Give ‘em Shelter

Prime Minister David Cameron hasn’t looked anything like a leader this week writes Steve Beauchampé

Dangerous seas

Dangerous seas Photo: The Birmingham Press

It’s been a bad week for Prime Minister David Cameron. Once hailed as a great moderniser, a political statesman dragging the ‘nasty’ party into the political mainstream previously held by Blair, espousing caring Conservatism, Cameron has this week both acted and appeared in turns irrelevant, weak and mean.

With Europe facing a humanitarian crisis as refugees pour across its southern borders seeking sanctuary, Britain’s Prime Minister, totally misreading the nation’s mood, has seemed oblivious, in denial even, as he continued his pursuit of policies aimed at winning over the most insular of little Englanders rather than intervene to help.

Cameron rejected calls for the country to take more than the 226 Syrian refugees that it has so far this year. That was bad enough, but that he did so whilst standing in a field large enough to accommodate half of the migrants waiting outside Budapest’s main railway station seemed particularly insensitive. Here was the public school educated, married to an heiress, wealthy Bullingdon club boy pictured in peaceful, idyllic middle England blind to the plight of a category of humanity to whom he had recently attributed the pejorative noun “swarm”, as if likening them to insects. This from a man who recently warned migrants not to view Britain as a safe haven. To say the least, it didn’t look or sound good.

With pressure mounting, even The Sun, a newspaper that for years has pilloried immigrants at every opportunity and used their vulnerability as an excuse to increase its sales and profits, called on the Prime Minister to act. Reinforcing the nasty party image, former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell (most likely briefed by Downing Street) appeared on Newsnight pillorying the EU and several of its’ member states for being too slow to tackle the crisis.

Such a response from the UK must have infuriated those exasperated and overwhelmed European countries dealing with the daily tide of humanity, both dead and alive, arriving from the war zones of the Middle East and North Africa. Fortunately, following a groundswell of public anger at the government’s stance, Cameron on Friday morning backed down slightly, agreeing to take several thousand refugees from UN camps in the Middle East, an act that will do nothing to alleviate the current crisis in Europe but which allows Britain to receive properly processed and vetted people, ones who were able to play by the rules and go through official channels; the nicer class of refugee if you like.

Given that two of the countries from which the refugees emanate (Iraq and Libya) were stable until British military intervention to effect regime change turned them into basket cases it would seem that Britain bears an undeniable responsibility to sort out the mess, and arguably lead on it.

As the crisis built throughout the week (though in truth it’s been deepening all spring and summer), Chancellor George Osborne travelled to several EU member states in a futile quest to persuade them either to change some of the fundamental principles on which the organisation is founded, or to give Britain an opt out from these principles. It’s hard to know whether the rest of the European Union now views the possibility of Britain leaving as a threat or a promise.

Domestically, EU referendum negotiations weren’t going too well for Cameron either as he was forced to backtrack twice in as many days. First, at the Electoral Commission’s behest, the question on the ballot paper will no longer be ‘Yes ‘ or ‘No’ but ‘Remain ‘ or ‘Leave’. Secondly, the government conceded to Euro sceptics that a version of the rules on purdah will be applied during the final stages of the campaign to prevent the machinery of Whitehall being used to bolster the case for Britain staying in.

For a man who likes to portray both himself and the nation that he leads as a major player on the world stage, David Cameron has this week made Britain look irrelevant and himself more than a little shabby.