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Will the National Union of Ministers form a bond over Syria?

By Peter Hoskin
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It appears that the Syrian crisis has escalated to an important point: the West is poised to sanction a military intervention. According to a report in today’s Sun on Sunday (£), David Cameron and Barack Obama “thrashed out a masterplan” during a phone conversation yesterday afternoon. “The most likely option,” it notes, “is air strikes to wipe out Assad’s command and controls system.”

This seems to me one of least complicated ways in which the West can intercede in this horrible, extended conflict. As Camilla Cavendish suggests in the Sunday Times (£), it hurts Assad without putting our military-issue weaponry in the hands of some dodgy-issue terrorists. It doesn’t, however, promise a swift end to the fighting.

But what about Cameron’s Cabinet colleagues? What do they think? It’s worth reading another article from today, this one by Anne McElvoy in the Mail on Sunday. Although it doesn’t go into the specifics of air strikes and weapons drops, it does give a sense of where various ministers stand on Syria. Apparently, Michael Gove, George Osborne and William Hague are the “leaders on the hawkish side”. Whereas, Philip Hammond and Theresa May belong to the “dove faction”, urging caution.

Those names aren’t at all surprising: Gove has always been one of the Government’s staunchest interventionists, whilst Hammond must have the defence cuts embossed on his brain. But the groupings are worth noting, nonetheless. Hammond and May belonged – along with Vince Cable, you’ll remember – to the National Union of Ministers: those ministers who questioned the wisdom of cutting certain departmental budgets whilst ring-fencing others. That they have found common cause over Syria will only fuel the idea that they could form a “Top Gear ticket” for the Tory leadership in future.

The contrast between them and Gove, on Syria, is in some ways the contrast between May and Boris that ConservativeHome’s Andrew Gimson describes to David Wooding in the Sun on Sunday (£) today. On one side, the abacus-minded cautioneers. On the other, a warrior of intellect and ideology.* No wonder McElvoy, in her article, talks of manoeuvrings. May, she’s told by one source, “has adopted a stance less to do with high-minded affairs of international policy and more to do with attracting backbench support for a future leadership bid.” Gove, says another, is “in full audition mode for the Foreign Secretary’s job in a Tory second term”.

The Syrian crisis has a significance way beyond the vagaries of British politics – but, as today’s stories suggest, British politics will not be left unaffected by it. The longer it goes on, the more potential it has to divide Tory from Tory. And, as I’ve suggested before, it could even affect the make-up of any future Coalition.

* Qualities also seen in Gove's attack on Ed Miliband and his "Militax" today.


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