Foreign policy is the dog which has spectacularly failed to bark during this election campaign. Large parts of the world are being violently torn apart by totalitarian and revanchist political movements, yet you wouldn’t know it from listening to our political leaders. In Britain there appears to be an unspoken agreement among the parties that the electorate are just not that interested.
When foreign policy has been mentioned it has been cloaked in silly but clever-sounding triviality, as when Jeremy Paxman smugly predicted during the first television leaders’ debate that Russian leader Vladimir Putin would leave Ed Miliband “in pieces”. A similar but only slightly more sophisticated ‘argument’ was also made on Twitter soon after by business minister Nick Boles:
“Ask yourself this. Who does Vladimir Putin want to see running Britain after 7th May?
“Answer: the man who abandoned the Syrians to their fate and the woman who wants to scrap our nuclear deterrent.”
Answer: Ed Miliband. In both instances, once you strip away the posturing and fluff there is supposedly a serious and sobering point being made: Ed Miliband is just not up to the job of being Prime Minister. He may have ‘stabbed his brother in the back’, as his enemies like to suggest, but on the world stage he will dissolve like an ice cube dropped in a warm glass of water. This matters when Vladimir Putin is carving up Ukraine, threatening the Baltic states and staging provocative military exercises in the Channel.
This is the politics of the Zinoviev letter all over again. The famous MI6 forgery, purported to be from senior Soviet official Grigory Zinoviev, prophesised that a Labour victory in the General Election of 1924 would “assist in the revolutionising of the international proletariat”, therefore delivering Britain over to Communism. Today Ed Miliband is supposedly ready, if not to radicalise the workers, then at least to fall over in a crumpled heap when confronted with the chest-thumping, gay-bashing butcher of Ukraine.
How, then, without sounding facetious or blimpish, do you let the Conservatives down gently and inform them that it is almost certainly David Cameron who Vladimir Putin wants to see back in Number 10? Not because Cameron suffers from one of the arbitrary personality defects our sleuth-like tabloids have apparently detected in Ed Miliband, but because Cameron is bent on appeasing Putin’s useful idiots on the British hard right.
Should Cameron enter Number 10 in May, the biggest winners apart from the Tories will be UKIP, even if they do fail to climb into power on the back of a gruesome coalition. The Prime Minister may not wish to see Britain retreat into splendid isolation and leave Europe, but in a moment of panic he caved in to those who do. Should the Tories win the General Election, UKIP will get what Nigel Farage first entered politics for: a referendum on Europe, preceded by a massive negative tabloid campaign against Europe, with the very real possibility of Britain breaking away from Europe at the end of it. What Cameron did not realise was that, in making this sop to the hard-right he was also making a sop to Vladimir Putin.
It is the desire on the part of the Russian leader to weaken European resolve that explains his recent wooing of Europe’s anti-EU fringe parties. Russia’s influence on the far-right is today a “phenomenon seen all over Europe”, according to Political Capital, a Budapest-based research institute. Meanwhile parties of the far-left in Germany, Greece and Spain are all sticking closely to Putin’s anti-EU script. When the Kremlin is looking to make friends and influence people opposition to European unity is about the only ideology that matters. The aim is a Europe with “Moscow rather than Brussels as the dominant pole,” as the journalist and author Luke Harding has written.
The supplication of David Cameron to his backbenches, and by extension to UKIP, threatens in 2017 to make Vladimir Putin’s life a great deal easier. The hard right of the Conservative party was making longing eyes at Nigel Farage and so David Cameron gave them – and Putin – exactly what they want: a very real chance to hobble the European Union.
This is why, for all the playground accusations of weakness directed at Ed Miliband, it won’t be the Labour leader who Putin is cheering for in May.