Steve Richards: Whatever his purpose, David Cameron is mapping out new territory on foreign policy

It is significant that he sees political benefits from a move away from extreme Atlanticism
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When the Conservatives were falling apart, they still worried the Labour government. "What are the Tories doing about this?" "How will the Conservatives react if we do this?" These were the questions whirling around Downing Street when Labour was 20 points ahead in the polls and Conservative leaders struggled with their baseball caps. For a Labour leadership that had become used to losing elections in the 1980s, the Opposition could always cause a stir.

Such has been their disproportionate influence that I wonder whether Britain would have gone to war in Iraq if the Conservatives had opposed it. Visitors to Downing Street at the start of Blair's second term were astonished to hear that one of his key objectives was to demonstrate that a Labour Prime Minister could work closely with a Republican President. Blair was alarmed at the prospect of the Conservatives acquiring a new credibility as a result of their closeness to a new Republican administration. He was determined to close the space off.

This was at a time when the Conservatives were 25 points behind in the polls and their leader was Iain Duncan Smith, who did not even try to struggle with a baseball cap. Nonetheless, Duncan Smith was offering unconditional support for any US military adventure, and this worried Downing Street. Such is the persistent timidity of the Labour administration, its sense that it has disturbed the natural order by winning elections in a Conservative country, that the Conservative party at its lowest ebb had an impact.

This is one of the reasons why David Cameron's speech on foreign policy this week was an event of underestimated significance. In a depressingly narrow field, Cameron delivered the most enlightened speech on foreign policy made by a mainstream Labour or Conservative politician for several years.

In a wide- ranging address, he dared to point out the failures of neo-conservatism and its disastrously misguided attempts to impose democracy by force:

"It takes time, it cannot easily be imposed from outside. Liberty grows from the ground - it cannot be dropped from the air by an unmanned drone."

And here he is on Britain's relationship with the US, the source of many of Blair's problems:

"It serves neither Britain's nor the world's interests if we are seen as America's unconditional associate in every endeavour. Our duty is to our own citizens, and to our own conception of what is right for the world. We should be solid but not slavish in our friendship with America. It all comes down to a sense of confidence. Your long-standing friend will tell you the truth, confident that the friendship will survive. Your newest friend will tell you what you want to hear, eager to please so as not to put the friendship at risk."

No one should get dewy eyed about Cameron's stance. He is a leader seeking to exploit the weaknesses and the vulnerabilities of his opponents. That is the task of leaders. Blair is vulnerable in relation to foreign policy. Cameron seeks to find a way of highlighting the vulnerability without a traumatic revolution in Conservative foreign policy.

Now he has an additional motive to find a way of being distinctive. It seems that Gordon Brown feels compelled to follow a similar course to Blair. Last Friday, he wrote an article for The Sun that was little more than a series of simplistic reactionary slogans in relation to "terror" and the unquestioning duty of Britain to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with the US. This is not where most voters are. Cameron seeks to speak for the voters.

Apart from the obvious opportunism, it is easy to see the joins. Cameron's speeches do not merely approximate in balance and structure to those that Blair delivered in the mid 1990s. The orchestration is precisely the same. Two extreme positions are highlighted and the moderate leader strides between them. In his speech Cameron juxtaposes anti-Americanism and slavish support for the US:

"Anti-Americanism represents an intellectual and moral surrender. It is a complacent cowardice born of resentment of success and a desire for the world's problems simply to go away. I and my party are instinctive friends of America, and passionate supporters of the Atlantic Alliance. We believe in the alliance for both emotional and rational reasons. But we have never, until recently, been uncritical allies of America."

The juxtaposition only works because the government has opted for one extreme in its uncritical support for President Bush. Even so, Cameron seeks to reassure a broad church that the Atlantic alliance would be safe in his hands. This is a speech that would allow him to do more or less what he wanted while signalling an important shift.

The artful construction and ruthless expediency should not detract from what Cameron says. It is significant in itself that he calculates that political benefits arise from a symbolic move away from extreme Atlanticism. Whatever the pragmatic motives, the words are there. In opposition, words are all a leader can deploy. They matter. Step back from the inevitable political calculation and the words point at least to a subtler foreign policy.

Brown's vacuous slogans in The Sun could have been reduced to a single sentence: "Please be nice to me, Rupert." Evidently Cameron calculates that it is possible in British politics to maintain a little distance from a newspaper proprietor. When I wrongly wrote in the summer that Cameron was heading to the Murdoch conference in the US, I received an illuminating and robust rebuttal. I was told Cameron was not going, and that he would not have been able to attend even if he had been invited. That put me in my place. More importantly, it put Murdoch in his place.

This is an important leap. Cameron clears some space not just for himself but also for British politics. Without explicitly challenging either, he moves a few careful steps away from the stifling influences of Bush and Murdoch. Trapped by their experiences in the 1980s, New Labour leaders are too fearful of marking any distance from those two powerful figures, frightened that the Tories would benefit.

The resulting divide over foreign policy is perverse. Privately, cabinet ministers despair of Bush. One told me he was a "disastrous aberration". Another called him the "worst President by far in the history of the US". In contrast, Cameron is surrounded by Bush admirers. Yet it is Cameron who makes the enlightened speech on foreign policy, while Blair and Brown cling to the wreckage of an uncritical alliance.

While Labour debates with an empty fearfulness whether it "moves forward" or "turns the clock back", Cameron leaves the 1980s behind in outlining a more mature relationship with the US, even if Murdoch disapproves. He is on fruitful terrain. Will any of Labour's aspiring leaders and deputy leaders dare to join him?