business; green, sustainable business with jobs that would last, instead of empty promises alongside policies like the immigration cap that rendered them immediately worthless.
All in all Cameron’s first foray into international leadership reinforced some opinions I held of him before and during the election. As a competent government leader on the world stage he does not compare to the gruff efficiency of Gordon Brown and his ideological spending cuts are likely to alienate important economies rather than entice them. His apparent commitment to passionate, inspirational political ventures does also not extend to urgent challenges like climate change, which might just allow Britain to find a place in the world again. His hasty honesty and radical conservative policy are thankfully tempered, albeit loosely at times, by his Liberal coalition partners, but Clegg and co must be careful that crafty Cameron does not amass all the political capital gained by the coalition.
Two Eds really are better than one
It has been one of those weeks in politics. As well as dull but incredibly important legislative procedure on issues like voting reform and the EMA, there have been the scandalous, newsworthy, headline-grabbing stories which get everyone interested and have the potential to set the tone of debate for the foreseeable future. On Friday the big story was supposed to be the once charismatic, fallen and tainted PM Tony Blair giving evidence for a second time at a historic war inquiry. Instead both of the major parties faced employment crises that sent morale on an undulating, yo-yoing rollercoaster ride.
At the end of that ride it seems Labour, against the odds, have emerged with their heads held high and full of hope. The resignation of David Cameron’s long-term spin doctor Andy Coulson proves them right on a point they’ve been making in Opposition for months. With little policy of their own to use as ammunition against Coalition cuts, Labour have relished the niggling issue of Coulson’s shady past at the News of the World. By finally quitting Coulson has reinforced Labour’s attempts to expose the “new” politics of the coalition as the same old dishonest, elitist governance of old. Coulson may have tried to serve his employer well one last time with the timing of his announcement, shrouded as it was in theory by the gargantuan story of a Labour frontbench reshuffle so soon after the selection of the original line-up. But for the moment at least it’s Labour that are buoyed by events and the Tories feeling somewhat dejected.
Back in October I aired my views on this blog about the announcement of Ed Miliband’s first Shadow Cabinet. To me the appointment of Alan Johnson was a mistake, and far be it from me to blow my own trumpet, but events have proved my initial musings correct. Johnson went from gaffe to gaffe, showing a worrying lack of knowledge for his brief. Labour continually failed to land palpable hits on economic issues, despite a plethora of targets laid bare by Con-Dem cuts. Meanwhile Ed Balls, after a dynamic and impressive leadership campaign, languished largely unnoticed as Shadow Home Secretary. No one seemed to be pro-active enough to take the fight to the Conservatives on damaging policies in a noticeable way. Balls’ wife, Yvette Cooper, also wasted away shadowing the foreign office brief, despite widespread backing in the party and the potential for public support. The only Labour frontbencher scoring economic points was Shadow Business Secretary John Denham, and even he has left glaring gaps in his arguments and been error prone.
Alan Johnson’s sudden resignation due to personal issues so soon into his new, vital job may be a blessing in disguise for Labour and everyone wishing to see credible Opposition to Coalition cuts. Despite the mistakes, Johnson has once again proved in his short tenure his capacity to be likeable and approachable to ordinary voters. The revelation that it was in fact his wife having an affair, not him, ensures the prospect of return to the Labour frontbench in a smaller, popular role in the future. With Johnson’s static, timid fiscal presence brushed aside though, Labour can at last forge a bold new and distinctive direction on all things economic.
I praised Ed Balls during his leadership campaign for going a long way to reshape his bullyboy image. More than any other candidate, Balls looked as if he’d give Labour a truly individual position on policy. Continually described as Labour’s “attack dog” Balls will now have much greater freedom to bite at the heels of the Coalition. As Shadow Chancellor he’ll have to respond to hot, topical issues like tuition fees and bankers’ bonuses; fresh and emotive in the public consciousness. He’ll also have to start winning the argument on growth and investment vs. spending cuts.
Already though he has shown signs of defending Labour’s past record more effectively, explaining his decision to now back the plan he once opposed to halve the deficit within four years, by citing better figures driven by Labour’s spending whilst in government. He’s also been wise to already criticise the government, not for risking a double-dip recession, which looks unlikely, but for wasting an opportunity for greater growth and wider prosperity because of ideological decisions. And growth, Balls will emphasise, is the swiftest, most sustainable route to deficit reduction.
There are still those warning against the potential problems of two Eds at the top though. The primary fear is a return to the Blair-Brown standoff that came to define and overshadow New Labour. This concern adds the extra interest of a helping of recent political history to the mix of this story. Will Labour repeat past mistakes, despite Miliband’s proclamation of a new generation? Even if the new team propels Labour back to government, the same old potentially lethal questions will hang ominously over the partnership between the leader and the treasury.
However I think the doubters are at the very least premature to suspect Balls of wanting to derail Miliband’s revival of the party. Despite the fact he ran for leader, it’s no secret that the job Balls has always wanted is Chancellor. Finally in a position to seize his goal, he is unlikely to turn his fire on his own party. Much more likely is that Balls will electrify the chamber, as one Labour source believes he will, and unleash an avalanche of devastating balls of criticism at the government. He’ll add much needed guts and yes, “Balls”, to Labour’s Opposition. He’s already proved his aptitude for Opposition politics during his leadership campaign.
Balls’ wife will also have greater opportunity to play a key role, replacing her husband as Shadow Home Secretary. She’ll no doubt start picking apart government policing plans. But once again Ed Miliband showed a disappointing lack of courage with his emergency reshuffle. Already he’s failed to take climate change seriously or offer serious backing to voting reform or a graduate tax. And by handing Balls Johnson’s old job, not his wife, he once again missed an opportunity to make his generation truly a new one.
Failing with his initial selection of a cabinet though meant he simply had to give the role to Balls. Who will, I believe, do a genuinely excellent job and accelerate Labour’s journey back to power. The two Eds plan to have adjacent offices and the fears of a Blair-Brown fallout seem unfounded to me. Nevertheless they will not disappear and had Miliband boldly plumped for the equally qualified Cooper, he would have avoided the shadow of New Labour he is so desperate to escape.
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