Tories becalmed: PM still on hols as second minister quits

Get a grip, Dave - this is not what Churchill meant when he said 'We shall fight them on the beaches'

Column LAST UPDATED AT 10:20 ON Tue 12 Aug 2014

David Cameron is due back in London in the next 24 hours to face attacks over his lack of grip over the crisis in Iraq, and his party's slide in the polls, while he's been holidaying in the Portuguese resort of Cascais. This was not what Churchill mean when he said "We shall fight them on the beaches".

The new Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, tried to show that the Cameron government was still on the ball by chairing a meeting of Cobra, the emergency planning committee, about the unfolding Iraqi disaster. But that show of strength was completely undermined when Mark Simmonds became the second Foreign Office minister (after Baroness Warsi) to quit the government in a week.

Simmonds claimed that he could not live with his family in London on the paltry allowances MPs now receive following the expenses scandal. That raised a hollow laugh across Britain, especially after it emerged that, as a junior minister, he was earning £120,000 a year in pay and allowances and had sold a house in Putney, south London, for £1.1m – making a tidy profit of £500,000 after having his mortgage interest paid over the years by the taxpayer.

Michael Crick, political editor of Channel 4 News, blogged that the real reason Simmonds announced he is quitting Parliament at the next election is that Ukip, in the shape of former celebrity Tory MP Neil Hamilton, is sniffing around his Boston and Skegness seat in Lincolnshire where voters in coastal towns are fed up with Europe and immigration.

Hostile reaction to Simmonds's departure is an entertaining side issue as we wait for the PM's flight from Faro to touch down. He will already have read on the Prime Ministerial iPad the leaders in the Daily Mail and The Times castigating him for staying on holiday rather than coming back to London earlier to get a grip on the UK's role in stopping the Sunni-inspired Islamic State from taking over large swathes of the country Britain "liberated" from Saddam Hussein.

The Mail is very unhappy with the PM's performance: "To assert that he can [run the government] from his holiday beach insults the intelligence.

"The Mail does not doubt Mr Hammond’s abilities or the government’s commitment to help the terrified citizens of Iraq, whose plight this country is at least partly responsible for.

"But Mr Cameron urgently needs to provide visible leadership. The current apparently piecemeal approach risks making an horrific situation even worse."

Britain, said Hammond, is restricting its action to humanitarian relief. But the Daily Mail points out that the Cobra decision to deploy Tornado fighter jets to accompany the air drops of food to Yazidi refugees in the mountains could involve Britain in a shooting war, whether it wants it or not.

The Tory press also agree that the march of IS will not to be stopped by dropping pallets of food to refugees. It will require dropping bombs, as the US is doing, on IS tanks and convoys. But so far Britain has not expressed a clear view, because Downing Street is resisting calls from all sides to recall Parliament.

Cameron seems cowed by last August's vote against military action in Syria, unaware - perhaps because he has been out of the country - of a change of mood at home in favour of military intervention to stop IS.

Another concern for Cameron is the latest pre-election polling - which shows Labour gaining ground. The Guardian has an ICM poll showing the Tories have slipped from a one–point lead to trailing Labour by seven points over the past month. 

This coincides with Labour leader Ed Miliband calling for a tougher stance from Cameron on Gaza, criticism echoed by Baroness Warsi.

Miliband may be ridiculed for his geeky personality and low personality ratings, but when it comes to world affairs he has a habit of looking rather sharper than the Prime Minister.  

Cameron may console himself in the comfort blanket that elections are rarely won or lost on foreign affairs. "It's the economy, stupid" remains a potent message in Whitehall. But John Major relied on the "golden legacy" of economic growth and was trounced by Cameron's pin-up boy Tony Blair in 1997.

The voters above all want strong leadership. Cameron needs to get a grip, and fast. ·