Political sketch: Debt tops £1tn, Gideon swans off

Osborne opts for European lunch as Alexander is left to face the music.

As Britain's national debt passed £1 trillion for the first time, Chancellor George Osborne fled the country -- or at least he went to Brussels, which in Tory circles counts as the same thing. George should have been taking it on the chin at Treasury Questions in the House of Commons but instead was spotted lunching it with the enemy at the very meeting he and Dave said they wanted nothing to do with just last month.

But the opportunity to be a silent observer at the talks to try yet again to resolve the EU's economic difficulties must have seemed a far more attractive position than being lumbered with the explanation of the £1,000,000,000,000 debt.

These are the sorts of headlines that, 19 months into a Government facing the worst economic crisis since 1929, an Opposition could only hope for but yet again today it is Labour that finds itself out in the cold. Those who managed to translate last week's clash with the unions and the latest re-launch into a good week for Labour and its leader Ed Miliband had a 5 per cent lead for the Tories in the latest opinion poll to explain away.

Much more worryingly was the revelation that 51 per cent of Labour supporters did not think their own party had a credible alternative for tackling the deficit and 59 per cent of them still find it difficult to imagine Ed M running the country.

All of which helped to put a playful smile on the lips of George's Coalition coat carrier Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander called in to cover his tracks. Danny was the late draftee to replace David Laws and spent the first six months looking as if he had taken the wrong turning on the way to school. But no longer and he now has taken to his job with all the passion of a convert.

No nods towards his Lib Dem past from him who is happy to out-Tory the Tories in his defence of the Government. Buoyed up no doubt by the opinion polls, he was happy to pass the blame for the £1 trillion straight back to Labour as part of the Coalition's continuingly successful campaign to persuade the public that all their present troubles were inherited. And slumped in the seat opposite sat the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls who had all her look of someone who agreed with the charge.

Despite the absence of his usual sparring partner, Ed had turned up to see if anyone else wanted a fight but you could tell his heart was not in it. Was Danny aware the IMF had just downgraded Britain's growth forecast, he asked. "Am I bovvered?" seemed Danny's reply. Tomorrow the Office for Budget Responsibility is believed to be confirming that under George's watch we are now formally back in recession.

More bad news for Labour.

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

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.