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.

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

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

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

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage