David Cameron outside 10 Downing Street on 27 February 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cameron’s petty and parochial view of politics has accelerated the decline of British power

There isn’t much point expecting a more sophisticated account of Britain’s role in the world from the Prime Minister.

Alone, Britain can do nothing to reverse a Russian land-grab in Ukraine. In concert with other European countries and the US, London has some influence over Moscow but even then not much. A western military adventure on Vladimir Putin’s threshold is unthinkable. That leaves diplomatic opprobrium and economic sanctions as the only levers, over which David Cameron’s hand hovers uncertainly.

Putin is betting that a fiscally fragile European Union will not fancy taking on Ukraine as a dysfunctional client state, nor jeopardising its eastern gas supplies to make a point about sovereignty in the Black Sea. He is right. If Russia demands possession of Crimea and strategic dominance of eastern Ukraine, Cameron and others will acquiesce.

There is nothing new in the exposure of Britain as a mediocrity among powers. Our credentials as a nation that matters – a big economy, a professional army, nuclear weapons, a seat on the UN Security Council – are carried over from the 20th century. It is not clear how that elevated status will be sustained. Nor is it necessarily plausible for Britain to imagine itself as a global force distinct from the EU when other players – the US, China, India – are the size of continents.

Cameron touches on this when he talks about a “global race” but he has in mind a commercial rivalry played out within globally recognised boundaries of free-market capitalism. A lesson from Crimea is that some states don’t play by those rules.

There isn’t much point expecting a more sophisticated account of Britain’s role in the world from the Prime Minister. It isn’t in his nature to dwell on perplexing things. His friends present his short attention span as a healthy aversion to ideology; a very British pragmatism. The ungenerous interpretation that circulates among disappointed Tory modernisers and angry traditionalists alike is of a high-spec public school dilettante, clever and self-assured enough to busk an answer to most questions but disinclined to interrogate matters in depth.

That temperament is reflected in foreign policy. Cameron has handled relations with the EU – a vital strategic alliance – as a function of Conservative Party management. In opposition, it was a hazardous topic to be avoided. In government, when evasion became impossible, he switched to obstructing co-operation and calling that reform.

His attitude to overseas conflicts has also evolved ad hoc. In opposition, he rejected Tony Blair’s model of liberalising vigilantism, asserting in 2008, “We cannot drop democracy from 10,000 feet.” In Downing Street, the focus switched to economic expediency. He styled himself as salesman-in-chief of UK wares.

The limitations of diplomacy as mercantilist roadshow were exposed by the Arab spring. As brittle dictatorships crumbled in northern Africa, Cameron discovered a Blair-like capacity for human rights evangelism. In Libya, that became military support for a rebel insurgency. The relative success of that enterprise from Downing Street’s point of view – Colonel Gaddafi toppled without harm to UK troops – gave Cameron the confidence to offer support for prospective US strikes in Syria last summer. But he misjudged the readiness of his MPs to go along with that gamble. Their reluctance, combined with Labour’s visceral post-Blair suspicion of military impetuosity, snuffed out Cameron’s interventionist spirit. Normal insular service was resumed.

The Prime Minister’s humiliation would have been greater had a Tory spin operation, led by George Osborne, not changed the subject. Instead of Downing Street miscalculation, the Westminster conversation switched to a supposed crisis of national self-confidence, triggered by Ed Miliband infecting parliament with lefty pacifism.

There was a brief attempt to revive that partisan spirit in the context of Russia’s Ukrainian incursion. Tory MPs, including ministers close to Cameron and Osborne, suggested that Putin had somehow been emboldened by Labour’s new tendency to appeasement. That sniping was silenced when word came down from the Foreign Office that mining the current crisis for old mud to fling at the opposition was not serving the cause of government dignity or prime ministerial authority.

The impulse to play domestic politics in an international emergency was revealing. The Conservative side of the coalition has artfully reduced political debate in this parliament to the most parochial terms possible. A financial crisis born of global economic imbalances and systemic market failure has been truncated into a parable of wanton Labour spending. The challenge of running public services on tight budgets is expressed as a test of will to withdraw undeserved cash from idle layabouts.

Cringing fear of Ukip has prohibited any serious effort to defend a single European market, including free movement of workers, as a driver of future prosperity. What vestige there is of liberal migration policy in government is secretly supported by the Treasury and publicly blamed on the Liberal Democrats. Anything amiss in the country is ascribed to failure from Labour’s time in office.

This approach to politics as glorified parlour game yields petty victories that don’t add up to successful government. It gives no clarity about Cameron’s motive for being in Downing Street, aside from the recreational pleasure of winning and holding power. Since the Prime Minister struggles to express guiding principles in a domestic agenda that consumes most of his time, it seems unlikely he will articulate a coherent sense of strategic purpose in foreign affairs, to which he pays only occasional attention. He may talk about global challenges but his record is of ducking difficult issues and keeping politics parochial. 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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Staying in the EU would make it easier to tackle concerns about immigration, not less

Brexit is not only unlikely to deliver the control people want, it may actually undermine people’s faith in the system even further.

