Cameron's political isolation on Syria grows

Labour, the Lib Dems, two-thirds of Tory MPs and, now, Boris Johnson are all opposed to arming the rebels. This is an argument Cameron cannot win.

William Hague made it clear on the Today programme this morning that he and David Cameron are determined not to rule out the option of arming the Syrian rebels. He challenged those who warn that the UK would have no way of preventing Sunni jihadists from seizing or buying the weapons by pointing out that there was "no evidence" that the non-lethal equipment supplied by the west had "fallen into the wrong hands" and cautioned against "falling into the trap of thinking that everybody on every side is an extremist". He also insisted that while the opposition had suffered "important setbacks", "this does not mean this conflict is over". 

"The debate about arms is about how to make sure a democratic, legitimate opposition is not exterminated," he said. The clear suggestion was that supplying the rebels with weapons could still tilt the balance in their favour, both against the extremists on the opposition side and against the Assad regime. 

But such is David Cameron's political isolation that it is increasingly imposible to see how the UK could take this step. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and around two-thirds of Tory MPs are all opposed to arming the rebels, and Boris Johnson uses his Telegraph column today to join them. He writes: "This is not the moment to send more arms. This is the moment for a total ceasefire, an end to the madness. It is time for the US, Russia, the EU, Turkey, Iran, Saudi and all the players to convene an intergovernmental conference to try to halt the carnage."

Last night on Twitter, Tory MPs Mark Reckless and Sarah Wollaston suggested that they knew of no Conservative backbenchers in favour of arming the rebels. After the adventurism of the neoconservatives, the Tories' realist tendency is reasserting itself. If Cameron is unable to even win this argument within his own party, it is hard to see him persuading anyone else of the case for action. 

David Cameron arrives to attend the Enniskillen G8 summit in Belfast. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

What type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.