The big decision

Martin Bright on the calculations that guided Gordon Brown through the election fever and led him to

Courage. It is quality that both obsesses and torments Gordon Brown. He has now written two books on the subject: a series of profiles of his political heroes and a companion volume on ordinary people who have shown extraordinary bravery.

But as he prepares to take the most momentous decision of his political life - whether or not to call a snap election this autumn - he will need all the inspiration he can muster. The Tory conference was not the car crash some expected it to be. David Cameron may not have pulled off the best speech of his career, but it was impressive enough to rally the troops. Brown is no longer fighting a Conservative Party in disarray.

Despite Brown's reputation as the most successful political streetfighter of his generation, his political career has been dogged by a single nagging suspicion. Is he a "bottler"?

When John Smith died in 1994, should he have held his nerve and faced down the challenge from Tony Blair? Many in his inner circle still feel he should not have bent to pressure to stand aside. Then, through the bitter days of the Blair-Brown struggles, the chancellor's courage was often called into question, although some would argue that his dogged patience was a form of bravery in itself, eventually rewarded with the top job after a ten-year wait. But there were also the highly corrosive charges that he would absent himself at moments of crisis for the government.

As Prime Minister, Brown has surprised many people, including those in his own party who did not believe he had it in him. His handling of the terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow, the foot-and-mouth crisis and the summer floods was decisive (as Brown himself was quick to suggest in his speech to Labour's conference, as he paid tribute to the fortitude of the British people).

As his team make their final calculations, the polling analysis being carried out in Labour's election bunker is the most sophisticated yet. Thanks to the technology of the specialist software Mosaic, Labour has long been able to segment the population into dozens of social categories. The information they have built up (akin to the information supermarket chains hold on us), means the party's election literature will be carefully tailored to voters, be they "new-town materialists" or "urban intellectuals", according to the colourful labels of the polling world. Richard Webber, the creator of Mosaic, has been saying for some time that the message produced by the software (when matched with polling information) is that the Labour heartlands are growing ever more disillusioned with conventional politics. These groups, with names such as "Coronation Street", "white van culture", "rust belt resilience" and "older right-to-buy", were as much Brown's target as was Middle England. "British jobs for British people" was meant for both. Although these Mosaic groups are not usually associated with marginal seats, they could make the difference in a close vote and represent many of the millions who abandoned Labour at the last election.

Although I am told the decision on whether to call an election remains on a knife edge, the more personal the attacks by the media or Tory politicians become, the more likely it is that Brown will call an election. He was particularly hurt by the suggestion in the Times that his conference speech was plagiarised from American Democrat politicians. One aide said: "The behaviour of the Tories and some sections of the media shows they are already electioneering. Why should Gordon put up with another six months of this when he can't fight back?"

At times since the Labour conference, the PM has been in a state of barely controlled fury. I am told this grew to a crescendo during the conference speech by the shadow defence spokes man, Liam Fox. If Britain does go to the polls, the following passage may turn out to be the tipping point: "You, Prime Minister - in your self-indulgent, plagiarised, 67-minute speech, how much did you dedicate to Iraq, Afghanistan and our armed forces? One hundred and twenty-six words. One hundred and twenty-six words. One word for every two servicemen or women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Slur on his name

Cameron's decision to devote significant parts of his speech to highly personal slurs on Brown's character will also have stiffened the Prime Minister's resolve. Ridiculing his Scottish pronunciation of "Bournemouth" and repeating the charge of plagiarism may well please the Tory heartlands, but it will also have made an early election more likely.

These attacks mark the final breakdown in the tentative bipartisan approach of the early months of Brown's premiership. Opposition solidarity over the failed terror attacks continued during the first outbreak of foot-and-mouth and the floods, but no further. When Brown's unexpected popularity began seriously to hurt the Tories in the polls, the attacks began. During the second outbreak of foot-and-mouth and the Northern Rock crisis, the Conservatives returned to what they do best (and some would argue is their proper role): attacking the government. But Brown does not forgive easily, and the Tories' behaviour made an autumn poll more likely. The anti-Brown rhetoric in Blackpool may have served to rally the faithful; it may also have bumped Brown into a snap election that he is still likely to win.

