In Britain, a new PM is waiting

January 22, 2010

Britains opposition Conservative Party Leader, David Cameron, speaks at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference in London November 23, 2009. REUTERS/Toby Melville

global_post_logoMichael Goldfarb serves as a GlobalPost correspondent in the United Kingdom, where this article first appeared.

The press was summoned early one recent morning to Chatham House, Britain’s leading foreign affairs think tank, to hear the thoughts of Conservative leader David Cameron on Britain’s national security. As Cameron is likely to become prime minister later this spring, attendance was high.

Anyone in the audience who, like me, thought they would hear a talk about his grand strategy for how to deal with threats to Britain’s national security in these extremely insecure times was disappointed. Cameron, bright and confident, spent most of his brief remarks outlining how he intended to change the internal decision making of government on national security issues rather than outlining a new approach to Iran or China.

The strategic decisions made by the Labour government — e.g. joining the U.S. in invading Afghanistan and Iraq — weren’t questioned … it was how they were arrived at that provoked Cameron’s criticism. The cabinet had been sidelined, he said. “Sofa government,” the prime minister’s unelected friends and advisors sitting comfortably on couches at Downing Street and deciding policy had replaced collective decision-making around the cabinet table. This would stop once he was prime minister, said Cameron. There would be a return to the traditions that had stood Britain in good stead. To facilitate cooperation among the various government departments he would form a “National Security Council.”

The lack of a grand vision from the prime minister-in-waiting demonstrates the degree of convergence between the country’s main political parties when it comes to security issues. On the major international crises of the last dozen years of Labour government it is hard to imagine that a Conservative government would have reacted differently.

Your Globalpost correspondent put the question to Cameron: Regardless of whether the decision was reached on a sofa or around the cabinet table, would he not have joined with the U.S. in bombing Belgrade in 1999, invading Afghanistan in 2001 and overthrowing Saddam in 2003?

“Let me work backward through those crises,” he responded improvising an answer until he found the words to articulate a dissimilarity.

The big difference between the Conservatives and Labour, Cameron said, was one of “trust.” There would be no spin doctor-authored dossiers about weapons of mass destruction if he took the country to war. And the next time Britain went shoulder to shoulder with the U.S. into any country there would have to be planning for a “proper reconstruction force” before he signed up to an invasion. It’s a moot point to imagine the boyish Cameron standing up to the combined might of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld in the run up to the Iraq war and saying, “Sorry chaps, we will not deploy until you show me detailed plans for providing law and order the day after Saddam is overthrown.”

So, no big change ahead. Britain will continue to rely on its special position as America’s favorite ally to maintain its own position in the world. But the job of making security policy will be restored to the career bureaucrats. Appearing with Cameron was his top adviser on national security Dame Pauline Neville-Jones. In a long career, Neville-Jones, for whom the word “severe” might have been coined, rose to the top of the security-diplomatic service, eventually taking over the Joint Intelligence Committee, the closest thing Britain has to America’s National Security Council.

Neville-Jones’ presence in his cabinet underscores Cameron’s sincerity about returning decision-making to the status quo ante Tony Blair. She is not likely to tolerate decisions made outside regular channels as was the case in the decision to invade Iraq. The Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War has been hearing conflicting testimony for weeks about whether Blair made a personal commitment to George Bush in 2002 to go to war against Saddam, a commitment that strictly speaking he did not have the authority to make. Blair is due to testify in front of the inquiry next week … it is unlikely we will be any the wiser about the truth when he is finished.

In 45 minutes of talk and Q & A about the only new policy that came up was that there will be an increased focus on the Gulf states by the Conservatives. Neville-Jones repeated several times the Arab Gulf states: Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman had been neglected by Britain in recent years.

That seemed a bit harsh. The Labour government may not have focused too intensively on the region but Britons have been enthusiastic participants in the growth of the region. Super chef Gordon Ramsay has had a restaurant in Dubai since 2001 and Posh and David Beckham have a home there. London’s bankers are constantly threatening to de-camp for the area if their bonuses are taxed.

What Neville-Jones seemed to be implying was that a region critical to supplying Britain’s petroleum needs in an era of dwindling supply and increased global demand needs a few more strokes than it has been getting in the years of Blair and Brown.

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(Pictured above: Britain’s opposition Conservative Party Leader, David Cameron, speaks at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference in London November 23, 2009. REUTERS/Toby Melville)

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