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Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron waits outside10 Downing Street to greet Qatar Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani in central London, January 22, 2013. (ANDREW WINNING/REUTERS)
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron waits outside10 Downing Street to greet Qatar Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani in central London, January 22, 2013. (ANDREW WINNING/REUTERS)

Cameron’s mixed signals befuddle Britons Add to ...

British Prime Minister David Cameron can’t seem to win when it comes to timing these days, raising questions about just where Britain is headed.

In the past week, Mr. Cameron has had his message muddled on several critical issues, including terrorism in Algeria, the confrontation in Mali, the future of the European Union and a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, which will only be held if Mr. Cameron is re-elected prime minister in 2015.

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On Monday, Mr. Cameron spoke about a “generational struggle” against al-Qaeda-backed groups in North Africa and he promised Britain’s “iron resolve” in combatting them with major investments in national-security measures. He also discussed boosting military support for France, which has sent roughly 2,000 soldiers into Mali to help the Malian army and other African soldiers battle al-Qaeda-aligned rebels.

But then, in an apparent contradiction, Britain’s Defence Minister announced Tuesday that 5,300 soldiers will be laid off as part of a long-term plan to trim the armed forces to 82,000 troops from 120,000 by 2015. Although the cuts had been planned for months as part of the government’s deficit-reduction measures, the timing of the announcement left many wondering about mixed signals by the government and whether Mr. Cameron truly had a coherent plan on defence, terrorism or the budget.

“To announce a new plan in North Africa on Monday and announce 5,000 redundancies in the army on Tuesday just seems to make no sense whatsoever,” Jim Murphy, a Labour MP and defence critic, told the House of Commons. “There will be a growing sense in the country that ministers are unprepared for events in North Africa and beyond.”

The Ministry of Defence insists the military will be able to live up to its commitments, in part by relying more on reserves, and that the cuts have more to do with reconfiguring the armed forces. (France has been trimming its military spending for years, hoping to make its forces more agile and flexible.) Some experts say, given the budget constraints, Mr. Cameron is left trying to take on terrorism without committing soldiers.

Mr. Cameron “is gearing up for what I would call sort of a counterterrorism-light approach,” said Rem Korteweg, a senior research fellow on security policy at the London-based Centre for European Reform. “And the ‘light’ part means that there’s going to be support given to the [African] mission and that will be in the form of special forces that help the mission to achieve its objectives and providing surveillance capabilities. But it will really shy away from boots on the ground.”

Mr. Korteweg believes a strategy that focuses on offering transport planes and surveillance capabilities to the French in Mali should be enough for now because both fill an important need. However, Britain will face huge challenges if the Mali conflict spreads to other parts of Africa, in particular Nigeria, where Britain has extensive interests. “In the longer term, Nigeria is definitely in the minds of people in [Mr. Cameron’s office],” he added.

Mr. Cameron’s even bigger mix-up lately has been his stand on the European Union and whether Britain should remain a member. For months, he promised to make a major speech on the topic and outline his government’s policy once and for all, including the possibility of a referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU. But the speech has been postponed repeatedly and Mr. Cameron has offered murky and conflicting statements on what he might say. He is now supposed to give the speech Wednesday in London.

There are reports Mr. Cameron will outline a plan to renegotiate Britain’s membership and then put the new agreement to a vote in a referendum, if his Conservatives form the next government after the next election in 2015. He reportedly is due to say that he wants “a relationship between Britain and the EU that keeps us in it.” But it isn’t clear exactly what Britain wants in a new agreement or whether the other members of the EU will agree to make any accommodations.

The ongoing questions about Britain’s membership in the EU have weighed on the country’s currency and prompted worried remarks from U.S. President Barack Obama, who has called on Britain to remain a strong partner inside the EU. Economists are hoping Mr. Cameron’s speech will end the uncertainty. “But I don’t think that will happen,” said Jens Larsen, chief European economist at RBC Capital Markets in London.

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