By Paul Goodman
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If David Cameron had made a speech that mentioned the Falkland Islands and accused Argentina of colonialism while doing so, he would deliberately have been firing an diplomatic exocet at Buenos Aires. The Times has seized on remarks the Prime Minister made to this effect and splashed them all over its front page this morning. However, he was responding at Prime Minister's Questions yesterday to a question from Andrew Rossindell. The Romford MP is an unweariable champion of the rights of the Falkland Islands: his enquiry, therefore, may not have been a put-up job designed in Downing Street. Is the Times all at sea?
I believe, rather, that it is flagging up a timely issue. The 30th anniversary of the Falklands War takes place this spring. Cristina Kirchner, Argentina's Prime Minister, wants to boost her popularity by exploiting nationalist sentiment about the islands: last summer, she called Britain "a crude colonial power in decline" (which helps to explain the Prime Minister's response yesterday). She has called for Mercosur nations – Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay – to turn away vessels flying Falkland Island flags. The effectivenesss of her ploy is disputed, but it has worried the Government sufficiently for William Hague to raise it yesterday in Brazil.
Cameron let it be known in the Commons that a meeting of the national security council was called on the same day to discuss the Falklands. The Times reports that contingency plans have been approved for a rapid increase in Britain's forces on the islands. This is not to say that the Falklands are poised for a re-run of 1982, since they are better defended than they were 30 years ago (they could scarcely be worse). But the coming commemorations of the sacrifices of our armed forces may be accompanied by manoevres from Buenos Aires: after all, the war itself was presaged by Argentinian scrap metal merchants raising their country's flag on South Georgia.
Number 10 may not have designed Rossindell's question. Cameron's counter-assault over colonalism may have been off the cuff. But the whips run an operation on PMQs each week, and the Prime Minister weighs his words carefully. One of his first encounters with politics was hearing radio reports, as a young boy, of the triumphs and losses of the 1982 campaign. He recently saw "The Iron Lady", and knows well that the Falklands War helped to sculpt her image and reputation. If the islands had been lost, she would probably have been ousted from Downing Street. There would have been no landslide election wins: no legend, no film.
The Prime Minister knows the standard set for her successors: never, never lose the Falklands. It applies especially to Conservative ones – and, therefore, to him.