Is Cameron a statesman or a showman?

The truth is that David Cameron caught a break over Libya. But next time he may not be so lucky

Some good news for Nick Clegg. He has an admirer. Now the bad news. His fan is sitting 2,000 miles away in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

"If I was living in Britain I'd vote for Clegg," says Dr Husam Zomlot, deputy commissioner for international relations for Fatah. "I'm still what you call left-wing, but obviously after what the Labour government did I couldn't support them." He smiles, "I'm speaking in a personal capacity, of course."

In a few hours he is preparing to depart for a visit to London and other European capitals. He will be travelling in expectation, not just hope.

"We're looking to Europe to help us move the process forward. Britain, Germany and France are key." Is Britain now seen to be playing a positive role from the Palestinian point of view? "Absolutely. Cameron and Hague have come a long way. They're prepared to take an independent line from the United States. This is very important."

The product of the Bullingdon Club and the product of the PLO executive committee have found common cause.

Ever be a diplomat

In the centre of Jerusalem, Mark Regev, official spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has a different perspective on David Cameron's role in the search for regional peace.

"To be honest, I'm not really that up to speed with current UK policy, or changes from the stance of the previous UK administration," says Regev. "You're better off putting that question to one of my colleagues in the foreign affairs ministry."

Contrast with his response on the status of other allies. "Prime Minister Netanyahu and Prime Minister Papandreou are on the phone constantly. We have an excellent relationship with the Cypriots, who are an important regional partner. We are developing our links with eastern European states like Bulgaria."

Regev's ignorance of UK policy is, of course, diplomatic. Other Israeli officials are more blunt: "What do we think when we hear the British Prime Minister referring to Gaza as a prison camp? It won't surprise you to learn we don't find it helpful."

Statements of intent

When Tony Blair said in the wake of September 11, "the kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux", he wasn't kidding. If you view Iraq as Blair's nemesis, and his departure the beginning of the end of the Labour government, the reordered image in which a Tory PM is praised in Ramallah and subtly snubbed in Jerusalem is uneasy on the eye but was foreseeable.

On one level, this strange state of affairs is simply the fruition of a stance trailed by William Hague as far back as 2006. Any article written by the then shadow foreign secretary headlined "We should not be afraid to criticise Israel" would send a signal. That it was written at precisely the moment Hezbollah was sending 4,000 Katyusha rockets slamming into Israeli cities, and Tel Aviv was pledging "a very painful and far-reaching response", represented a clear statement of policy intent for a future Tory government.

There is also the political reality on the ground. The peace process has stalled, the Netanyahu coalition has neither the wit nor the political capital to restart it, and Downing Street clearly feels there is little to be lost in ruffling the feathers of a lame-duck administration.

But there is another factor. Cameron simply cannot help approaching foreign affairs like a bull in search of a china shop. It may be unfashionable to say this at a time when he is being widely feted as the Lion of Benghazi. But though his instincts on Libya were right, his policy implementation has been lousy. Lest we forget, it was his Foreign Secretary who informed the world a no-fly zone was unnecessary, except perhaps over Caracas.

It was Cameron himself who marched the troops up the hill in his initial statement to the Commons, only to have his spokesman spin them back down again 24 hours later. Britain's Prime Minister failed to get even the principle of a military response inserted into the EU's Libya communiqué, didn't talk to the US president for nine full days in advance of the tabling of the no-fly resolution, and had to rely on the Arab League to convince the US that they had the necessary cover to take a resolution to the UN.

The truth is David Cameron caught a break over Libya. Next time he may not be so lucky. And next time is fast approaching.

Play it big?

Let us return to Dr Zomlot. His visit is not to exchange pleasantries. It's part of a concerted push for full EU recognition of a Palestinian state, regardless of the status of the peace process, when the Obama deadline for resolution expires in September.

On present form, Cameron may be inclined to pitch to the gallery. Recognition would be a bold gesture. And our Prime Minister has a taste for the big political play.

But not automatically the right one. The collapse of negotiations was not necessarily viewed as harmful by the Palestinians, in particular Hamas. Recognition would not of itself kick-start that process, very possibly the reverse. And recognising a state governed by a political authority that has consistently postponed elections, in the face of opposition from what, inconveniently for Israel's critics, remains the Middle East's only true functioning democracy, would hardly fit the spirit of the "Arab spring".

David Cameron has survived his first significant foreign-policy trial, but he's done so by the skin of his teeth. Those to come will require statesmanship, not showmanship. His reaction to premature calls for Palestinian statehood will test whether he possesses it.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.