Cameron still lacks a foreign policy vision

What kind of a power do we want to be? How do we achieve that ambition? Cameron is unsure.

Nato's mission in Libya looks like a foreign policy success for David Cameron, but that is not the same thing as having a successful foreign policy.

First, the obvious caveats: it is early days; the battle is not over, let alone the war. There are easily enough military and diplomatic traps ahead for the Libyan intervention to become a failure. The prime minister, the deputy prime minister, the foreign secretary and the defence secretary have all said as much. But for now, the politics of the situation are favouring Cameron. He took a big decision under considerable pressure and, after some nerve-wracking months, it appears to have paid off. "He definitely leapt before he looked," was how one senior Ministry of Defence official put it too me early on in the campaign. (The same source also said of the anti-Gaddafi rebels "the only good fighters among them are the al-Qaeda ones", a slightly wild allegation which should nonetheless be reason enough to put blind optimism for the future on hold.)

Libyans will decide whether they are better off in the long run for the UK's military partisanship in their insurrection-cum-civil war. The point is that, in the eyes of the British public, Cameron has effectively led a short war. There are usually political dividends to be drawn from that position.

But I suspect they will be limited in this case because, as with so much of Cameron's leadership, the good news story doesn't slot into a wider strategic narrative. It is worth remembering that the Conservatives came into power signalling reluctance to reshape the world - a la Blair - by military excursion. The new doctrine, as spelled out by William Hague in a series of speeches in July 2010, was a kind of bilateral mercantilism. The UK would continue to promote freedom and democracy around the globe, the foreign secretary said, but the main tool would be aggressive pursuit of trade interests. Overseas embassies would be reconfigured as pushy chambers of commerce.

Barely weeks before taking action in Libya, Cameron declared: "I am not a naive neocon who thinks you can drop democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000ft." The fact that Cameron then decided to use British military assets against Gaddafi doesn't signal some visionary conversion to fanatical interventionism. Libya might be a one-off; Gaddafi might just have been low-hanging despotic fruit.

To get the maximum political advantage from the intervention, Cameron has to frame the episode in terms of his vision of Britain's role in the world - and it isn't clear that he has one. The project of expanding our national influence by trade is looking trickier as the global economy falters. As an ambition it is of a pair with George Osborne's hope of rebalancing the economy and driving growth through exports - which relies on a level of overseas demand for UK goods that has not yet materialised.

A big gap in Cameron's world view (at least the publicly known portion of it) is his sense of how Britain's position in the European Union will evolve as the single currency lurches ever onward in financial and institutional crisis. As I mentioned in my column this week, this omission is stirring dissent in the party. A lot of Tories see the eurozone crisis as an opportunity to start a wholesale renegotiation of Britain's EU deal, but there isn't much appetite for that at the top of the party. (This is partly because the leadership's view of all matters EU is coloured by their "modernising" crusade in opposition, so there is an association between public expressions of fierce euroscepticism and unelectability. Then, of course, there is the problem of the stubbornly Europhile Lib Dems.)

The Arab Spring; global economic turbulence; structural crisis at the heart of the European Union - three giant themes that raise profound questions about Britain's position in the world. What kind of a power do we want to be? How do we achieve that ambition? I don't get the impression that Cameron is any closer to having persuasive answers to those questions than he was when he moved into Downing Street last year.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad