The Tory rebellion leaves Cameron as the new John Major

The PM looks like a weak and defeated leader after last night's vote.

Labour’s plan to embarrass Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems over Lords reform has backfired spectacularly. "Why would we want to hand the Lib Dems a victory?" went the logic of Labour’s decision to two-facedly vote for the Bill but against the programme motion that gave it any chance of seeing the light of day. But what chumps they look now. Nick is left looking like the Miss Haversham of British politics, deserted at the altar of constitutional reform while the groom has a fistfight with his family in the car park. And trust me, everyone always ends up feeling sorry for the jilted bride.

But fear not, Labour MPs. Your war gaming may not have played out just as you expected. But there is a small consolation. You have probably just finished the career of David Cameron, ended any hope of this government doing much else of any worth in the foreseeable, and probably won the next general election to boot.

Cameron looks now like a weak and defeated leader – as the always excellent Jonathan Calder puts it, the new John Major of Conservative politics. Unable to control his backbenchers, he must be gloomily contemplating the hand that fate has dealt him. All over Westminster, Conservative rebels have been drinking the bars dry and celebrating showing the "leadership" – if we can still call it that – who’s boss. "Rebellion is the new cool", I saw tweeted tonight, quoting one Tory backbencher. I’m guessing it wasn’t Peter Bone. But they’ve got a taste for it now, and they know that with enough numbers, they can get the PM to back off. How Cameron must already be regretting his decision not to whip this one properly.

And having got a taste for rebellion, the Tory right will want more, more, more. The snooping bill, EU referendum, a British Bill of Rights. They’ll be clamouring for the lot. But they won’t get it. I doubt there’ll be many Lib Dem MPs willing to hold their noses for Tory policy going forward.

So the rebels won’t get anything they want. And they’ll blame Cameron for that. Ostensibly for not putting us in our place – but really because they’re still furious with him for not winning a majority at the last General Election. And so the rancour and the poison will continue.

And where will it end? Well, we have a Prime Minister, unable to deliver on his coalition promises, under the thumb of rebellious backbenchers, but incapable of satisfying their demands, behind in the polls and all the while becalmed in an austerity driven economy.

Major can probably tell Cameron how this ends ...

David Cameron with John Major in December 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage