Ten years at the top – but trouble ahead on Syria and Brexit?

Published by The Mail on Sunday (6th December, 2015)

Ten years ago today, a self-deprecating young politician called David Cameron took charge of the Conservatives – their fourth leader in eight years as the party struggled to adapt to 21st Century Britain.

Few predicted he would capture the crown after just four years in Parliament. And yet, since that moment, he has made a habit of defying expectations.

He formed the first coalition government since the Second World War. He followed that with an extraordinary – and wholly unexpected – Tory triumph.

Just as he promised during his leadership campaign, he has transformed his party. And, behind a shield of genial pragmatism, he has reshaped his country to a remarkable degree.

Indeed, these days Cameron is the political veteran: a Prime Minister hardened by experience in his final term of office. And facing the threat of jihadist terror, he is taking his nation deeper into the dangerous terrain of war in the Middle East.

But as a friendly voice and former adviser, I fear this action could backfire spectacularly on Britain and gravely damage his distinctive place in history.

Not because of risk of repercussion, as some argue – regrettably, we were already in terrorist sights.

But it will take far more than a few British bombs to extinguish the conflagration of Islamic extremism around the globe. It is simply misleading to suggest otherwise; our intervention could even inflame the crisis as in Iraq.

Air strikes alone will not defeat jihadism and we risk sliding back into the bloody morass of Middle East conflict. Already we are being warned we face a three-year struggle, while former foreign secretary William Hague floats the idea of British forces on the ground.

So, after ten years at the top, the next few months could be crucial for Cameron – and not solely for his Syrian campaign. The vote on European Union membership also threatens to reopen deep wounds in his party.

Only one thing is certain: the twin spectres of his attack on Islamic State in Syria and threat of ‘Brexit’ highlights the speed of change in both Britain and the world since Cameron won his leadership election.

Look at the Labour Party going from Tony Blair to Jeremy Corbyn, the shrivelling of the Liberal Democrats, the surge in Scottish nationalism, the refugee crisis in Europe, the rise of China.

The Prime Minister’s own family has also changed dramatically, of course, with the tragic death of a son and subsequent arrival of a daughter.

We bonded because we both had children with profound disabilities, changing our outlook. And I liked his relaxed attitude to modern Britain, so different to the disapproval of many Tories at the time.

It is easy to forget the shock when Cameron and a small cluster of modernisers seized control of the party in 2005.

He was a long shot for leader until he electrified its conference with a powerful call for ‘modern compassionate conservatism’.

‘People in this country are crying out for a Conservative Party that is decent, reasonable, sensible, commonsense and in it for the long term of this country and that is the party we are going to build,’ he declared after winning the leadership.

He says much the same things today.

And undoubtedly Cameron will leave a surprisingly deep mark on his nation for someone whose creed is so hard to define, from bravely driving through gay marriage against the wishes of many party members through to shrinking the size of the state so dramatically.

He has defied his detractors, outflanked his enemies, saved the Union, remade the Tory Party in his image and stayed more popular than his party during a decade in the spotlight.

Some say he is a lucky politician, facing three inadequate Labour leaders. Yet he has had to clear up the debris from a terrible economic downturn, handle fallout from an expenses scandal that shattered public faith in politicians and confront huge global upheaval.

So how has it come to this – that he may end up defined by seismic events abroad?

Cameron has long supported intervention abroad – and not just with daft torrents of aid. As Opposition leader, he flew to Georgia to show solidarity against Russian aggression.

Two years ago he sought action against Bashar Assad, only to be stopped by Parliament and a public weary of war. Last week MPs backed his request to attack IS in Syria, which effectively aids the bloodstained regime previously branded such a danger.

After the vote it emerged military officials had warned against claiming 70,000 moderate Syrian rebels. Now Downing Street admits they are from ‘disparate’ groups and difficult to co-ordinate.

Allegations of a ‘dodgy dossier’ reinforce suggestions Cameron is ‘heir to Blair’ in the most alarming way possible, even if they are overblown.

Meanwhile IS, under assault in its capital Raqqa in Syria, is building a stronghold in Sirte – birthplace of Libya’s ex-president Muammar Gaddafi, deposed after Western intervention.

A resurgent Taliban is grabbing back parts of Afghanistan’s Helmand province a year after British troops left; Boko Haram in Nigeria has become the world’s deadliest terror group; Mali remains prey to militants despite 10,000 United Nations peacekeepers; and a gang claiming allegiance to IS is shooting Europeans in Bangladesh.

A few British bombs in Syria may provide political cover for the protagonists but will make minimal difference on the ground after 6,737 strike missions by American aircraft. Nor will they defeat the curse of Islamic extremism corroding too many corners of the world.

Yet on top of this intensifying conflict we face the fiery EU referendum debate, support for membership slipping amid the consequent refugee crisis. Much will depend on turnout, with older people both more sceptical and more likely to vote.

Defeat would severely damage Cameron, probably ending his premiership, while dashing George Osborne’s desired succession.

The intensity of the struggle can be seen with hints yesterday that the Prime Minister might take charge of the ‘Brexit’ campaign if demands for reform are ignored by Brussels. Already hopes for an early ballot seem to have been scuppered by intransigence over benefits.

But given the party’s self-harming history on this issue – which so wounded his two Tory predecessors in Downing Street – even a close victory to stay in might spark civil war, such is the loathing of Brussels among some backbenchers.

Cameron has had a remarkable run since that callow 39-year-old became leader of the Conservative Party, restoring it to the natural party of government. But can he defeat the jihadists and keep Britain in Europe – or will his legacy be blown up abroad like Blair’s?

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