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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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