David Cameron during a press conference at the Foreign Office on June 17, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After Cameron’s summer of indecision, who will give Britain a coherent foreign policy again?

The PM is not alone in failing to articulate a clear set of principles for this new era. 

During his recent lecture in London, Tony Blair recalled his time in office and declared with pride: “We led in the world.” The remark was derided by those unable to view the former prime minister as anything other than the plaything of George W Bush, but it was not without justification. It was in 1999, when Bush was still an isolationist opposed to “nation-building”, that Blair delivered his speech in Chicago on the doctrine of “liberal interventionism” and identified Saddam Hussein as a continuing enemy. Throughout his premiership, Britain’s foreign policy was defined by a coherent set of values and principles that supporters could applaud and opponents could denounce.

The contrast with the present government is marked. When David Cameron became Tory leader, he told his aides: “Look, this is an area where I need help.” The events of this summer suggest that he still does.

Confronted by the savagery of Isis, he has oscillated between belligerence and caution, alienating almost all sides in the process. His talk of a “generational struggle” against the jihadists, necessitating the use of military power, has disconcerted his party’s isolationists. “How many more failures do we have to endure before we learn to stay out of the Middle East?” one told me. His simultaneous refusal to recall parliament to seek approval for British action dismayed interventionists who believe that the UK’s responsibilities cannot be upheld through humanitarian and quasi-military support alone.

Those close to the Prime Minister reply that he agrees with the latter point – but he is not prepared to risk a repeat of last year’s defeat over Syria, or to run ahead of a war-weary electorate. Yet even if one forgives this refusal to lead, rather than to follow, the facts do not support his assessment.

Of the 30 Tory MPs who voted against possible military action in Syria last year, I know of at least eight prepared to support intervention in Iraq, even before ministers have made the case. Nor is there inconsistency in their approach. As one, Sarah Wollaston, has noted, intervention in Syria was opposed precisely because it carried the risk of arms falling into the hands of such groups as Isis. The public, too, is not composed of Little England isolationists, as it is commonly thought to be. More than a week before the beheading of the US journalist James Foley, opinion polls showed a plurality in favour of air strikes. The government’s defeat last summer, more the product of accident than design, should not have been a turning point in British foreign policy, but the Prime Minister could yet ensure it becomes one. 

If there is any consolation for Cameron, it is that he is not alone in failing to articulate a set of principles for the post-Blair era. Nearly four years after his election as Labour leader, Ed Miliband has yet to make a set-piece speech on foreign policy. As a result of his opposition to the invasion of Iraq and his success in preventing a “rush to war” in Syria, Westminster has labelled him as a non-interventionist. In response, Labour strategists emphasise that his stance on the latter was “a decision, not a doctrine”. But this only invites the question of what Miliband’s doctrine is.

There is still time for the Labour leader to redress this – Blair did not deliver his first major speech on the subject until 1997 – and he would be wise to do so. His MPs, some of whom (Ben Bradshaw, Mike Gapes, Pat McFadden, John Woodcock) have been making the interventionist case, and the public, increasingly disturbed by images of a war-torn world, are waiting. Tom Watson, one of the party’s most influential backbenchers, told me: “Most countries will be extremely disappointed that Britain seems to have given up on foreign policy for the last five weeks . . . Cameron has given Labour a huge opportunity.”

The opposition has more freedom in this than the Liberal Democrats, who earned such renown for their lone stand against the Iraq war (a decision far riskier than it later appeared). Shackled by coalition, they have struggled to say anything distinctive.

Those who look for enlightenment outside Westminster will similarly find their search is in vain. Boris Johnson, who aspires to become prime minister, has proposed revoking the presumption of innocence for some terrorism suspects. This, despite declaring in 2005: “It must remain an inalienable principle of our law that, if the state has enough evidence to incarcerate someone, then it must have enough evidence to put him on trial.”

Nigel Farage, the other extra-parliamentary star of British politics, offers nothing beyond an anglicised version of the “America First” isolationism espoused by the US conservative Pat Buchanan. Alex Salmond, who hopes soon to lead a state of his own, limits himself to platitudes about the need for an end to “illegal wars” and expressions of admiration for Vladimir Putin. Even for those inured to the defects of modern politics, it is a dismal spectacle.

