PMQs review: Cameron lets his Unite obsession get the better of him

The Tories should not make the mistake of assuming that the public shares their instinctive loathing of the trade unions.

However much Ed Miliband wanted to ask him about Egypt and primary school places, there was only one subject David Cameron wanted to talk about at today's PMQs: Labour's relationship with Unite and the Falkirk selection row. "His questions are written by Len McCluskey," he declared, apropos of nothing, after Miliband asked him why a third of new schools were being built in areas with surplus places. At least 13 references to Unite and McCluskey followed as Cameron branded Miliband "too weak to run Labour and certainly too weak to run the country". 

It earned him the best reception he's had all year from Tory backbenchers, although Miliband returned fire with as much passion as we've seen from him. This was a PM, he declared, "who had dinners for donors in Downing Street, gave tax cuts to his Christmas card list and brought Andy Coulson into Downing Street. Lecturing us about ethics takes double standards to a whole new level." But since the Labour leader's only response was to change the subject, the spoils went to Cameron. 

At that point, his pre-planned attack lines delivered, the PM would have been wise to move on. But Cameron couldn't help himself. In reponse to a question from the well-regarded Labour MP Stephen Timms on how demand for foodbanks had risen from 30,00 households before the election to 350,000, Cameron blustered: "I'm sure as a member of Unite, the Honourable Member will want to look very carefully at his own constituency party - who knows how many people they've bought and put on the register". It was a frivolous response to a sincere question. 

One can hardly blame the Tories for seeking to take advantage of the Falkirk debacle but they shouldn't make the error of assuming that voters share their instinctive loathing of the trade unions. A recent Populus poll found that 69 per cent of the public agree that "it is important that Labour retains its strong links with the Trade Unions because they represent many hard working people in Britain", including 53 per cent of Tory voters, with just 28 per cent disagreeing. The response of most people to the allegation that Unite manipulated the Falkirk selection process by signing up trade unionists as Labour members without their permission is likely to be one of indifference.

The days when Ted Heath was forced to call an election to find out whether it was he or the unions "who ran Britain" (answer: the unions) are long gone. Today, the unions present a far less threatening face. If he wants to win converts, rather than merely rouse supporters, Cameron would be wise to avoid a repeat of today's monomania.

David Cameron declared at PMQs that Miliband was "too weak to run Labour and certainly too weak to run the country". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Cameron needs to decide what he thinks about Russia

David Cameron's words suggest one thing, his actions quite another.

David Cameron needs to decide whether he takes Russia seriously.

He certainly talks a good game, calling Vladimir Putin to account for crimes against Ukrainian sovereignty and for supporting the wrong side in Syria, claiming credit for bolstering the post-Crimea sanctions regime, and demanding that Moscow’s behaviour change. And the new Strategic Defence & Security Review, published last week, puts Russia front and centre among the threats Britain faces.

The problem is, his government’s foreign policy seems calculated to make no one happier than Putin himself.

At fault is not a failure of analysis. It has taken Whitehall 19 months since Moscow annexed Crimea to develop a new Russia policy, replacing the old aspirations of “strategic partnership based on common values”, but the conviction that Russia be treated as a significant threat to the U.K.’s security and prosperity is solid.

Five years ago, when the coalition government published the last Strategic Defence & Security Review, Russia was mentioned once, in the context of rising global powers with whom London could partner to help solve planetary problems, from nuclear proliferation to climate change. The new SDSR tells a very different story. Russia gets 28 mentions this time around, characterised as a “state threat” that “may feel tempted to act aggressively against NATO allies.” Russia’s annexation of Crimea and instigation of a separatist civil war in eastern Ukraine are mentioned in the same sentence with Assad’s chemical weapons attacks on Syrian civilians and the rise of the Islamic State as key examples of how the world is becoming a more dangerous place.

How that threat will be countered, however, is not a question Whitehall can answer: it is a question for Westminster, and it gets to the heart of where this government sees its place in the world, and in Europe in particular. What Whitehall cannot say – but what the politicians must recognise – is this: the best bulwark against the Kremlin is a strengthened European Union, with more integrated markets and the force to push a concerted foreign policy in the Eastern Neighbourhood. And that recognition requires Cameron to decide whether Putin poses a greater challenge than Nigel Farage.

The SDSR is right to note that the danger of a military confrontation with Russia is remote. Just in case, the Government has committed to bolstering aerial defences, contributing to NATO’s rapid reaction capabilities and maintaining the sanctions regime until a full settlement is reached that restores Ukrainian sovereignty. These are all reasonable measures, which will go some distance to ensuring that Moscow understands the risks of further escalation in the near term. But they do nothing to address the longer term problem.

From a hard-security perspective, Russia is a nuisance. The real danger is in the threat Moscow poses to what the SDSR calls the “rules-based order” – that system of institutions, agreements and understandings that underpin stability and prosperity on the European continent. That order is about more than respecting national borders, important as that is. It is also about accepting that markets are impartially regulated, that monopolies are disallowed and political and economic power reside in institutions, rather than in individuals. It is, in other words, about accepting rules that are almost the polar opposite of the system that Russia has built over the past 25 years, an order based on rents, clientelism and protected competitive positions.

Russia, after all, went to war over a trade treaty. It invaded Ukraine and annexed part of its territory to prevent the full implementation of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement that was designed to make Ukraine function more like Europe and less like Russia. From Moscow’s point of view, the European project is a very real geopolitical threat, one that promises to reduce the territory in which Russia can compete and, eventually, to increase the pressure on Russia itself to change. In somewhat less pernicious ways Moscow is seeking similarly to derail Moldova’s and Georgia’s European integration, while working hard to keep Belarus and Armenia from straying.

This is not a problem of vision or diplomacy, a failure to convince Putin of the value of the European way of doing things. For Putin and those on whose behalf he governs, the European way of doing things carries negative value. And unless the basic structure of politics and economics in Russia shifts, that calculation won’t change when Putin himself leaves the Kremlin. For the foreseeable future, Russia’s rulers will be willing to go to extraordinary lengths to prevent the widening of Europe, at the cost of instability and dysfunction in the region.

European willingness is another question. A chorus of euro=sceptics both left and right have demanded that Europe stop provoking the Russian bear, leaving the Eastern Neighbourhood countries to fend for themselves – sacrificing Kiev’s sovereignty to Moscow in order to bolster their own sovereignty from Brussels. Cracks, too, are emerging in the centre of the political spectrum: as French President Francois Hollande pledged to work with Moscow to fight ISIS in Syria, Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared that such an alliance would necessitate the lifting of sanctions on Russia, thus trading stability in Syria for instability in Ukraine.

As a member of the EU, London has a role to play. Together with Berlin, London could exert pressure on Paris and keep the margins of the political spectrum marginal. London could through its weight behind a common energy market, forcing Gazprom to play by EU competition rules. London could bolster anti-corruption systems and ensure that ill-gotten gains have no safe haven in Europe. London could insist on the legitimacy of the European project from one end of the continent to the other.

Instead, London is threatening Brexit, relinquishing any leverage over its European allies, and seeking EU reforms that would eviscerate the common energy market, common financial regulation, the common foreign and security policy and other key tools in the relationship with Russia.

In their February 2015 report on EU-Russian relations, the House of Lords raised the question of “whether Europe can be secure and prosperous if Russia continues to be governed as it is today.” To be sure, Europe can’t change Russia’s government and shouldn’t try. But by insisting on its own rules – both in how it governs its internal markets and in how it pursues its foreign policy – Europe can change the incentives Russia’s government faces.

The question, then, to Cameron is this: Whose rules would Westminster rather see prevail in the Eastern Neighbourhood, Europe’s or Russia’s?

Samuel A. Greene is Director of the King’s Russia Institute, King’s College London.