David Cameron on his way to announcing new anti-terror measures. Photo: Getty
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David Cameron to chair emergency meeting on UK hostage death threat

After a video apparently showing the beheading of another American journalist has been released, a Cobra meeting will be held to discuss the threat to a UK hostage.

The Prime Minister is to chair an emergency meeting today to discuss how Britain should respond to the threat by Islamic State (also known as Isis) militants to kill a British national they’ve held hostage.

The Cobra committee comes the day after another kidnapped US journalist, Steven Sotloff, appears to have been beheaded by the militants, in a video released online claiming to show the killing.

According to the BBC, Downing Street confirmed on Tuesday this week that it was aware of a UK hostage being held by IS, the name of whom his family have asked not to be released by the media. Yet it is reported that David Cameron has been aware of this hostage situation for a while, so it has been informing his approach to the situation in Iraq.

The footage – released yesterday – shows a clip of the UK hostage at the end of the video, and also again a masked jihadi who appears to have an English accent. It has come out a fortnight after the same militant group put out a video showing the killing of another US journalist, James Foley, which also showed a militant with an apparently English accent, dubbed Jihadi John by the British media.

According to the BBC’s Today programme this morning, government sources are asserting that there will be no “knee-jerk response” to this news by the cabinet, and the Prime Minister instead will set out “a considered approach”.

However, although insiders are playing down the possibility of a retaliatory strike against IS, the pressure has been mounting on the PM as the situation in the Middle East intensifies. On the day of the return of MPs to parliament on Monday following summer recess, he gave a speech to the Commons explaining how the government is attempting to widen and strengthen anti-terror laws in light of the threat of British nationals going out to fight with jihadists and returning to the UK.

In his statement, he suggested that if Britain were to intervene in the area, in an emergency situation, then there could be the scenario of acting first, and telling parliament afterwards – rather than securing a vote from the Commons first, before the country takes on an offensive role. This, along with his assertion that he has not ruled out military action against IS, suggests that intervention beyond a humanitarian and surveillance role may be on the cards. It may be Cameron’s only choice if the British government is unable to avoid the death of a British hostage.

The former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who was in the role ten years ago when the government took Britain into the invasion of Iraq, told Today this morning that military intervention may be necessary. He said that "increased pressure for military involvement" among some MPs in parliament is "not unreasonable". And after asserting his support for arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, who are fighting IS, saying, "we ought to have a more active policy of support", he added that there was a case for British involvement in military action against IS forces, at least in Iraq. He said, if the US asked the UK to join in air strikes in the area, "my instinct would be probably to do so. No one's aware more than I am of the legacy of the 2003 Iraq war. Of course we should learn from the past, but we shouldn’t be paralysed by the past at the same time…"

Straw also spoke about how to deal with the situation of British hostages being held, having been involved in the Ken Bigley case a decade ago. He said there would be the need to react "secretly, privately", to some extent, and also stated, "you need communication with the hostage-takers, but not negotiation... Not entertaining the payment of ransoms to hostage-takers, but at the same time you need some communication with the hostage takers..." He acknowledged the heightened sensitivity brought about by mass-communication today: "there was a lot of pressure ten years ago, but there wasn’t social media available in the levels that it is now."

With heavyweight figures on both sides, including Nick Clegg and the PM himself, not being averse to military intervention, it may only be a matter of time.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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How the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

“The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity,” declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later, but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" – a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain – but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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