If British politicians no longer feel inclined to “reorder this world”, as Blair phrased it in his pomp, it is not without reason. The west’s recent history of intervention – in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya – has demonstrated an infinite capacity to make a bad situation worse. There is nothing ignoble in a policy rooted in the principle suggested by Barack Obama: “Don’t do stupid stuff” (a colloquial version of the Hippocratic “First, do no harm”). The further austerity postponed until after the general election may in any case force Britain to adopt a policy better aligned with its reduced military capacity. But Westminster awaits the politician prepared to anatomise this new era and the country’s role in it. The alternative, as Winston Churchill observed in 1936, is that Britain remains “decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute” and “adamant for drift”. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

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Theresa May’s Brexit speech is Angela Merkel’s victory – here’s why

The Germans coined the word “merkeln to describe their Chancellor’s approach to negotiations. 

It is a measure of Britain’s weak position that Theresa May accepts Angela Merkel’s ultimatum even before the Brexit negotiations have formally started

The British Prime Minister blinked first when she presented her plan for Brexit Tuesday morning. After months of repeating the tautological mantra that “Brexit means Brexit”, she finally specified her position when she essentially proposed that Britain should leave the internal market for goods, services and people, which had been so championed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. 

By accepting that the “UK will be outside” and that there can be “no half-way house”, Theresa May has essentially caved in before the negotiations have begun.

At her meeting with May in July last year, the German Chancellor stated her ultimatum that there could be no “Rosinenpickerei” – the German equivalent of cherry picking. Merkel stated that Britain was not free to choose. That is still her position.

Back then, May was still battling for access to the internal market. It is a measure of how much her position has weakened that the Prime Minister has been forced to accept that Britain will have to leave the single market.

For those who have followed Merkel in her eleven years as German Kanzlerin there is sense of déjà vu about all this.  In negotiations over the Greek debt in 2011 and in 2015, as well as in her negotiations with German banks, in the wake of the global clash in 2008, Merkel played a waiting game; she let others reveal their hands first. The Germans even coined the word "merkeln", to describe the Chancellor’s favoured approach to negotiations.

Unlike other politicians, Frau Merkel is known for her careful analysis, behind-the-scene diplomacy and her determination to pursue German interests. All these are evident in the Brexit negotiations even before they have started.

Much has been made of US President-Elect Donald Trump’s offer to do a trade deal with Britain “very quickly” (as well as bad-mouthing Merkel). In the greater scheme of things, such a deal – should it come – will amount to very little. The UK’s exports to the EU were valued at £223.3bn in 2015 – roughly five times as much as our exports to the United States. 

But more importantly, Britain’s main export is services. It constitutes 79 per cent of the economy, according to the Office of National Statistics. Without access to the single market for services, and without free movement of skilled workers, the financial sector will have a strong incentive to move to the European mainland.

This is Germany’s gain. There is a general consensus that many banks are ready to move if Britain quits the single market, and Frankfurt is an obvious destination.

In an election year, this is welcome news for Merkel. That the British Prime Minister voluntarily gives up the access to the internal market is a boon for the German Chancellor and solves several of her problems. 

May’s acceptance that Britain will not be in the single market shows that no country is able to secure a better deal outside the EU. This will deter other countries from following the UK’s example. 

Moreover, securing a deal that will make Frankfurt the financial centre in Europe will give Merkel a political boost, and will take focus away from other issues such as immigration.

Despite the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, the largely proportional electoral system in Germany will all but guarantee that the current coalition government continues after the elections to the Bundestag in September.

Before the referendum in June last year, Brexiteers published a poster with the mildly xenophobic message "Halt ze German advance". By essentially caving in to Merkel’s demands before these have been expressly stated, Mrs May will strengthen Germany at Britain’s expense. 

Perhaps, the German word schadenfreude comes to mind?

Matthew Qvortrup is author of the book Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader published by Duckworth, and professor of applied political science at Coventry University.