Outspoken British PM embroiled in diplomatic rows

2010-07-30 07:23

In just a few days, new British Prime Minister David Cameron has

openly declared Britain is no more than the “junior partner” of the US,

irritated Israelis by calling Gaza a prison camp and enraged Pakistanis by

suggesting their country exports terrorism.

So what is the game plan of Britain’s youngest prime minister in

nearly 200 years?

Is it youthful inexperience, or is the 43-year-old calculating a

new chapter in British diplomacy – casting himself as a truth-teller distinct

from his Labour predecessors, whom he has accused of relying on spin?

Pakistan’s High Commissioner Wajid Shamsul Hasan said after Cameron

criticised the country’s counter-terrorism efforts during a visit to India,

Pakistan’s nuclear rival: “It’s an immature reaction from an immature

politician. He should choose his words more carefully.”

Cameron says he will continue the plain diplomatic talk – a

contrast to the political waffling of former prime minister Gordon Brown and

Tony Blair’s accused sycophancy with his US counterparts.

But Cameron’s attitude also bears a striking similarity to Iron

Lady Margaret Thatcher, who made a virtue of upsetting her European counterparts

and once famously told one of her lawmakers “your spine does not reach your

brain” after a dispute over a key parliamentary vote.

Cameron said: “I believe in speaking clearly and plainly about

these matters.”

Countered ex-Foreign Secretary David Miliband: “There’s a

difference between being a straight talker and a loudmouth.”

Cameron, who became a lawmaker just nine years ago, has been trying

to shore up support at home since his Conservative Party failed to win enough

parliamentary seats to lead a majority government.

In the end, the party entered into a coalition government with the

Liberal Democrats, a partnership some predict may not last.

If the coalition breaks up and forces another general election,

Cameron will need to win over voters he failed to convince in April – many of

them traditional Labour supporters.

Steven Fielding, director of the Centre for British Politics at the

University of Nottingham, said: “It is a long-term strategy.

He spent the

election trying to convince people he was a different kind of Conservative, a

liberal Conservative. And he didn’t quite seal the deal.”

Despite a high approval rating in the latest opinion polls, Cameron

faces a tough sell at home.

His government recently unveiled one of the most dramatic austerity

packages in decades, meant to tackle Britain’s gargantuan deficit – measures

that feature extreme cuts to public spending that will take a bite out of

services from buses to health care, as well as tax hikes that will hit rich and

poor alike.

Few are likely to be happy with the cuts ahead.

Comments in the foreign policy arena may also backfire on the

British leader - both at home and abroad.

During his first official visit to the United States this month –

at a time when Americans were seething over the BP oil spill – Cameron tried to

dilute the political impact of the disaster, but also spoke of the company’s

importance and refused to authorise an inquiry into its links with Libya,

enraging US senators.

On a trip to Turkey this week, he sharply criticised Israel’s raid

on a Gaza-bound flotilla that killed nine Turkish activists, adding that the

Palestinian territory “cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison

camp”.

Unlike his Labour predecessors, Cameron made no mention of Israel’s

security concerns or the Islamic militant Hamas, which has fired rockets into

southern Israel from Gaza.

At home, Cameron angered some voters by asserting that Britain was

the junior partner in the World War II fight against Germany in 1940 – a point

when the US had not even entered the war.

The gaffe angered British veterans,

but also harkened back to Blair, who was caricatured as George W Bush’s poodle

for agreeing to join the US-led war in Iraq.

The most politically divisive comments, however, were aimed at

Pakistan during Cameron’s visit to rival India – just a week before Pakistani

President Asif Ali Zardari comes to Britain.

Cameron said: “We should be very, very clear with Pakistan that we

want to see a strong, stable and democratic Pakistan.

But we cannot tolerate in

any sense the idea that this country is allowed to look both ways and is able,

in any way, to promote the export of terror, whether to India, whether to

Afghanistan or to anywhere else in the world.”

Pakistan has faced US pressure to take tougher action against the

Haqqani network, the al-Qaeda linked group that directs operations against US

and coalition forces in Afghanistan from safe havens in Pakistan.

While Hasan, the Pakistani high commissioner, conceded more could

be done to battle terrorism, he said Cameron risked undermining the vital

partnership between Pakistani and British intelligence.

“Cameron’s comments - essentially blaming Pakistan - are a kick,”

he said, noting that Pakistani intelligence worked closely with British

counterparts to investigate the 2005 London suicide bombings that killed 52

commuters in London and to thwart several planned attacks, including the 2006

trans-Atlantic airliner plot.

He said Pakistan also helped identify terrorism targets to US and

British forces within its own borders, often resulting in the deaths of

Pakistani civilians.

Hasan said: “To fight terrorism, Cameron should have encouraged

India and Pakistan to come together rather than using a divisive statement like

this to ingratiate himself with India.”

Still, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the country’s

coalition government was behind Cameron’s remarks: “The prime minister speaks

the truth and we are all united and clear about what he said.”

In the end, perhaps Cameron’s outspokenness will help raise his

profile.

In New York’s Times Square during this month’s visit, Britain’s

Daily Mirror found few people could even identify the prime minister.

One woman

confused him with America’s Got Talent judge Piers Morgan – and another with

BP’s disgraced chief executive Tony Hayward.


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