David Cameron gives a speech about the further powers devolved to the Scottish parliament on January 22, 2015 in Edinburgh. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Cameron's "weaponise" charge throws Miliband off balance

The PM's sheer chutzpah allowed him to command the session. 

Few PMQs in this parliament have been as brutal as today's. Ed Miliband led again on the NHS, Labour's strongest suit (and the issue that polls show is of greatest importance to voters), questioning David Cameron on his failure to save A&E units from closure. Cameron responded by immediately challenging Miliband on his refusal to deny that he vowed to "weaponise" the health service, demanding that he apologise. At this point, the session descended into one of the ugliest encounters yet between the two men. 

The Labour leader attacked Cameron's evasiveness (with supreme chutzpah, he simply ignored his questions) but the PM would not relent. After persistent goading, a furious Miliband hyperbolically accused him of declaring "war on Wales" before clarifying that this referred to his use of the "Welsh NHS" for "political propaganda". Any channel hopper unfortunate enough to catch the exchanges would likely have switched off at this point. 

The Tories' outrage over "weaponise" is, to put it mildly, rather confected. It was largely through their briefings over welfare that the word first entered the political lexicon. But it does provide Cameron with a means of throwing Miliband off balance every time he raises the subject. Most voters are unlikely to care about the substance of the "weaponise" row (a word that conjures up images of armed doctors). But they will notice Miliband's equivocation and the rhetorical exaggerations that Cameron provokes ("war on Wales"). Having said several times that he "does not remember" what he said to the BBC's Nick Robinson (who first reported the "weaponise" claim), the Labour leader cannot now defend his alleged use of the word without being branded a liar. 

The PM's ruthless form was testimony to his increasing confidence (the Tories having taken the lead in the polls). In response to a question from Labour left-winger Jeremy Corbyn on his conversation with Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras, the PM, deploying his party's mantra of choice, quipped that he asked him what his "long-term economic plan" was. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Leader: Trump's dangerous nation

From North Korea to Virginia, the US increasingly resembles a rogue state.

When Donald Trump was elected as US president, some optimistically suggested that the White House would have a civilising effect on the erratic tycoon. Under the influence of his more experienced colleagues, they argued, he would gradually absorb the norms of international diplomacy.

After seven months, these hopes have been exposed as delusional. On 8 August, he responded to North Korea’s increasing nuclear capabilities by threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. Three days later, he casually floated possible military action against Venezuela. Finally, on 12 August, he responded to a white supremacist rally in Virginia by condemning violence on “many sides” (only criticising the far right specifically after two days of outrage).

Even by Mr Trump’s low standards, it was an embarrassing week. Rather than normalising the president, elected office has merely inflated his self-regard. The consequences for the US and the world could be momentous.

North Korea’s reported acquisition of a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on an intercontinental missile (and potentially reach the US) demanded a serious response. Mr Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric was not it. His off-the-cuff remarks implied that the US could launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, leading various officials to “clarify” the US position. Kim Jong-un’s regime is rational enough to avoid a pre-emptive strike that would invite a devastating retaliation. However, there remains a risk that it misreads Mr Trump’s intentions and rushes to action.

Although the US should uphold the principle of nuclear deterrence, it must also, in good faith, pursue a diplomatic solution. The week before Mr Trump’s remarks, the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, rightly ruled out “regime change” and held out the possibility of “a dialogue”.

The North Korean regime is typically depicted as crazed, but its pursuit of nuclear weapons rests on rational foundations. The project is designed to guarantee its survival and to strengthen its bargaining hand. As such, it must be given incentives to pursue a different path.

Mr Trump’s bellicose language overshadowed the successful agreement of new UN sanctions against North Korea (targeting a third of its $3bn exports). Should these prove insufficient, the US should resume the six-party talks of the mid-2000s and even consider direct negotiations.

A failure of diplomacy could be fatal. In his recent book Destined for War, the Harvard historian Graham Allison warns that the US and China could fall prey to “Thucydides’s trap”. According to this rule, dating from the clash between Athens and Sparta, war typically results when a dominant power is challenged by an ascendent rival. North Korea, Mr Bew writes, could provide the spark for a new “great power conflict” between the US and China.

Nuclear standoffs require immense patience, resourcefulness and tact – all qualities in which Mr Trump is lacking. Though the thought likely never passed his mind, his threats to North Korea and Venezuela provide those countries with a new justification for internal repression.

Under Mr Trump’s leadership, the US is becoming an ever more fraught, polarised nation. It was no accident that the violent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, culminating in the death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer, took place under his presidency. Mr Trump’s victory empowered every racist, misogynist and bigot in the land. It was doubtless this intimate connection that prevented him from immediately condemning the white supremacists. To denounce them is, in effect, to denounce himself.

The US hardly has an unblemished history. It has been guilty of reckless, immoral interventions in Vietnam, Latin America and Iraq. But never has it been led by a man so heedless of international and domestic norms. Those Republicans who enabled Mr Trump’s rise and preserve him in office must do so no longer. There is a heightened responsibility, too, on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, the president. The Brexiteers have allowed dreams of a future US-UK trade deal to impair their morality.

Under Mr Trump, the US increasingly resembles a breed it once denounced: a rogue state. His former rival Hillary Clinton’s past warning that “a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons” now appears alarmingly prescient.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear