David Cameron is obviously a fan of Tony Blair. That’s been clear ever since he branded himself the “heir to Blair” months into his stint as Tory leader. The admiration also appears to be reciprocal – Blair said he supported the coalition’s spending cuts in his memoirs.
Cameron is also a keen student of Blair’s administration. This coalition is trying to enact change on many different fronts simultaneously – public spending cuts, health and education reforms, etc. One of the reasons why it’s doing so is because a great failure of New Labour – and Blair has admitted this himself – is that they did not attempt to do much in their first term in office, from 1997 to 2001.
The fact that the coalition might have bitten off more than they can chew by enacting these reforms is a debate to have another day. What I want to write about now is the subject of foreign intervention.
Now, if you have studied New Labour in detail, you might think twice about carrying out a badly-planned, ill-thought out military intervention in a countries ruled by a dictator.
A British diplomatic effort to reach out to Libyan rebels has ended in humiliation as a team of British special forces and intelligence agents left Benghazi after being briefly detained.
The six SAS troops and two MI6 officers were seized by Libyan rebels in the eastern part of the country after arriving by helicopter four days ago.
It’s still difficult to work out how such a daft plan actually came into being. In situations like this I usually try and think of a glib, amusing analogy that makes my point well. Thankfully Douglas Alexander has already done that for me:
Alexander started by reading out the Mustafa Gheriani question from the Times: “If this is an official delegation why did they come with a helicopter? Why didn’t they [inform the revolutionary council] that ‘we are coming, we’d like to land at Benina airport’, or come through Egypt like all the journalists have done.” Then Alexander said this:
The British public are entitled to wonder whether, if some new neighbours moved into the foreign secretary’s street, he would introduce himself by ringing the doorbell, or instead choose to climb over the fence in the middle of the night.
I’ve been quite taken aback by how ill-thought out this operation obviously has been, and it’s taken me to work out exactly why.
I think it’s because this whole cock-up feels like something from the dying days of New Labour, rather than from a new administration that’s been in power less than a year. After all, this was a dysfunctional, ill-planned disaster. It’s got all the hallmarks of something that would have happened during Gordon Brown’s time as Prime Minister.
Instead, Hague and Cameron looked like a group of shambolic amateurs playing toy soldiers. One of the Libyan rebels referred to it as “James Bond tactics”, and that’s not too far off the mark.
This whole episode feels like “Continuity New Labour” on a few levels, that I’ll sketch out briefly below.
The first, that I’ve touched on, is the desire for foreign intervention. Cameron, like Blair, does seem to have been influenced by some neo-conservatives. Prominent among them in Cameron’s case is Michael Gove.
Just as an aside, it seems that Gove is quite influential in Cameron’s thinking. His fingerprints are all over Cameron’s multiculturalism speech, and his desire to take action in Libya.
Secondly, like New Labour the coalition is trying to run a wartime army on a peacetime budget. I’ve written before about the issue of defence spending, and it still applies now. I never thought I’d quote David Starkey favourably, but he was absolutely right on Question Time: You simply cannot have gunboat diplomacy without gunboats. Similarly, you cannot enforce a no-fly zone if you have no aeroplanes.
All in all, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the members of this government, most of whom had never seen the inside of a ministerial box before taking office this year, just aren’t very good at the nuts and bolts of actually governing.
Just like New Labour.