As Theresa May prepares to set out her latest plan for Brexit in Florence on Friday, those on all sides of the debate will wait to see if there are answers to fundamental questions about Britain’s future outside of the EU. Principle among those is how the UK immigration system will work. How can we respond to Leave voters’ concerns, while at the same time ensuring our economy isn’t badly damaged?

We must challenge the basic premise of the Vote Leave campaign: that dealing with public’s concern about immigration means we have to leave the EU and Single Market.

In fact the opposite is true. Our study into the options available to the UK shows that we are more likely to be able to restore faith in the system by staying within Europe and reforming free movement, than by leaving.

First, there are ways to exercise greater control over EU migration without needing to change the rules. It is not true that the current system of free movement is "unconditional", as recently claimed in a leaked Home Office paper. In fact, there is already considerable scope under existing EU rules to limit free movement.

EU rules state that in order to be given a right to reside, EU migrants must be able to demonstrate proof that they are either working, actively seeking work, or self-sufficient, otherwise they can be proactively removed after three months.

But unlike other continental systems, the UK has chosen not to operate a worker registration system for EU nationals and thus has no way of tracking where they are or what they’re doing. This could be changed tomorrow, if the government were so minded.

Other reforms being discussed at the highest levels within Europe would help deal with the sense that those coming to the UK drive down wages and conditions. The UK could make common cause with President Macron in France, who is pushing for reform of the so-called "Posted Workers Directive", so that companies seeking to bring in workers from abroad have to pay those workers at the same rate as local staff. It could also follow the advice of the TUC and implement domestic reforms of our labour market to prevent exploitation and undercutting.

Instead, the UK government has chosen to oppose reform of the Posted Workers Directive and made it clear that it has no interest in labour market reform.

Second, achieving more substantive change to free movement rules is not as implausible as often portrayed. Specifically, allowing member states to enact safeguards to slow the pace of change in local communities is not unrealistic. While the principle of free movement is a cornerstone of the European project, how it is applied in practice has evolved. And given that other countries, such as France, have expressed concern and called for reform, it is likely to evolve further.

The reforms to free movement negotiated by David Cameron in 2016 illustrate that the EU Commission can be realistic. Cameron’s agreement (which focused primarily on benefits) also provides an important legal and political precedent, with the Commission having agreed to introduce "safeguards" to respond to "situations of inflow of workers from other Member States of an exceptional magnitude over an extended period of time".

Similar precedents can be found within a number of other EU agreements, including the Acts of Accession of new Member States, the European Economic Area (EEA) Agreement and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). The UK should seek a strengthened version of Cameron’s "emergency brake", which could be activated in the event of "exceptional inflows" from within the EU. We are not the first to argue this.

Of course some will say that it is unrealistic to expect the UK to be able to get more than Cameron achieved in 2016. But put yourself if in the shoes of the EU. If you believe in a project and want it to succeed, moral imperative is balanced with realism and it hardly needs pointing out that the political context has radically shifted since Cameron’s negotiation.

In contrast, a "hard Brexit" will not deliver the "control of our borders" that Brexiteers have promised. As our report makes clear, the hospitality, food, manufacturing and social care sectors heavily depend on EU workers. Given current employment rates, this means huge labour shortages.

These shortages cannot be wished away with vague assertions about "rejoining the world" by the ultra free-market Brexiteers. This is about looking after our elderly and putting food on our tables. If the UK leaves in April 2019, it is likely that the government will continue to want most categories of EU migration to continue. And whatever controls are introduced post-Brexit are unlikely to be enforced at the border (doing so would cause havoc, given our continued commitment to visa-free travel).  Instead we would be likely to see an upsurge in illegal migration from within the EU, with people arriving at the border as "visitors" but then staying on to seek work. This is likely to worsen problems around integration, whereby migrants come and go in large numbers, without putting down roots.

We can do this a different way. The important issues that most drive public concern about EU migration - lack of control, undercutting, pace of change - can be dealt with either within current rules or by seeking reform within the EU.

The harsh truth is that Brexit is not only unlikely to deliver the control people want, it may actually undermine people’s faith in the system even further.

Some will say that the entire line of argument contained here is dangerous, since it risks playing into an anti-immigrant narrative, rather than emphasising migration’s benefits. This is an argument for the ivory tower, not the real world.

There is a world of difference between pandering to prejudice and acknowledging that whilst EU migration has brought economic benefits to the UK, it has also created pressures, for example, relating to population churn within local communities.

The best way to secure public consent for free movement, in particular, and immigration in general, is to be clear about where those pressures manifest and find ways of dealing with them, consistent with keeping the UK within the EU.

This is neither an attempt at triangulation nor impractical idealism. It’s about making sure we understand the consequences of one of the biggest decisions this country has ever taken, and considering a different course.

Harvey Redgrave is a senior policy fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and director of strategy at Crest Advisory.