The Tory right shows its muscle

An encounter with the Jurassic wing of the Conservative Party

From the Conservative conference

Away from the pastel colours and soft furnishings of the conference hall, a packed fringe meeting held by the Thatcherite Bruges Group felt like a foreign land. Here, Enoch Powell was right, Section 28 should be restored, and Britain is no longer a self-governing power. With more than 600 people in attendance, the largest meeting I've seen all conference season, the Tory right showed its muscle.

The ostensible motion was: "Are the political parties failing the voters of Britain?" But the meeting was inevitably dominated by the view that the Conservative Party had failed the people of Britain over Europe. Even before the speeches began, a cartoon depicting Margaret Thatcher as Queen Boudicca riding out of Brussels prompted waves of applause.

There were almost xenophobic levels of contempt for David Cameron's pledge to ring-fence overseas aid. The speakers, including the Daily Telegraph's Simon Heffer and the Mail on Sunday's Peter Hitchens, all forcefully declared that public spending should be cut across the board. But they at least followed the logic of their position: dramatically reducing the size of the public sector will lead to a surge in unemployment. David Cameron has promised a bonfire of the quangos in all but name while vowing to "get Britain back to work" at the same time. Labour must expose this contradiction far more successfully than it has done.

Heffer was also right to point out that Cameron cannot simply "unpick" the Lisbon Treaty after ratification, with no desire among the other 26 states to renegotiate areas such as justice and home affairs. "There is no middle way," he declared, and called for a referendum on EU membership.

At an earlier fringe meeting on Europe I saw the Sun's associate editor Trevor Kavanagh watch Ken Clarke like a hawk. He later harangued the shadow business secretary over the "anti-democratic" European Union.

It's worth remembering that it was the tabloid's fury over Clarke's return to the shadow cabinet that prompted Cameron's decision to appoint the Eurosceptic William Hague as his de facto deputy. With even Daniel Hannan conceding that a retrospective referendum on the Lisbon Treaty would be "silly", support is growing for the alternative of a referendum on EU membership. If Cameron is elected, I expect the Sun to lead the charge.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.