What would Rhodes Boyson make of David Cameron's Conservative Party?

It’s safe to say he would not recognise Cameron's Conservatives.

Sir Rhodes Boyson, who died today at 87, was the archetypal eccentric Tory backbencher for nearly three decades. His mutton-chop sideburns, bald head and narrow squint even gave him the appearance of a Dickensian overseer. That he spoke and seemed to think like one made him the complete package.

Sir Rhodes, a former headmaster, defender of caning, Section 28 and pretty much every other reactionary measure of the age, earned the nickname "Colossus", from that great ironist, the late Norman St. John Stevas.

Nevertheless, it’s safe to say he would not recognise David Cameron’s Conservative Party, a charge many in the party not even of Sir Rhodes’s vintage regularly make. Despite the Tories (sort of) winning the last election, Conservative Britain has failed to bloom; that much is now clear. There is no sense that Cameron has spawned an age of hegemony in the way Thatcher or Blair both did. Even on the deficit, the grip of TINA ("There Is No Alternative") seems to weaken every day, with economic voices deserting the government and a clamour for a change of course – and even of chancellor.

Meanwhile, the NHS reforms, perhaps the government’s most overtly ideological move, puts commissioning of local services into the hands of local GPs. Those same people said to be responsible for a soft line in signing-off patients on to incapacity benefit. It is doubtful Sir Rhodes, who once said that crime had risen in "parallel with the number of social workers," would approve of do-gooding doctors being put in charge.

More traditional Tory fare, in the shape of privatisation and big tax cuts are off the menu for now. Osborne's decision to shave 5p off the top rate of tax did little to promote the popular capitalism that Sir Rhodes approved of. The whispered comparison with Ted Heath’s one-term government swirls around the Prime Minister’s head. Like Heath, Cameron governs a fractious nation hobbled by serious national and international economic problems that show little sign of ending soon. Unlike Heath, he has more voices both inside and outside his party to keep happy; dancing to the Lib Dem’s tune on issues like proportional representation and House of Lords reform, while keeping his belligerent backbenchers happy. It’s not going well.

"It may have been right to create a coalition after the election," warned Tory backbencher Brian Binley yesterday, "but the current set-up isn’t working". The Lib Dems have achieved a level of influence "not remotely justified by the level of their electoral support," he harrumphed. Cameron, he added, needs to act like a Conservative prime minister, not a "chamber-maid". Meanwhile, former Tory environment minister Tim Yeo, hitherto best known for his scandalous resignation from John Major’s government (over what we used to call a "love child") pointedly asked if Cameron was "a man or mouse" for not backing a third runway at Heathrow.

It is doubtful whether Sir Rhodes, a quintessential plain-speaking Lancastrian, would have been quite so insolent. However, like Binley and Yeo, he would have wanted the firm smack of prime ministerial leadership. And not just because he supported corporal punishment.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

Former Conservative minister Sir Rhodes Boyson, who has died at the age of 87.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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.