Cameron is the biggest political loser of the Olympics

Booed by the crowds and overshadowed by Boris, the PM has not had a good Games.

It's not hard to identify the political winners of the Olympics. Boris Johnson, who never missed an opportunity to make a populist intervention, and whose named was chanted by thousands during that extraordinary speech in Hyde Park, is now spoken of as a potential prime minister by both the left and the right, and is increasingly viewed as a threat by Labour.

Beginning with the Queen's skit with James Bond (the highlight of the Olympics ceremony for voters, according to polling by YouGov), the royal family has seemed more at ease with itself than for decades. The BBC's coverage has reminded us of the virtues of public broadcasting, whilst the armed forces, filling the void left by G4S, have renewed their bond with the public.

But who are the losers? Tory MP Aidan Burley's curt dismissal of Danny Boyle's ceremony as "leftie multi-cultural crap" did little for his career prospects, and with a slim-ish majority of 3,195 in Cannock Chase, a seat that Labour held from 1997-2010, he is unlikely to be returned at the next election. Mitt Romney's suggestion that the UK was unprepared for the Olympics, inaccurate as it turned out, damaged his reputation at home and abroad, with Boris openly mocking a supposed ideological ally ("There's a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we're ready"), David Cameron quipping that it's easy to run an Olympics in "the middle of nowhere" (a reference to Romney's management of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games), and Carl Lewis concluding that "some Americans just shouldn't leave the country".

The biggest loser, however, is the current occupant of 10 Downing Street. Rather than enhancing Cameron's reputation, as some Tories hoped, the Olympics have diminished it. The cringemaking photo posted by the No 10 Twitter feed of the PM watching the boxing at home while wearing a Team GB polo shirt looked like what it was: a desperate final attempt to reap some political benefit from the Games. Rather than serving as the proud leader of a successful nation, Cameron has spent more time fending off criticism of the government's school sports policies and dismissing fears that the Olympics have reduced economic activity. As Prime Minister and the leader of a party that won just 36 per cent of the vote at the last election, Cameron was never likely to survive the Games unscathed. But what makes the negative press coverage even more galling is the adoration for the prince across the Thames - Boris. While the crowds cheer for Boris, they boo for Cameron. For the first time since he became Prime Minister, conservative commentators are asking how long he can continue. After two weeks in which Britain has rarely seemed happier, few could have imagined a less happy end to the Games for Cameron.

David Cameron watches the boxing: "a desperate final attempt to reap some political benefit from the Games".

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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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.