David Cameron speaks at a Downing Street press conference earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cameron echoes Blair on terrorism: western military action is not to blame

The PM declares that the "root cause" of terrorism is the "poisonous ideology of Islamist extremism". 

Rarely has David Cameron seemed more like the "heir to Blair" than at his Downing Street press conference this afternoon on the terrorist threat from ISIS. He emphasised in his opening statement that the "root cause" of the threat, which was raised today from "substantial" to "severe" (meaning an attack is considered "highly likely"), was not western foreign policy but the "poisonous ideology of Islamist extremism". He said: 

Let's be clear about the source of the threat that we face. The terrorist threat was not created by the Iraq war 10 years ago; it existed even before the horrific attacks on 9/11, themselves some time before the Iraq war. This threat cannot be solved simply by dealing with the perceived grievances over western foreign policy, nor it can be dealt with by addressing poverty, dictatorship and instability in the region, as important as these things are.

The root cause of this threat to our security is quite clear: it is a poisonous ideology of Islamist extremism that is condemned by all faiths and by all faith leaders. It believes in using the most brutal forms of terrorism to force people to accept a warped worldview and to live in an almost medieval state. 

Cameron is right that the threat did not begin with western intervention and will not end with it, but it is worth noting that no less a figure than Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former director-general of MI5, concluded that the Iraq war had "increased the terrorist threat" and acted as "a distraction" from the pursuit of al-Qaeda. Cameron observed that it was broken states and civil wars that allowed jihadists to thrive, while seemingly ignoring that the 2003 invasion helped to create those conditions. He seemed unable or unwilling to recognise why so many previously peaceful Muslims are drawn to extremist ideologies. 

On new security powers, while emphasising that he wanted to avoid a "knee-jerk" response to the threat (think of Boris Johnon's call for the presumption of innocence to be abandoned for terrorist suspects), Cameron warned that there were "gaps in our armoury" and that "we need to strengthen them". He announced that he would make a statement in the Commons on Monday on further steps to stop people travelling to fight for ISIS, including new legislation to "make it easier to take people's passports away". 

But he added that the threat would only be fully tackled by challenging the "ideology of Islamist extremism head-on, at root, before it takes the form of violence and terror". It is language that will hearten those such as Michael Gove, who have long argued that the government needs to "drain the swamp" that leads non-violent Islamists towards jihadism and not wait for "the crocodiles to reach the boat" (the cause of his fierce disagreement with Theresa May earlier this year). Cameron referred back to his 2011 Munich speech, in which he attacked the "doctrine of state multiculturalism", and vowed to challenge groups that "push an extremist agenda".

It was notable that Cameron sounded cooler on the prospect of British military action in Iraq and Syria than before, emphasising the measures that would be taken on the domestic level. While No.10 has been careful not to rule out the possiblity of joining US-led air strikes (unlike the option of putting "boots on the grond"), it is clear that the last year's defeat over Syria, a war-weary public and the proximity of the general election all mean that Cameron is wary of any greater involvement. 

P.S. It's worth highlighting that Cameron, who rarely gives press conferences, took just four questions (three broadcast, one print) after his 10-minute statement. Given the severity of the threat, this seemed inadequate to many present. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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