David Cameron intended the G8 summit in Northern Ireland starting on Monday to be dominated by his much-trumpeted “three Ts” –trade, tax and transparency. They may now be overshadowed by the S-word – Syria, as the other G8 members ratchet up the pressure on Russia over the growing crisis in Syria.
The shifting spotlight may suit Mr Cameron. He has won plaudits from aid agencies for being the first leader to make a big effort to crack down on anonymous shell companies and offshore and onshore corporate secrecy. But his ambitious proposals are unlikely to be adopted by the G8 in full. “You never at any of these conferences shoot the lights out and hit every target,” he said as he prepared to chair the summit at Loch Erne, County Fermanagh.
When he put the “three Ts” at the top of Britain’s agenda for its year heading the G8, it looked worthy rather than sexy. But public anger at tax avoidance measures by big names such as Google, Starbucks, Amazon, Vodafone and Apple has turned the issue into one for the drinker in the Dog and Duck. A year ago, Britain would probably have opposed the demands for countries to disclose who owns and controls companies and to automatically exchange tax information on businesses and individuals that it is now urging the G8 to adopt. The tipping point for the Treasury was the link to terrorist funding in northern Africa using shell companies.
Being impetuous on foreign affairs is a charge levelled at Mr Cameron by Tory MPs and ministers. It has bubbled to the surface on Syria, where he has led so strongly from the front over arming the anti-Assad rebels that he risks cutting himself off. There is no guarantee Mr Cameron would secure a Commons majority and several Cabinet ministers fear that sending arms would make a bad situation worse. “He is trying to re-play his greatest hit – Libya – but Syria is very different,” said one Cabinet minister.
The hardening United States line against the Assad regime amid growing evidence about its use of chemical weapons will give Mr Cameron some much-needed cover. But the criticism remains valid. Older Cabinet heads grumble that recent events have also shown that Mr Cameron lacks a coherent strategy on Europe.
His Great Speech in January’s promise of an in/out referendum by 2017 was designed to kick the issue beyond the 2015 election. Instead, Mr Cameron kicked the ball into his own net. The speech played into the hands of the UK Independence Party, handing Nigel Farage the precious oxygen of publicity, and Tory Eurosceptics demanded an earlier referendum. It settled nothing.
Abroad, the address also played badly. In the EU, Mr Cameron’s “new settlement” was seen as a demand for special favours for Britain that other EU members are not prepared to give. So he has had to sweep up his own diplomatic mess, reassuring our EU partners that he is proposing reforms that will benefit the 27-nation bloc as a whole. This, in turn, has angered the Tory Eurosceptics, who are itching to see his long shopping list of powers to be returned from Brussels to London. It does not exist because it would be rejected by the EU. Mr Cameron is stalling for time, but another crunch will come.
In opposition, Mr Cameron styled himself a “liberal interventionist” on foreign affairs but, in an attempt to differentiate himself from Tony Blair, argued that “you can’t drop democracy on a country from 30,000 feet”.
Allies insist the Prime Minister is the ultimate pragmatist. This week, he described the UK as “the small island with the big footprint in the world” and mapped out what Mr Blair would have called a “third way”. He rejected the idea that fighting Britain’s corner makes us “Little Englanders”, which pleased Europhobes. But he also argued that it is in the national interest to engage with bodies like the G8 and EU rather than “withdraw from the world”, which delighted Europhiles. He will struggle to keep both sides happy for long. Mr Cameron may be a pragmatist, but leads a party dominated by ideologues on the critical issue of Europe.