On Monday, perhaps for the first time in his life, David Cameron turned right after boarding an aircraft. There is no business class in the RAF Hercules that ferried him to Afghanistan; to enter it by door rather than by loading ramp is luxury enough, and the only in-flight entertainment is an industrial-strength headset to deaden the sound of the engines. Icebergs aside, this was his first serious foreign trip as leader.
Since 9/11, Tory policy on the war on terror — with the exception of Michael Howard’s wobble over Iraq — has been largely inseparable from that of Tony Blair; so much so that the Prime Minister has often left the Commons chamber with the wrong kind of applause ringing in his ears. But among the quieter voices of dissent when Iraq was the main issue of the hour was Mr Cameron’s own. Privately, the young MP admitted to colleagues that he opposed the war, but did not feel strongly enough to rebel over it. ‘I’m not like you neocons,’ he once explained, only half-jokingly, to friends who proudly described themselves as such.
Since becoming leader Mr Cameron has rejected the neocon label explicitly, saying he is simply ‘conservative’ — much as he lays claim to ‘Thatcherite not Reaganite’ economic policies. ‘We are about the conservatism of the national interest, putting Britain first,’ he says. For Conservatives sensitive to such code, this language is consistent with a gentle and (in their eyes) overdue break from both Washington and Jerusalem.
With such little ideological baggage, Mr Cameron is well placed to rebuild Tory foreign policy from scratch. And yet, with few hard ideas of his own, he finds himself buffeted by two competing currents of Conservative opinion. The party has long housed an Arabist contingent, whose arguments were as passionately advanced as they were comprehensively dismissed by past leaders. When Iain Duncan Smith set the policy on Iraq, he declared the party’s relationship with America an issue for ‘leadership, not compromise’.
When Mr Howard shifted the party’s ground to criticise the war, just under two years ago, he was widely attacked for craven opportunism (and barred from the White House). This experience is a painful and abiding memory for Francis Maude, the party chairman, who is nervous about comparable policy reversals — what Labour caricatures as ‘flip-flops’. He believes that, having supported the overthrow of the Taleban in 2001, the Tories must stick with the consequences — including the deployment of British troops to the lawless Helmand province which Mr Cameron visited this week. But Mr Maude’s view does not command a consensus. As one shadow Cabinet member argues, ‘We gave Blair a blank cheque in Iraq. It is now time to revoke it with Afghanistan.’
Mr Cameron travelled out with Liam Fox, who after a sluggish start has now embraced his defence brief with such enthusiasm that he is memorising military aircraft types and cooking corned beef at home. He was a staunch supporter of the Iraq war, yet believes the Helmand mission is overstretched and misconceived. Poppy-farming will never be stamped out if it is the only means of survival, he argues; obedience to central government cannot be taught at gunpoint to a region which has never recognised the writ of Kabul.
While Dr Fox’s doubts about the government’s policy in the war on terror and the Middle East remain private, William Hague has made his own explicit. In an extraordinary Commons speech last week, he announced that Hezbollah was only ‘partly’ responsible for the Israeli campaign in Lebanon, certain aspects of which he condemned robustly as ‘disproportionate’. The shadow foreign secretary chided the Prime Minister for being seen as ‘too close’ to President George W. Bush. Ironically, it was precisely the speech that Labour MPs wanted to hear from the hapless Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, who instead focused all her energies on avoiding a blunder.
Mr Hague is reflecting, rather than setting, a new mood in the party. The Atlanticist torch is kept very much alive by young modernisers such as Michael Gove, who this month published Celsius 7/7 (reviewed on p. 34), a book analysing the Islamist threat and making the case for interventionism. But the chorus of dissent is growing ever louder. Criticism of one of the party’s most powerful internal lobby groups, Conservative Friends of Israel, is increasingly audible. ‘They even phone up to change internal briefing documents,’ complains one shadow Cabinet member. ‘But they will find the party is becoming more balanced, and so is William.’
One can trace this shift back to the trip to Washington paid six months ago by Messrs Fox, Hague and George Osborne, the shadow chancellor — who, for now, is keeping his neocon sympathies to himself with the same caution he has shown over upfront tax cuts. During that visit Mr Hague warned that his party’s support of America would be ‘solid, but not slavish’, and voiced concern over climate change, Guantanamo Bay and the rendition of terror suspects — hardly an agenda calculated to endear him to the White House.
At the time, Mr Hague spoke of ‘a timetable’ for Mr Cameron himself to visit the Oval Office. Thus far, the invitation has conspicuously failed to arrive. Meanwhile Mr Cameron has been asked to a dinner hosted for him in New York by Tina Brown, former editor of Vanity Fair and a formidable figure in Manhattan’s liberal aristocracy. It is a safe bet that her guests will include few friends of Donald Rumsfeld. A delighted Mr Cameron has hailed her offer as a ‘non-electoral milestone on the march to power’.
Few of these milestones will be crossed in Washington, a place where Mr Cameron personally has little reputation. Visiting British politicians find themselves asked whether it is true that he is building a wind turbine atop his London house, a gesture which some Republicans put in the same ideological category as wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt. When he met Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, she noted with displeasure that the unambiguous solidarity she had expected the young Tory leader to offer was not forthcoming.
David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter credited with the phrase ‘axis of evil’, offers this verdict on Mr Cameron: ‘The politician he is coming most to resemble is the George W. Bush of vintage 1999–2000. He uses flowery language to avoid tough choices, to evade rather than take a stand.’ In London a different version of the same charge is being levelled by Cameron-sceptics: namely, that Mr Cameron is trying to appease both the Arabists and the Atlanticists.
If so, he will not be able to straddle the fence for long. The demand for clarity — and change — is growing. At the Tory awayday in Buckinghamshire earlier this month, Alan Duncan (a former oil trader with strong Arab connections and a picture of Yasser Arafat on his website) testily informed the shadow Cabinet that domestic reform is useless without foreign-policy reform. For once, he was heeded. This argument is now adjourned over the long recess. But when the Conservatives meet in Bournemouth in October they might just have a new world-view to christen.