Many would consider it sacrilegious to speak of British politics and political conduct in Sri Lanka in the same breath. But recent developments in the political landscapes of both countries seem to suggest there is a common thread, however tenuous it might be right now. Still it is a thread which the governments of both [...]

Sunday Times 2

Thoughts from London – Cameron’s battles and the Sri Lanka factor


Many would consider it sacrilegious to speak of British politics and political conduct in Sri Lanka in the same breath.

But recent developments in the political landscapes of both countries seem to suggest there is a common thread, however tenuous it might be right now.

Still it is a thread which the governments of both countries will hope would not be woven into a rope that could strangle the political hopes of the leaders of both Britain and Sri Lanka.

I refer, of course, to the recent defections of elected parliamentarians from the governments of the respective countries to the opposition leaving the incumbent leaders concerned at, if not actually rattled by, the departure of sitting MPs so close to elections in both countries, though the Sri Lanka election is only a month away while there are six months to go for the general election in the UK.

There is, no doubt, a difference in the two situations. The defectors in Sri Lanka are high profile politicians, particularly Maithripala Sirisena, former Health Minister and Sri Lanka Freedom Party general secretary, who has been picked as the common candidate of sections of the political opposition to challenge President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the January election.

No such major changing of sides has faced British Prime Minister David Cameron. But he has been caught in the slipstream of a rising political insurgency that is not only threatening his own ruling Conservative Party but is on the threshold of making serious inroads into the other two traditional parties — Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

Some months ago, this column drew attention to what might be called the “Ukip phenomenon” meaning the sudden appearance of the United Kingdom Independence Party in Britain’s political landscape.

The populist appeal of Ukip with its anti-European Union and migration policies has begun to attract disgruntled Britons from across the political spectrum, who, rightly or wrongly, believe that the free movement of EU citizens is having a deleterious effect on the domestic populace. A fairly widely held belief among sections of the British people is that migrants from Europe, especially from the poorer countries in the south, are moving to Britain because of the generally liberal welfare benefits provided under the British system.

Though Ukip has been drumming this message, it did not make headway across Britain’s electoral map until earlier this year. This nascent political grouping made its first real splash at the elections to the European parliament in May.

Besides Ukip’s strong performance in the European elections, it was its striking gains in the elections to several local bodies in the UK that roused widespread interest in the pro-British and anti-Europe party’s emergence as a possible alternative to the two established parties — Conservative and Labour — that have dominated post-war politics.

Still, Ukip had no MP which left it without representation in the Commons, a drawback to a party aspiring to be national.

Then the tide turned when Douglas Carswell, the sitting Conservative MP for Clacton, defected to contest the ensuing by-election as a member of Ukip.

This was the first clear indication that the reported rumblings in the Conservative backbenches and among Tory supporters were true and likely to cause a real headache to the Conservative hierarchy.

It might not have mattered much if Carswell had merely resigned as MP for Clacton, a seat the Conservatives won comfortably in 2010. But the sting was that Carswell did not merely resign but defected to Ukip which was becoming a thorn in the political flesh of both Conservatives and Labour.

Shortly after Carswell’s departure from government ranks to the much denounced Ukip as a racist party, the Conservative parliamentary ranks lost another member, Mark Reckless, who also crossed over to Ukip causing another by-election.

This time Prime Minister Cameron decided to tackle Ukip head on saying the party will throw everything, including some say the kitchen sink, into the Rochester and Strood by-election.

Despite five personal appearances by Cameron himself and several others by Conservative ministers, Mark Reckless won the seat albeit not as comfortably as Carswell had done following his defection.

For all Cameron’s bluster during the campaign and in parliament, he realised as others in his party did, that it was leaking and a second seat for Ukip is beginning to destabilise the Conservative Party.

Admittedly, unlike in Sri Lanka where cabinet ministers themselves had defected delivering a psychological blow that would not go unnoticed by the electorate, Cameron faced a relatively minor challenge. The defectors were backbenchers.

Certainly in Colombo the avalanche of defections that the opposition anticipated would happen did not come. But the defectors were high-level enough for perturbation in the Rajapaksa dovecotes despite the brave public face that the faithful put on.

If Cameron has not been confronted by a minor revolt as in Sri Lanka, it is still worrying enough that the backbenches have started straying and others might still do so

So he has started to fill the breach by taking a tougher stance on European migration in the hope that this will stem the tide of defections from sitting MPs or from faithful supports of the Conservative Party.

The other day Cameron announced a raft of measures that he hoped to take to bar European migrants from claiming welfare for the first four years after their arrival in the UK. He also proposes to deport those migrants who do not find jobs within six months of their arrival.

If other European nations turn a deaf ear to British plans, he said he does not “rule anything out” in the way of British retaliation.

What Cameron is trying to do is take the wind out of the sails of Ukip which has been calling for tougher measures against European migrants whose numbers rose to 260,000 over the past year and was 16,000 higher than when the present government came to power.

One of the planks of the opposition platform in Sri Lanka is to abolish the over-powerful executive presidency. I notice from a report of a news conference held by some Government ministers that President Rajapaksa’s manifesto will mention steps to be taken to reduce some of the president’s powers.

Cynics might well recall that old saying about horses and stable doors.

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