Sunday 15 December 2019

Nicholas Leonard: Cameron must give up on Afghan war as Labour's new leader rallies troops

British Prime Minister David Cameron reacts whilst listening to speeches at the Conservative Party annual conference in Birmingham yesterday.
British Prime Minister David Cameron reacts whilst listening to speeches at the Conservative Party annual conference in Birmingham yesterday.

With something close to glee, Labour Party politicians in Scotland are celebrating the disastrous state of the Irish economy.

Their leader, Iain Gray, said last week that Ireland was "teetering on the brink of collapse" and he reckoned that its plight was conclusive proof that Scotland would be taking a reckless gamble if it decided to vote for full independence from Westminster.

Unfortunately for people like Gray, the state of the UK economy is not much better than that of Ireland. In fact, supporters of Scottish independence reckon that being a small country within the EU is a safer option than being so big that no one else can afford to rescue you when things go wrong.

The Irish experience will certainly be a key part of the political arguments in the run-up to the Scottish parliament election next year.

After the bonfire of the banking vanities in Dublin, it will be the turn of the UK chancellor, George Osborne, to have a Brian Lenihan moment this week when he updates the Conservative Party conference on his plans to cut spending and raise taxes.

The full details will not be known until later this month, but the shape of austerity to come is already clear. After doing his best to prepare voters for the most drastic measures in the UK's peacetime history, the prime minister, David Cameron, has now been told by his spin doctors to ease up on the misery headlines.

Yesterday he even asserted that the cutbacks may not be as bad as people feared and that he was "an optimist". In contrast, the business minister, Ken Clarke, a veteran of the economic crises of the early 1990s, has slumped into pessimism and said yesterday that there's still a real risk of a double-dip recession.

While the coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats has so far survived with surprising ease, the tensions of shrinking the cost of government, the arguments within the Conservative Party itself, have become increasingly bitter.

There is a fierce row taking place between the defence minister, Liam Fox, and the prime minister over just how much the cost of running the armed forces can be safely reduced.

The ferocity with which Fox is resisting the planned cuts was exposed in a leaked letter from him to Cameron. The former defence minister, Michael Heseltine, who famously walked out of a cabinet meeting after a row with Margaret Thatcher back in 1986, said yesterday that it looked like a letter intended to be leaked.

The bookmakers, Ladbrokes, has cut its odds against Fox doing a Heseltine and quitting the cabinet, to just 3/1. In the nursery rhyme, the Grand Old Duke of York had 10,000 men. By coincidence, that is the same figure that the UK can currently deploy in a typical warzone such as Afghanistan. But after the cutbacks, the number will fall to just 7,000.

While most of the political media headlines are devoted to the economy, the most immediate crisis facing Cameron is, in fact, Afghanistan. If you want to understand just what a disastrous morass this well-intentioned exercise in promoting peaceful democracy has become, you need to know about what is happening to the donkeys out there.

The Afghan soldiers who are now fighting alongside British and other Nato troops against the Taliban routinely use donkeys for carrying arms, food and other essentials in difficult, mountainous terrain.

The soldiers have standing orders to shoot dead any unfortunate donkey that takes fright and runs away. But the donkeys are not capable of fleeing. They are so exhausted and petrified that they are simply collapsing to the ground and refusing to move again.

It looks to be only a matter of time before voters in the UK and the US realise that the unfortunate donkeys' experience is a compelling metaphor for what is happening on a broader front. Cameron is no fool and he knows that he and US President Barack Obama have got to find the most face-saving way possible to get out of Afghanistan as soon as possible.

The grim reality of the Afghan war is a long way removed from the lavish surroundings of the Conservative party conference this week. Business people are being offered the chance to attend a dinner tomorrow night hosted by George Osborne at a cost of £1,000 a head -- a few quid for the food and drink and the rest for the guarantee of access to the second most important man in the cabinet.

After 13 years out of office, Cameron and Osborne are relishing the opportunity to raise money for the party by charging Hollywood rates for the right to be in the same room as them.

In preparation for his keynote speech on Wednesday, Cameron has had his hair styled in a manner that makes him look like Cary Grant's younger brother and he has been working with his spin doctors to find a way of effectively fighting Labour's leader, Ed Miliband.

The conference is playing up the Miliband left-wing image with a self-service food counter called Red Ed's Diner, but to the alarm of Cameron, the initial opinion polls have shown Labour taking a narrow lead over the Conservatives.

Equally alarming for the government is Miliband's decision to start romancing the Lib Dems in the hope of splitting the coalition and building an alliance for the next election.

Irish Independent

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