Every once in a while, an image so powerful it can change public opinion, or turn it even further in one direction, comes along. The day before yesterday, we were given one such image: that of a small boy lying face down on a beach, dead. If you have children of your own – and I have a boy only a bit younger than he was – then the image is doubly powerful. With that picture, the debate in Britain on the migrant crisis has changed.
All it did was slap us out of complacency. But the slap was unfortunately needed. So the pressure mounted on Cameron to do something differently from sources other than the ones he’s used to hearing from – including his own MPs. And so he did what he usually does when this happens: he caved. Although there are no specifics, he seemed to indicate yesterday that Britain would be prepared to accept more Syrian refugees.
The prime minister had issued a statement a couple of days ago, one saying that in effect he didn’t think Britain taking any more refugees would be the answer. There were many problems with him telling the nation this that have been made very effectively elsewhere – this statement not only wouldn’t soften the pressure on him, it would actually increase it; this placed Cameron firmly on the wrong side of history – but there was a big problem I thought no one has mentioned as yet. It’s that if you look at everything Cameron had backtracked on recently and then compare that with his resolute statement of a couple of days ago in regards to the refugees, he was in danger of looking doubly callous.
In the past few months, David Cameron has made an announcement that cabinet ministers would be bound by collective ministerial responsibility to support whatever viewpoint he takes on Europe – only to issue a statement rescinding this within 24 hours; he’s taken a stand on purdah during the referendum, only to slide on that; I could go on – the man has backed down on a fair bit already in this very young parliament.
The only two ways you can justify any of those moves by the prime minister are these: either he is a reasonable man who can be swayed by events and their undeniable logic – or he will simply do anything to keep his party in one piece. The first one mentioned is a positive leadership quality; the second one is a perfect example of what most people do not like about party politics these days. So in other words, if Cameron was willing to be bullied by John Redwood into caving on referendum related items, the fact that the picture of the dead boy on the beach wouldn’t sway him even a little bit on the refugee question could have made him look a little, well, nasty.
That is the real weak spot for the Tories in the midst of their emerging hegemony: that people will think they are a little too nasty, even in the face of incompetent competitors. So in this instance, I welcome Cameron’s tendency to bow to outside pressure. In an era that lacks leaders, at least we know now he can be pushed into doing positive things as well.