Displaced Iraqi families from the Yazidi community. Photo: Getty
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What does the US response to stranded refugees in Iraq mean for David Cameron?

As the US reports fewer stranded refugees on Mount Sinjar than expected, how can the PM respond to the decreasing likelihood of a rescue operation?

The Prime Minister cut his holiday one day short to return to the UK to chair a Cobra meeting yesterday. He revealed that “detailed plans” are being put in place for Britain to help in a rescue operation to save stranded Yazidi refugees in Iraq.

Although insisting that it is “unnecessary to recall parliament” in order for the House of Commons to debate military intervention in Iraq, David Cameron did say Britain would be involved in an international mission to rescue the swathes of refugees stranded on Mount Sinjar.

Cameron announced that the UK would play a role in airlifting the refugees, who are trapped by Islamist fighters, from the mountain, and a government official last night added that Downing Street was “not ruling out” sending ground troops to the site, though in a non-combat role. However, in spite of growing calls for Britain to take more of an active role in the situation, the PM was firmly focused on the humanitarian support the UK can provide the trapped refugees.

Yet the news this morning from the US could change those “detailed plans” hinted at by the UK government. The US, which sent a Special Forces team to the mountain to inspect the situation, has said it has found fewer stranded people than first thought, and also that they are in a better situation than expected.

The Pentagon said in a statement:

"The Yazidis who remain are in better condition than previously believed and continue to have access to the food and water that we have dropped… Based on this assessment... an evacuation mission is far less likely."

What does this development mean for Cameron? It’s clear that he was taking the lead from the US so far on his approach to the situation of the stranded Yazidis. A UK government official said last night, referring to potentially sending troops to the area, that it was, “important to remember it is a US-led plan and Kurdish forces are on the ground already”.

But now the US has almost certainly decided against a mission to evacuate the trapped Iraqis, what are Cameron’s options? In spite of the US saying a rescue operation is unlikely, it and Britain are continuing to drop aid to the refugees, which highlights the fact that there remains a substantial number of people in dire need of help from the international community.

However, from International Development Secretary Justine Greening’s interview on the BBC’s Today programme this morning, it seems the UK is reluctant to take a lead on this beyond America’s stance.

Greening admitted to the programme that it, “has been difficult to get the exact facts of what’s happening on the ground,” but accepted that, “the US has given us a more accurate on-the-ground assessment of what their estimate [of the number of people left on the mountain] is”.

She said Britain would continue doing airdrops alongside the US, as “we do know that there are many people left on that mountain in desperate straits”, but suggested that it would only take more direct action if it could follow its international ally: “The PM’s been very clear that if there is a rescue effort, we would be part of that – work alongside international partners, which would mean the Americans.”

Although refusing to say outright that there would be no rescue operation, and also declining to comment on what the UK’s reconnaissance jets, sent in three days ago, have found, Greening did hint that the remaining refugees would be there for some time. “We need to look ahead to the fact that people won’t be going home immediately,” she admitted, adding we need to focus on “how to get them through the winter”.

It seems Cameron’s options are rather limited by America’s actions. Although this restricts the UK government’s response, it could be a relief for the PM, who has been doing his best this week to concentrate on the humanitarian effort over discussions of military intervention.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Leader: Theresa May and the resurgence of the state

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Theresa May entered office in more tumultuous circumstances than any other prime minister since 1945. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a remarkable rebuke to the political and business establishment and an outcome for which few had prepared. Mrs May recognised that the result was more than a revolt against Brussels. It reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Britain’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity, its regional imbalances and its distrusted political class all contributed to the Remain campaign’s ­defeat. As she said in her speech in Birmingham on 11 July: “Make no mistake, the referendum was a vote to leave the European Union, but it was also a vote for serious change.”

When the financial crisis struck in 2007-2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was caught out. His optimistic, liberal Conservative vision, predicated on permanent economic growth, was ill-suited to recession and his embrace of austerity tainted his “modernising” project. From that moment, the purpose of his premiership was never clear. At times, austerity was presented as an act of pragmatic bookkeeping; at others, as a quest to shrink the state permanently.

By contrast, although Mrs May cautiously supported Remain, the Leave vote reinforced, rather than contradicted, her world-view. As long ago as March 2013, in the speech that signalled her leadership ambitions, she spoke of the need to confront “vested interests in the private sector” and embrace “a more strategic role” for the state. Mrs May has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the ­European Union, and anticipated the causes of the Leave vote. The referendum result made the national reckoning that she had desired inevitable.

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has set the ­Labour Party on a similar course, stating in his conference speech that the “winds of globalisation” are “blowing against the belief in the free market and in favour of intervention”. He pointedly criticised governments which did not try to save their domestic steel industries as China dumped cheap steel on to global markets.

We welcome this new mood in politics. As John Gray wrote in our “New Times” special issue last week, by reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social ­cohesion, Mrs May “has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s”.

The Prime Minister has avoided the hyperactive style of many new leaders, but she has deviated from David Cameron’s agenda in several crucial respects. The target of a national Budget surplus by 2020 was rightly jettisoned (although Mrs May has emphasised her commitment to “living within our means”). Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement on 23 November will be the first test of the government’s ­fiscal boldness. Historically low borrowing costs have strengthened the pre-existing case for infrastructure investment to support growth and spread prosperity.

The greatest political ­challenge facing Mrs May is to manage the divisions within her party. She and her government must maintain adequate access to the European single market, while also gaining meaningful control of immigration. Her statist economic leanings are already being resisted by the free-market fundamentalists on her benches. Like all prime ministers, Mrs May must balance the desire for clarity with the need for unity.

“Brexit means Brexit,” she has repeatedly stated, underlining her commitment to end the UK’s 43-year European
affair. If Mrs May is to be a successful and even transformative prime minister, she must also prove that “serious change” means serious change and a determination to create a society that does not only benefit the fortunate few. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories