PMQs sketch: Cameron gets pulled back into the doldrums

Miliband decided to split the torture in two today.

One of the great mysteries of modern politics is how the leader of the Labour Party manages to smuggle a sharp pointy stick past Commons security every week to poke the Prime Minister. Ed produced it with his usual flourish just after noon today and proceeded to chase Dave around the dispatch box for the 30 minutes of the fun known to regulars as Prime Minister's Questions.

We all know the PM has been in the doldrums since the Chancellor produced THAT budget six months ago, but each week he hopes to recover. In fact, so good, relatively speaking, were last week's economic indicators that he had high hopes this would be his week. But such is the disarray within Tory ranks the every time he thinks he's about to climb out of the smelly stuff one of his own pulls him back in again.

You could tell treachery was afoot by the volume of support he got from his own side during today's spat with Ed Miliband over that most unifying of party policies - Europe. The latest row is over a planned increase in the EU budget, which has Tory sceptics snarling and ready to force a vote this evening demanding it be cut instead. Spotting this passing bandwagon, Labour climbed on board leaving Dave, as Ed was happy to point out, with only his embarrassment to keep him warm.

With Ed and his cohorts ready to join Tory rebels in the lobby this evening, the sound of support for the PM from those who intend to vote against him doubled in decibels, leading Speaker Bercow to call for calm. But there was even more pleasure on the opposition benches as the Speaker took his own opportunity to remind Dave that PMQs were not questions from the PM but for him."I've told him ten times," he said as Dave slumped in his seat.

Normally, Ed takes his full six questions to turn the screw as tightly as possible on the PM, who seems to have abandoned any attempt to hang on to his temper. But he decided to split the torture in two today, leaving Dave sweating over the second bout as he paid lip service to MPs whose questions filled the gap. To Labour's great pleasure, the day had begun with another clash between the coalition partners over energy policy. Just last week, the Lib Dem Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, had gone into a major sulk when Dave announced plans for energy companies to give everyone the lowest tariffs - although he didn't really mean it. 

Well, Davey had his bottom lip way out again today when one of his Tory juniors appeared to announce the end of the Lib Dem plan for renewable supplies by sticking a wind farm on every street corner. What was the policy, demanded Miliband, and none of your business was the reply. But even Dave knew this was merely another pre-lunch taster on the way to the main course.

Six months ago, when Chancellor George was still in the game, he commissioned Michael Heseltine to take a look at the economy in a move intended to demonstrate his confidence in criticism. And so it was with some pleasure that Miliband read out this paragraph from Lord Hezza's conclusions: "The message I keep hearing is that the the UK does not have a strategy for growth and wealth creation."

George stared off into the space reserved for those who have uttered the immortal phrase, "beam me up Scotty", only to find out it does not work. By now, the volume button had been turned up so high that the Speaker uttered the dire warning that if it continued they would be kept back after class. The thought of being late for lunch clearly worked, and MPs headed off to work out how to vote on Europe later. Dave looked like someone planning a sandwich at his desk.

David Cameron poses on the door of number 10 Downing Street after buying his remembrance poppy from army officers. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.