Chillax, Dave. You're only prime minister

Cameron fiddles, while Hilton burns.

The Times today carries the latest instalments (£) in its serialisation of Francis Elliott and James Hanning's book Cameron: Practically a Conservative (to be published next week). One of the two extracts seems to corroborate what is becoming the settled view of the prime minister: that he is something less than a Stakhanovite. Elliott and Hanning report the verdict of an "ally" of David Cameron's:

If there was an Olympic gold medal for "chillaxing" he would win it. He is capable of switching off in a way that almost no other politician I know of can. The political mind is still working. He tends to get up early, look at the Sunday papers, check a few things online, the phone might ring and he’ll deal with that. But then he doesn’t go back to obsessively checking the computer or rewriting the speech, or worrying about what [Matthew] d’Ancona really means. It’s "I’ve absorbed the information, I have taken an action — I’ve asked Ed Llewellyn to do such and such, I will now go into the vegetable patch, watch a crap film on telly, play with the children, cook, have three or four glasses of wine with my lunch, have an afternoon nap, play tennis."

It's meant to be a flattering picture, of course, though it doesn't entirely eradicate the suspicion that Cameron will get away with doing just enough if he can. Now, workaholism isn't necessarily a quality to be admired in a politician - Gordon Brown, for instance, might have benefited from an ability to, as they say, "switch off" - but sometimes a premier needs to be "obsessive" (Brown was undoubtedly that; and it served him well during the worst days of the financial crisis in autmn 2008). Cameron's erstwhile policy "guru" Steve Hilton, who recently left Number 10 to begin a year-long "sabbatical" in California, certainly thought the PM was spreading his effortless superiority a little thin. Elliott and Hanning write (£):

As the Government approached its halfway mark Hilton remained the player in the team “who believes in things”, as one Tory puts it, and one who wanted to make bold, radical changes ... Hilton’s friends began openly wondering whether Cameron shared his passion. Having achieved his goal of being Prime Minister, he can appear suspiciously at ease managing the day-to-day demands of power. People still wondered if he had a sense of vision. What would his new Jerusalem look like? Peasmore, suggest some who accuse him of a lack of imagination. As Norman Tebbit puts it: “David was more concerned about being Prime Minister than what he was going to do as Prime Minister.”

Tebbitt's misgivings are shared by many in the parliamentary Conservative Party, especially those to Cameron's right, and by many right-wing commentators. Last week, for example, the editor of the Spectator, Fraser Nelson, wrote a piece in the Telegraph that ran under the headline "Turn off your iPad, David Cameron, and start dealing with Britain's debt". The prime minister's insouciance, Nelson suggested, is driving his supporters to distraction. A good example is the fate of a proposal, made inside Number 10 a few weeks ago to cut corporation tax to 15 per cent.

This would have been a game-changer – a clear signal that Britain was open for business with the one of the lowest corporation taxes on the planet. The idea was for companies to come flocking back from Ireland, itself sending a signal, and the cost of the tax rise would be funded by welfare cuts (which remain popular). But the plan was rejected out of hand by the Treasury, and its advocates were given no help at all from Mr Cameron. To those who had believed they were working for a radical Prime Minister, it was a bitter blow. This sense of frustration is shared throughout the Conservative backbenches.

Cameron's not relaxing this weekend. He's in Washington DC for the G8. When he returns, he ought to be watching his back. His troops are restive.

David Cameron taking it easy (Photo: Getty Images)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture 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.