LONDON – As they stood solemnly at The Cenotaph war memorial in central London beside Prime Minister David Cameron on Friday afternoon, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg already knew it was their final official event as leaders of two of Britain’s biggest parties.
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The previous night, as the polls closed at the end of the parliamentary election, they had been planning their political manoeuvres, in what was expected to be a period of constitutional chaos in which no party could form a majority government. Instead, in a matter of hours both men were forced to accept that Cameron’s Conservatives had defied the polls and were on their way to a slim majority, while their Labour and Liberal Democrats parties had suffered their worst results in decades. By midday Friday, Miliband and Clegg had promptly taken responsibility and resigned (as, likewise, did the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, Nigel Farage).
Of course, the reelected prime minister could not show any triumphalism at the somber event commemorating the 70th anniversary of VE Day – the day after Germany formally surrendered to the Allies in Europe. But there was a particular poignancy to the picture of the three leaders standing together, holding wreathes of poppies, paying tribute to men and women who had fought and died long before they were born. For those six long years, the three historic parties of Britain – the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberals – sat together in a war coalition. Five years ago, for the first time since the war, none of the parties succeeded in receiving a majority, and so another coalition – this time comprising Conservatives and Liberal Democrats – was formed. Now Cameron is carrying on alone, with a renewed and strengthened mandate for only his party.
But unlike the leaders of Britain 70 years ago, directing armies fighting the Axis across the globe and administering colonies in Africa and Asia, Cameron is leading Britain in a period when its international clout has never been so limited. He could use his second term (which he promises will also be his last) to cut more of a global figure, but the chances of him doing that are exceedingly slim. Effectively, his reelection further limits Britain’s diplomatic influence.
Over the last five years – with the exception of leading, together with the French, the 2011 international alliance that supported the Libyan rebels – Britain very rarely took the initiative outside its borders. The low point of Cameron’s foreign policy was two years ago, when he lost a fateful vote in Parliament over Britain’s participation in a planned U.S. strike (eventually canceled) against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, in retaliation for the murder of hundreds of civilians in a chemical attack on a Damascus suburb.
Since that vote, Cameron has had no appetite to get involved in foreign conflicts. The Western front against President Vladimir Putin’s Russia that has developed since the invasion of Ukraine a year ago has been led by the United States, Germany and France. Senior Conservatives explain off-the-record that “it’s Obama’s fault” – with his nonconfrontational policy toward the West’s rivals, the president doesn’t need or want a significant British involvement. Their second excuse is that the British people are still traumatized by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Britain, under Tony Blair, was heavily invested, along with the United States. Most British citizens and their representatives are now firmly opposed to almost any form of military operation: even Britain’s participation in the coalition against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) is limited to just four fighter jets undertaking missions over Iraq.
But the main reason for Cameron’s reluctance to cut more of a figure on the international stage is the issue that, for a generation, has divided the British right: the country’s future within Europe.
The Conservatives are split between a Europhobic wing, demanding that Britain at the very least acts as a combative opposition within the European Union – and preferably leaves it altogether. The moderate wing, meanwhile, believes a “Brexit” would be disastrous for the U.K. economy and that a way can be found to remain in the EU, but under better terms. Cameron instinctively belongs to the moderate camp, but has been forced to take tougher positions to keep the Europhobes from leaving the party in droves and transferring their allegiance to UKIP. In an effort to keep right-wing voters from leaving, he has promised a straight in/out EU referendum in 2017.
Labour is against the referendum and, undoubtedly, Cameron’s surprise victory wasn’t a happy moment at EU headquarters in Brussels or in other European capitals. On the other hand, the other leaders of Europe – in particular German Chancellor Angela Merkel – now hold the keys to Cameron’s political legacy. He will need some concessions from them on Britain’s membership terms, in order to convince his citizens to vote in favor of staying in the EU. All his diplomatic efforts over the next two years will be focused on that goal.
One government very happy with Cameron’s victory is that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Not only is Cameron seen as one of the most pro-Israel prime ministers in Anglo-Israel relations – quite possibly the most ever – he is now back in power without the much more critical Liberal Democrats. The few Israeli officials who stayed up on Thursday night to watch the results coming in were particularly satisfied to see Business Secretary Vince Cable lose his seat. The most influential Lib Dem minister after Clegg had been the one who, during last summer’s Gaza war, issued a warning that Britain might reexamine the export licenses for British arms to Israel, against Cameron’s express wishes.
Netanyahu was quick to call Cameron on Friday morning and congratulate him on his victory, even before the final count that ensured his majority. Unlike the leaders of other major Western nations who often have harsh words for Netanyahu – including the United States, France and Germany – Cameron is in the tiny group of “true friends” (along with India’s Narendra Modi and Canada’s Stephen Harper) who rarely, if ever, criticize Netanyahu, and share much of his conservative outlook.
But Netanyahu can expect little more than a sympathetic ear from Cameron, who is stuck in his European conflict and with little diplomatic capital to invest anywhere but in negotiations with the EU. He won’t want, or be able, to make a major effort for Israel in United Nation votes or the nuclear talks with Iran. Britain may still have a seat in the front row due to its permanent membership of the UN Security Council, but it’s gradually becoming little more than an onlooker.
By choosing another five years of Conservative rule, Britain has limited its own diplomatic manoeuvring space in another way. There was another victorious party on Thursday night – the Scottish National Party (SNP), which swept 56 out of 59 constituencies in Scotland. The shocking victory of a party that not only desires to break away from the United Kingdom, but also holds progressive positions diametrically opposed to those of the Conservatives on just about every issue, has deepened the divide between a left-wing Scotland and a right-wing England. This increases the pressure on Cameron. He promised additional powers for the regional Scottish parliament, but the European problem looms also here. Scots overwhelmingly support remaining in the EU, and if in the 2017 referendum Britain votes in favor of leaving, this will immediately be used as justification for another Scottish independence referendum – so they can leave Britain and rejoin the EU as an independent state.
Cameron has one overriding goal in his second term, which will subsume all his attention and resources: not to go down in history as the prime minister who both cut Britain off from Europe and lost Scotland.