Sunday, September 1, 2013

Cameron and the Syria vote: the epitome of Cameron's pitiful personality

So it has come to this: almost inevitably, Cameron's personality flaws have finally led him to bring the country, his government, and his party, to a new low. Cameron has already shown on many occasions his personality flaws while acting as leader of the country. But it has been a foreign policy issue that has put them into the sharpest focus.

The Syrian civil war finally turned on the chemical weapons attack of the 21st August. While on holiday on Cornwall the previous weekend, Cameron received a call from Obama to support him on military action against Assad's regime. Cameron's support was expected, given both Obama's and Cameron's joint stand against Assad. However, from the point of agreeing to join with Obama, Cameron made political blunder after blunder.

 Given the traumatic impact of Iraq on the Blair government, and that Cameron still vainly sees himself as the "heir to Blair", Cameron clearly wanted to be involved in action in Syria, but the legacy of Iraq made feel the need to involve parliament. That being said, Cameron clearly thought that this "parliamentary involvement" was simply a cosmetic exercise, and that the vote was in the bag; in other words, a politically-cynical move to give the fig leaf of democracy to Cameron's plans, and superficially appear inclusive and mindful of the legislature. This decision displays Cameron's tendency to arrogance, superficiality, and poor judgment all at once.

The superficiality of this exercise became clear from the fact that Cameron felt it suitable to announce the recall of parliament from holiday on Twitter, of all things, on Tuesday lunch-time. By Tuesday afternoon, while him, Clegg and Milliband were discussing a statement to vote on in parliament on Thursday, military assets were already being transferred to the conflict area. This action cements the views that Cameron's use of parliament was just a cover, and that Cameron was expecting military action perhaps as soon as that weekend. And by Wednesday morning, Cameron had already decided to press on with a UN motion calling for action on Syria; something that had not been discussed in the meeting with Milliband the previous day.

But the UN inspectors in Syria would be there until Saturday, and were not expected to report their findings until some days later; maybe weeks later. As parliament was due to return from holiday that Monday (2 September) anyway, this again shows Cameron's serious lack of thought; bringing back MPs (and using taxpayers' money) to hold a vote that was not even truly urgent, if purpose of the UN team was considered so important. Why not simply wait till Monday, till the UN team had left Syria? And what was the point of trying to get a vote from the UN before the inspectors had even finished their job? Cameron's efforts with the UN show up his ham-fisted and thoughtless approach to politicking, as much as in Westminster.

Discussions between Cameron and Milliband about the vote now began to diverge, with Milliband insisting on a more cautious, evidence-based statement of his own, that made British military action dependent on the UN. Milliband's actions were seen as akin to being stabbed in the back by Cameron, who quickly made sure his staff leaked invective-filled criticisms of Milliband. This reaction shows the impetuous, even infantile side of Cameron's personality, who is prone to short-tempered bursts. What marks Cameron out as more unstable and careless in his behaviour compared to his predecessors, is that while Gordon Brown often lost his temper, it was always behind closed doors; Cameron does so publicly in parliament, and in doing so highlights how unfit he is to high office.
Some criticise Milliband's change of mind as politically-cynical positioning. Two points spring to mind about this accusation: first, that Cameron's decision to recall parliament was at least as superficial and cynical in its intent; second, Milliband clearly understood that public opinion was against intervention, as were much of the Labour party and a number of Conservative MPs. In this way, he was simply displaying better political acumen; what's a worse criticism of Cameron is that his arrogance led him to take his party (and Labour) for granted, and that Milliband knew the minds of Conservative MPs better than their own leader. This is an appalling indictment of Cameron, fed by his own arrogance.

So by the time the vote came, Milliband's re-positioning led Cameron to a further compromise (and another potential recall of parliament): that the Thursday vote would not be binding if it passed, and that a second vote (presumably on the Saturday) would be held to agree on military action. This decision simply piled absurdity onto absurdity: for the sake of appearing democratic, Cameron was willing to waste MPs' holidays (and taxpayers' money) for a second time. If there was to have been a second vote, why on earth could it not wait till Monday? What was so special about Saturday? This feeds the view that Cameron was simply playing games with parliament for his own vanity, to appear as one with Obama. It feeds the view that Cameron has a deeply insecure personality, amongst other flaws.

So when it came to losing the vote, Cameron was not expecting the result at all; it appears the possibility of losing it had not even occurred to him. His whips had not been told to recall MPs on holiday; they had not been hold to ensure government loyalty; some MPs and ministers didn't even bother to vote, even though they were in parliament. This all stems from Cameron's arrogance, surrounding himself with sycophants, and disregard for others' opinions. So when it came to looking for who to blame, Cameron again set his personal staff to shamelessly attack Milliband in vicious terms; for a second time.

But the blame all lies with one man alone: Cameron himself.

In the past, Prime Ministers have resigned when losing votes on foreign policy. The fact that Cameron had made the vote almost a question of trusting his judgement, tells you how much he put his own credibility at stake. The vote can therefore be seen as a vanity project of Cameron's own making. And he lost it, due to his incredible arrogance and vanity. The vote was never absolutely necessary: it was something that Cameron himself had clearly decided to do for superficial reasons, as highlighted earlier.

The vote can be seen in humiliating historical terms (one fact being that it's the first time a PM has been prevented from declaring war by his own parliament), but also its impact will be felt abroad, and already has been. Its long-term impact may not be huge; more symbolic. But it will have an effect on Cameron's personal standing abroad. For a start, Cameron as Prime Minister is in the politically-absurd position of no longer being able to state his views on Syria with any authority abroad. On Syria, he is now the puppet and mouthpiece of parliament, who he helplessly disagrees with. When a foreign statesman asks for Cameron's views on Syria, he is only able to repeat parliament's view, not his own. Any other statesman would find such a situation extraordinary, but the fact that Cameron would rather stay in power than resign for such a humiliation tells you that he has no sense of shame. 

Then there is the damage done to his authority at home, within his own party and parliament - which is much more serious. Cameron's own vanity and arrogance has displayed how he effectively has no control over his own party. The first (cynical) rule about holding votes in politics is that you don't hold a vote if you can't easily predict the outcome. Cameron held the vote without bothering to check that he had the support, because he assumed he already had it; that much is clear. He assumed that he had the charisma to win over any waverers.

But his behaviour this week, after a "good" summer for his government, has managed to prise defeat from the jaws of victory. Milliband's positioning was politically-astute on the Syria vote, and also demonstrated a "killer instinct" that Milliband has only rarely shown since beating his brother to the leadership; seeing the poor judgement that Cameron was openly displaying, it was not hard to take political advantage, while also siding with public opinion and parliamentary will.

For the Conservatives, Cameron's pitiful, true self has been nakedly on display this week, and on a matter of international importance as well as domestic political opinion; the worst possible combination. Cameron is expected to have a reshuffle in the coming weeks. But many of his backbenchers will know that the real liability is not the ministers but the leader himself.

Cameron doesn't suffer from a lack of self-confidence; he is also charming and knows how to appear statesman-like.
But these are his only positive characteristics: the way he has behaved in the past week has displayed his many negative characteristics to the fore.

The question is how long these many negatives will be tolerated.

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