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
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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