WHEN a governing party’s time is up, no one cares about the failings of the opposition. Ministers in John Major’s Tory administration used to bemoan the easy ride the media gave New Labour. Now it is Labour ministers’ turn to stare with disbelieving eyes at the free pass we give the Conservatives.
Scandals which would once have led the news – the Tory energy spokesman’s links to Vitol, an oil company which cut deals with Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic; the Conservative peers who still talk about ‘niggers in the woodpile’ – are passed over with an embarrassed cough. I know from the experience of writing critical pieces about the Blairites in 1997 that when the national mood swings, few readers want to hear about the faults of the government in waiting.
Like Tony Blair, David Cameron has ‘decontaminated’ his brand and turned the once burning hatred of the Conservative party into desultory emotion – more of a habit rather than a passion. The first aim of the British centre-left is no longer to stop the Tories at any cost.
But in one area Cameron has been more than happy to keep his brand toxic. When he enters Downing Street, Britain will be alone in the world, with few friends and fewer allies. It is only a touch hyperbolic to say that in two years’ time we won’t have a foreign policy.
In the second half of the 20th century, talk of Tory isolationism would have sounded ridiculous. The Conservatives took Britain into Europe and were the party of the American alliance. We’ll discuss the coming breakdown in our relations with Europe later, but first the notion that the Conservatives will be able to stay on good terms with Washington needs to be humanely dispatched.
It is worth recalling a vignette from the Bosnian crisis of the early Nineties because it shows that Tories can be as anti-American as leftists. Douglas Hurd and Malcolm Rifkind used every stratagem not only to stop British troops but troops from any other country intervening to protect the Bosnian Muslims. The then Republican senators John McCain and Bob Dole insisted that an EU which boasted that ‘never again’ would Europe return to the horrors of Nazism had to mean what it said.
In Unfinest Hour, his history of the war, Cambridge historian Brendan Simms quotes the Tory response. Aides to Dole and McCain told him that Rifkind, whose experience of combat was limited to the backstabbing of the Scottish Conservative party, cried: ‘You Americans know nothing about the horrors of war.’ Dole, who had been blown up by a Nazi shell in the Second World War, walked out. McCain, who had been tortured for five years in a communist PoW camp, was so enraged by Rifkind that ‘a member of his staff feared he was about to hit him’.
This story is, incidentally, the best reason I know for preferring McCain to Obama, but every time a journalist repeats it, they receive a furious denial from Rifkind. Maybe it has grown in the telling, but no one can doubt what John Fox, of the US State Department, described as the ‘vigour and desperation’ of Tory ministers. They were ‘not just indifferent to American plans, but actively hostile to steps that could prevent ethnic cleansing’.
After Britain helped author a peace treaty which suited Milosevic very nicely, NatWest paid for Hurd and Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, a former Foreign Office civil servant who had been responsible for Bosnia, to fly to Belgrade and sell a privatisation package to Milosevic.
Despite Cameron’s decision to appoint Dame Pauline as Tory foreign affairs spokeswoman, the Conservatives say the tantrums of the Nineties are behind them. They can now ally with America because George Osborne has good contacts with the neoconservative wing of the Republican party. But it looks as if there will be a Democrat in the White House when the Conservatives reach Downing Street and I don’t think that neocons will have Obama’s ear.
In any case, the Tory idea that Britain can choose the US over Europe makes little sense because Americans from all parties want Europe to unite against the challenge of the newly invigorated autocracy of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a demand that Cameron is constitutionally incapable of accepting.
John Major’s government at least tried to maintain good relations with our European allies. Cameron makes no effort. I cannot find one Conservative statement since he became leader praising the EU, however grudgingly.
Anti-conservatism may no longer stir the left, but opposition to Europe burns as brightly as ever on the right. The Tories are committed to pulling out of the European political bloc which includes Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy’s centre-right parties, ordinarily Cameron’s natural allies, and heading off with the chauvinist parties of Russia and eastern Europe.
Far from standing up to Putin, the Conservatives tried to help a Putin stooge take over the Council of Europe, which oversees the European Court of Human Rights, of all things. Mainstream European conservatives were as loud in their condemnations of Cameron as mainstream socialists. Caroline Jackson, one of the few Conservative members of the European Parliament who wants to work with Britain’s allies, wrote in the Financial Times that her Tory colleagues ‘now have a bad reputation [rapidly getting worse] for crass and offensive behaviour’.
Denis MacShane, the former Labour Foreign Office Minister, was not overstating his case when he said that ‘never before has a potential party of government adopted such a hostile public approach to working with allies and partners’.
Look again at the current scandals. Alan Duncan’s links with Vitol bring back the worst memories of Hurd, Rifkind and Neville-Jones, while the Conservatives who go on about ‘niggers’ and ‘wops’ are not likely to be at ease with foreigners, to put the case against them at its mildest.
A Cameron government will tear up the complex web of alliances and understandings through which Britain exercises her influence. It is about time journalists asked him what he intends to put in their place.