The Insider

Labour won’t break with Tory foreign policy

On Ukraine, Gaza and Brexit, David Lammy will essentially be continuity Cameron

May 22, 2024
Image: Gary Roberts photography / Alamy Stock Photo
Image: Gary Roberts photography / Alamy Stock Photo

Labour’s foreign policy will essentially be continuity David Cameron—which means it will push common sense and humanity to the limits of red lines on Ukraine, Gaza and Brexit.

On Ukraine, which is struggling to hold off the latest Russian offensive, Cameron and shadow foreign secretary David Lammy have taken similar positions. During visits to Mar-a-Lago and Washington, both have engaged directly with Donald Trump or his congressional acolytes in attempts to prevent Trumpite veto over further US aid for Zelensky. Diplomacy on these lines may be all the more vital by the year end if Trump is back in the White House, so it is good that the process has started early and that Labour has been directly engaged.

But Nato’s disabling red lines of avoiding direct conflict with Russia, or the supply of equipment to Ukraine which might be used to attack Russia itself, are there already, with Germany especially insistent on the second. These red lines have given Putin an advantage throughout the conflict, now well into its third year, and a Labour government won’t make any difference unless Nato allies change them in the face of a possible collapse of the Ukrainian front line. That may need to happen in the early days of a Labour government if Ukraine is to avoid being defeated by Putin.

Lammy and Keir Starmer will operate within similarly narrow Cameroon margins of discretion on Gaza. Both their influence on Netanyahu, and their ability to break with the egregious Israeli prime minister, are equally minimal, given the no-holds-barred support for Israel not only in Washington but within Labour as much as the Conservative party. For the same reason Lammy is going to be no more predisposed than Cameron and Biden to facilitate attempts by the International Criminal Court to restrain Netanyahu in the name of human rights, whatever their private views.

The best—maybe only—hope is that growing internal Israeli opposition to Netanyahu’s relentless assault on Gaza forces a de-escalation, which Cameron and Lammy, as much as Biden and probably even Trump, could then support. An actual break with the Israeli government, however excessive its action in Gaza, is as inconceivable from Lammy as it is from Cameron, despite mounting pressure from increasingly energised protests on behalf of the beleaguered Palestinians.

On Brexit, Lammy, like Cameron, will want to be pragmatic on trade and border issues, while not breaching similar self-imposed red lines on keeping the UK out of the EU’s customs union and single market. These red lines are the ones that will cause most disquiet in Labour’s ranks, since unlike those on Ukraine and Gaza, they are not only entirely self-imposed but also deeply unpopular within Labour’s own ranks.

Given Labour’s strongly pro-European grassroots, Lammy may ultimately have more scope than Cameron to breach his Brexit red lines. At least, that is the hope of those of us who want to see Britain rejoin the single market. This week’s arguments between Cameron and his nutty right-wingers on a perfectly sensible deal to enable Gibraltar to keep an open border with Spain may be a portent. Labour would have no difficulty signing off on such a deal whereas Cameron faces a minor replay of the Brexit battles with Bill Cash, Jacob Rees-Mogg et al if he seeks to push it through.

It is the same with overseas student visas, which the right wants to scale back—something Cameron and Labour are united in resisting. Maybe Cameron will try to play some of the Brexit and migration issues long, knowing that he has a stronger ally in Starmer than in Sunak.