David Cameron’s statement to the Commons this afternoon was originally intended to be devoted to last week’s EU summit. But it was the Tunisian atrocity that rightly took precedence (though that did not stop multiple Tory MPs excoriating his European renegotiation). After MPs observed a minute’s silence, Cameron announced that a national silence would be held on Friday at 12pm, one week on from the moment of the attack. He noted that the Foreign Office was not advising against all but essential travel to Tunisia, including “the popular coastal resorts” (a stance that many will question).
Cameron went on to outline the government’s policy response, citing the massacre as further evidence of the need to give the security services additional powers through the proposed communications data bill (or “snooper’s charter”), which the Liberal Democrats vetoed in the last parliament. “ISIL’s methods of murder may be barbaric, but its methods of recruitment, propaganda and communication use the latest technology,” he said. “So we must step up our own efforts to support our agencies in tracking vital online communications, and we will be bringing forward a draft Bill to achieve this.” His accompanying insistence that “we will not give up our way of life or cower in the face of terrorism” will be cited by civil libertarians as meaningless as surveillance is extended.
The most politically notable section of his statement came when Cameron declared that “we must be stronger at standing up for our values” and “must be more intolerant of intolerance – taking on anyone whose views condone the extremist narrative or create the conditions for it to flourish”. 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 last year). Cameron has resurrected the themes of his 2011 Munich speech, which attacked the “doctrine of state multiculturalism” and vowed to challenge groups that “push an extremist agenda”.
When he turned to the Mediterranean migrant crisis, he confirmed, to the dismay of Labour and the SNP, that the UK would not accept any of the 40,000 refugees in Italy and Greece. He defended this stance, which is at odds with Britain’s history, on the grounds that “[it] could be counterproductive, because instead of breaking the smugglers’ business model, it makes their offer more attractive.” The UK will limit itself to accepting “vulnerable refugees” from outside the EU, most notably Syria (from where just 200 have been welcomed so far).
Finally, Cameron provided the clearest and most succicnt guide yet to his EU renegotiation demands: an exemption from the doctrine of “ever closer union”, greater powers for national pariaments, protection for non-euro members in the single market and new limits on welfare benefits for migrants (a four-year ban). The subsequent swarm of complaints from the Tory benches (greeted by Cameron with amused resignation) again confirmed that even if he achieves victory on every front (which is unlikely) it will not be enough to satisfy those determined to leave the EU at any cost.