Yet, even now, some wise heads within the Brown camp are advising caution. They say the Tory conference pledges, such as the cut in inheritance tax, will unravel further in coming months. Nor is it quite the case that younger members of his circle are urging him to go to the polls while more senior colleagues urge caution. One Brownite MP close to the process who supports an autumn election could still rattle off a series of reasons why it would be a bad idea. "On the face of it there's no need to do it - we still have two and a half years. Things might get even worse for the Tories and people might well ask why we are making them do this." Add to that concerns about a poor turnout on a dark November evening, which would inevitably affect the Labour vote, and it's easy to see why some MPs in marginal seats are urging Brown to wait until spring. On the other hand, Labour strategists have begun to ask a straight question of MPs and candidates in marginal seats: "If we called an election now would you win?" And a resounding "yes" is coming back.

Then there is the so-called "Ashcroft money", the fortune being spent by the party's vice-chairman on target seats in marginal constituencies. A report in the Sunday Telegraph on the eve of the Tory conference suggested Lord Ashcroft had already spend £10m on campaigning before the election had even started. As I first wrote here in April, the name Michael Ashcroft sends a chill through Labour MPs with small majorities, whose ability to hold on to their seats will decide the next election, whenever it comes. At Labour's gathering in Bournemouth, you couldn't move for MPs in huddles talking about "the Ashcroft money". The fear is real. During the first three months of 2005 Ashcroft paid nearly £300,000 in donations to 33 candidates in marginal constituencies. The results were staggering: 11 of the candidates unseated Labour candidates and five vulnerable Conservative MPs were saved. This time around, Ashcroft has refined his attack to an even smaller group of seats, and Brown knows the effects could be far more serious than in 2005.

In the past few weeks, the three-way traffic between MPs in marginal seats, Downing Street and Labour high command has intensified, with opinion shifting in favour of a snap election. Even before Cameron stood up in Blackpool to make his speech some were talking as if the decision had already been made. Emily Thornberry, who narrowly won the Islington South and Finsbury seat in 2005, told the NS: "We were working towards an election on 4 May. It came as a bit of a surprise. In a way it would have been good if it was later: the longer to fight them off, the better. Now I've got over the shock, I'm fine - if we're going to win."

The "if" still lingers. Because the results in the marginal seats are unpredictable, a dip in the polls for Labour could still result in a hung parliament (in effect a devastating defeat for Brown and a victory for Cameron). It may still be possible for the Prime Minister to resist the momentum for a November poll, but he now has all his ducks in place. His long-awaited statement on Iraq was in effect brought forward to coincide with his visit to Basra, with the Comprehensive Spending Review and a significant announcement on the NHS also rescheduled to allow for an announcement on Tuesday.

All that remains is the decision itself. It is likely to obsess and torment him in equal measure. In this context his own personal definition of the courage of his heroes is interesting: "It was not just risk-taking, and definitely not risk-taking in a doubtful cause . . . It was an expression of both strength of character and strength of belief."

Over the next month, whatever he decides, Brown's character will be tested like never before. So which is more courageous? To call a snap election and risk being the shortest-serving Prime Minister in living memory, or to hold off and risk being called a bottler?

Derek Wyatt MP(Sittingbourne and Sheppey - majority 79) "I'm not in favour of an early election. I'd have preferred a Queen's Speech but I sense it may be too late."

Paul Clark (Gillingham and Rainham - maj 254) "I am quite happy whenever Gordon wants to call it."

Martin Linton (Battersea - maj 163) "If he wants to get a fresh mandate that's a good reason but it's not the norm to have an election whenever we have a change of PM."

Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh South - maj 405) "We've had the best four months campaigning outside an election since the poll tax. I'll have a 2,500-3,000 majority if the PM goes now."

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate - maj 3,729) "It's not the preferred option but it looks like there's going to be one."

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror