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Cameron should seize the internationalist mantle he renounced last week

As the PM's failure to attend the UN showed, Downing Street seems asleep on the job when it comes to elevating him into the statesman role he craves and the country needs.

New Statesman
David Cameron goes through the final details of his speech before delivering it at the Conservative conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

In one of last week’s more painful transitions, broadcasters cut from the end of Ed Miliband’s speech to Labour Party conference to President Obama speaking to the United Nations. One of the Labour activists I was with winced and muttered "and next up, the Gettysburg Address". 

In reality, the contrast between the two did Labour no real harm, thanks to the Prime Minister’s inexplicable decision to renounce one of the key reputational benefits of incumbency by skipping the annual meeting of world leaders in New York. Picture the despair in Labour’s ranks if right-leaning papers had been able to draw the parallel between a Cameron flanked by the most powerful people on the planet and Ed Miliband surrounded by cheerleaders from Labour’s rank and file. The Tories had a chance to attack Ed Miliband as not just "a red", but an irrelevance, and I know which would have hurt the more.

The Labour leader’s key conference test was to look like a credible Prime Minister in waiting and it is one he passed thanks both to his ambitious sweep of popular policy promises and the curious leadership vacuum left by his opposite number.  The Conservative Party’s attack machinery has since been working round the clock on contrasting David Cameron and Ed Miliband, but Downing Street itself seems asleep on the job when it comes to elevating the Prime Minister into the statesman role he craves and the country needs.

One reason for that perhaps lies in the PM’s own confusion about what he wants to project about Britain on the world stage: he can’t seem to work out whether we’re broken or brilliant. After the London riots he lamented a society that was in parts "not only broken, but frankly sick", while at the G20 last month he described a nation which couldn’t have "a prouder history, a bigger heart or greater resilience". Labour used to accuse Cameron of "talking Britain down" but his passionate defence of our global influence in St Petersburg revealed his increasing confidence in asserting that Britain can still punch above its weight.

Under Cameron, traditional 'realist' Conservative foreign policy has been replaced with a strong streak of conscience, evident in his continued commitment to aid and his willingness to intervene in Libya and attempts to do so in Syria. To his great credit, that has not been an easy path for the PM, with disquiet on his backbenches, amog his grassroots and across the Conservative press. The trouble is that he is unwilling to follow through on the detail and the delivery – the two things which make a foreign policy really work.

His mishandling of the timing and whipping of the Syria vote has been exhaustively covered but it is far from a one off. I have written before about the Prime Minister’s relaxed approach to this part of his job and we see it again in his absence in New York last week. Not only did he sit out global negotiations to resolve the worst humanitarian catastrophe since Rwanda, he also missed discussions on his own report, completed as Co-Chair of the Secretary General’s High Level Panel on global development.

That too fits a pattern – he also managed to stand up his two fellow co-chairs at one of only three meetings they were supposed to have and insulted two presidents by sending Justine Greening, a minister who – even before she skipped the Syria division – was so regularly missing in action she was dubbed "the scarlet pimpernel of the Tory Party" by Conservative commentator Iain Dale.

It all adds up to a pretty depressing picture for those of us who wish the Prime Minister well in his efforts to make Britain a force for good in the world. Between Cameron’s unwillingness to do the hard yards and Labour’s dampening of expectations about Britain’s role and obligations, it is difficult to see how our global leadership is to be maintained.

Labour used last week to set out its stall for the next general election with a clear steer that they want a cost of living contest. That is the right overall frame, but the opposition can’t afford to leave foreign policy a completely blank sheet. Plenty of voters agree with the Prime Minister’s more optimistic analysis that this is a brilliant country with a unique set of levers at its disposal to make the world a better place. Millions more think that how a party secures Britain’s interests and influence is a defining question of fitness to govern and that neither the government nor opposition have yet given Britain enough to go on when making that choice.

If he wants to eclipse Miliband’s Brighton performance, Mr Cameron would be wise to spend a portion of his conference address today seizing the internationalist mantle he voluntarily renounced last week.

Kirsty McNeill is a former Downing Street adviser. She tweets @KirstyJMcNeill