PMQs sketch: Dave's Darling

"He's on another planet," said Ed of the PM, with the look of a man who wished he could join him.

Those who have yet to buy a copy of Alistair Darling's book on his time with the Great Sulk should rush out and get one, because it is the only way to make sense of the farce that was the first Prime Minister's Questions since MPs took themselves off in July for their several holidays.

With the economy on its uppers, inflation on the increase and growth shrinking, we all knew what the hot topic of the day would be, as Ed (fresh from his nose job) set about Dave (poshly sunburnt; despite having to pop back to town for a few days because of the riots and Libya). Indeed, Ed had to be up for it following recent opinion polls showing Labour just a couple of percentage points ahead of the Tories, despite almost a year under his care.

And so Ed let Dave have it with both barrels: Why is the Government holding elections for police commissioners in November instead of next May?

Earlier, Dave had been seen in earnest last-minute conversations with Chancellor George (equally sun-tanned), being briefed on what tack to take when Ed launched his economy broadside; but this one seemed to stun him.

Indeed, the Commons fell silent for a moment as Members on all sides considered the import of this, the first question to the Prime Minister after such a tumultuous period in our national affairs.

The real reason for this question and the smile it brought to Dave's face had been spotted tucked under his arm by an eagle-eyed reporter as he entered the Chamber: a well-thumbed copy of Alistair's book.

The curse of the Ali/Alastairs is becoming a common thread in recent Labour history, and Alistair D's intervention seems to be at least as unhelpful as many of those attributed to Alastair Campbell.

In the latest Alastair missive, details of his tortuous relationship with Gordon Brown and the Stasi-like behaviour of his team, led by enforcer Ed Balls, are revealed; not unlike the revelations of the books by the other A. It should be remembered that Ed M was praised for his bravery by keeping Ed B away from the Treasury brief when he first took over as leader. But that bold plan was quickly dropped when Alan Johnson, Ed's odd choice for Shadow Chancellor, fell by the wayside.

Just to make matters worse, Darling recounts that Labour's 2009 budget was conceived in chaos and resulted in a complete mess of an economic policy; a bit of a bummer, since this is the plan the Opposition is presently sticking to.

With Ed the Enforcer sitting just a couple of seats away, it was soon obvious that Ed the Leader had decided to bottle it. After the questions on police commissioners came questions on waiting lists, and Cameron's grin only widened. "He's on another planet" said Ed, with the look of a man who wished he could join him.

This let Dave in with the one answer to the Labour Leader he hadn't expected to utter: "He doesn't dare in six questions to mention the economy". Even Nick smiled at that one.

With party conference season just around the corner, MPs back from their hols on Monday will be off again in just ten days for another three weeks of naval gazing. Dave must be delighted that despite presiding over the worst economic crisis for 60 years, he is still personally popular and his party almost up there with Labour in the polls. All he has to do is persuade the recidivists that the Lib Dems aren't getting away with blue murder. Nick has to persuade his lot they are.

Ed Miliband should have had the easiest job of all, but with the recent polls and today's performance, is the jury out again?

As Bill Clinton said: "It's the economy, stupid."

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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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.