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

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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