By Matthew Barrett
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The Daily Mail this morning reports on the 118 Conservative MPs who have written to constituents indicating their opposition to gay marriage proposals. The Mail says "Their opposition has been expressed in letters and emails sent to constituents who have contacted them with their own concerns", and points out that if these MPs voted against proposals, it would constitute the biggest Tory rebellion in modern times. However, Equalities Minister (and Secretary of State for Culture) Maria Miller pointed out on Twitter that since any vote on the issue would be a free vote, it would not technically be counted as a rebellion.
I have listed the MPs from the Mail's story below.
By Matthew Barrett
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Robert Halfon, the Member of Parliament for Harlow, and one of the most successful campaigning MPs in Parliament, has organised a motion, backed by 60 MPs from all parties, and including 41 Tories, calling for the Office of Fair Trading to investigate allegations of price-fixing by British oil companies. The full motion is worded as follows:
"That this House urges the OFT to investigate oil firms active in the UK; calls on the Government to consider the emergency actions being taken in other G20 nations to cut fuel prices, for example President Obama strengthening Federal supervision of the U.S. oil market, and increasing penalties for “market manipulation”, and Germany and Austria setting up a new oil regulator, with orders to help stabilise the price of petrol in the country; finally urges the Office of Fair Trading to note that the Federal Cartel Office in Germany is now investigating oil firms active in the UK, after allegations of price-fixing."
By Matthew Barrett
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The 301 group is perhaps the most active and important group of backbench Tory MPs. Tim Montgomerie reported last week that three MPs - Charlie Elphicke, George Hollingbery and Priti Patel - want to organise a candidate to be elected to the 1922 Committee's executive who will give the '22 a focus on policy and campaigning. The Spectator's James Forsyth blogged that "The vote for their candidate, and his opponent, will give us the best idea yet of where the backbenches are at the moment politically. Indeed, I expect that the machinery of the 301 group, the most pro-Cameron of all the backbench groups, will be thrown behind the Elphicke-Hollingbery-Patel slate."
To organise or endorse candidates for the '22 is certainly the most power a backbench group has yet wielded in this Parliament. In this profile, I'll be looking at the origins, members, aims and plans of the group to get a sense of what the group wants to campaign for.
Origins of the group
The 301 was first organised by Kris Hopkins (Keighley), a former soldier and leader of Bradford Council, and Jessica Lee (Erewash), a former barrister, and now Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve. The group began with small meetings of a handful of MPs who were "concerned that the narrative in Parliament was not representative of the conversation" that MPs had had with the electorate while campaigning during the 2010 general election, and also dissatisfied with the fact that the mechanisms of debate amongst backbenchers, and between the back and front benches, were not conducive to trying to correct that narrative. Each of those attending brought a friend, and so on, until after three meetings the group reached 60 members.
By Tim Montgomerie
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Yesterday on ConservativeHome Ruth Lea questioned the continuation of UK aid to India. Her sceptical position is shared by most Britons. By 60% to 14% voters told YouGov that aid spending should be switched to countries with greater needs.
In a letter to The Telegraph Tory MPs Bob Blackman, William Cash, Stephen Hammond, Richard Harrington, Pauline Latham and Jeremy Lefroy have come to its defence (my emphasis):
"SIR – In the debate about British aid to India, we believe our programme in India is helping to rebuild lives and is also in Britain’s long-term interest. While it is true that India is a growing economic force, it is also home to a third of the world’s very poorest people. It is right for Britain to work with the Indian government to help tackle this dire poverty.
It is also right to ensure that our aid is targeted effectively. We welcome the Coalition Government’s radical overhaul of the Department for International Development’s aid programme to India: freezing the amount spent and targeting it at three of the poorest states. India is a vital strategic ally with whom we share extensive connections; more than 1.6 million British Indians live here. With India we share democracy, the English language and trade links that amount to billions of pounds. India will be an essential partner if we are to rebalance our economy and improve human rights around the globe.
Providing short-term support to ensure people in India can eat and live should not be contentious. We do not believe our aid programme should continue indefinitely, but now isn’t the time to turn our backs."
I certainly agree. DFID notes that "a third of the world's poorest people (living on less than 80p a day) live in India – more than in sub-Saharan Africa". Just because the Indian government has the wrong spending priorities, the poor citizens of its country should not suffer.
Other signatories include a number of business people plus Lord Popat of Conservative Friends of India and Baroness Jenkin of Conservative Friends of International Development.
By Joseph Willits
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After Justine Greening's announcement giving the go-ahead for a high speed rail network, High Speed 2 (HS2), 37 Conservative MPs were able to question the Transport Secretary within 60 minutes.
The exchanges demonstrated the opposition of those MPs whose constituencies are directly affected by high speed rail. However their reservations were outweighed by praise for the scheme from MPs namely in the North and the Midlands - and some in the South East who claimed that their seats have benefitted from HS1.
Fervent critic of high speed rail, Andrea Leadson MP (South Northamptonshire), questioned the project's costs in yesterday's debate. Leadsom praised the Transport Secretary's patience in listening to her concerns many times, but spoke of "communities blighted by this high-speed rail line". She continued:
"How sure is she that the actual costs in their entirety will be kept to the amounts we have been talking about, and how realistic is it for Britain to afford this project at this very difficult time economically?".
The country "cannot afford not to do this" replied Greening, who cited High Speed 1 as an example of being both on time, and on budget. Once Crossrail had been completed, the cost to the taxpayer would begin, Greening said.
Another MP whose constituency will be touched by high-speed rail, Steve Baker MP (Wycombe), welcomed that "additional protections for the Chilterns will reduce costs", but asked whether Greening would "consider tunnelling the entire width of the Chilterns?". At £1.2 billion, although considered, was "unaffordable", replied Greening.
Drawing examples from both France and Spain, St Albans MP Anne Main raised concerns "that the north might not get the projected benefit and that instead it might be London that grows". Both Lyon and Seville were "caused expense" rather than growth as Paris and Madrid benefitted, she said.
Greening responded by reiterating the backing for the project, and that the cities of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield all believe "this project is vital." Rehman Chishti MP (Gillingham) reminded the House that "real concern was expressed prior to the introduction of High Speed 1 in Kent". This has now led to "real economic regeneration and growth in the south-east and Kent", he continued. Another Kent MP, Damian Collins (Folkestone & Hythe) echoed Chishti's sentiment with the hope that Kent will further benefit from connections north.
MPs from the North and the Midlands were most vocal in their support for the project. Pudsey MP Stuart Andrew spoke of the need to "rebalance the economy" nationwide, and allow the North "to become more attractive for business to invest in". The "solution", he said, was HS2. Martin Vickers MP (Cleethorpes), who has many constituents working at the Tata Steel plant in Scunthorpe, welcomed the announcement of HS2 as a boost to industry. He asked for "categorical assurance that everything possible will be done to ensure that the procurement procedures favour British-based companies". His sentiment was echoed by Nigel Mills MP (Amber Valley) who concluded that the decision would "be even more popular in Derbyshire if the trains are built at Bombardier".
Some MPs in the Midlands did seem to be slightly cautious about the region's positioning, leading to a lesser service and coverage by HS2. Stafford MP Jeremy Lefroy spoke of businesses in north Staffordshire requiring stops between Birmingham and Manchester (of which Stafford would be one). This "stop is essential to the development of the regional economy", Lefroy said, and asked Greening to "confirm that it is still under serious consideration". Rugby MP Mark Pawsey's concern was slightly different in that the town's good service to London could be jeopardised by high speed rail. He hoped that even with high speed rail, "the legacy line will retain the speed and frequency of their existing rail links".
You can watch the debate on the BBC's Democracy Live.
The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Richard Ottoway, opened a very interesting debate about the future of the BBC World Service yesterday. He was speaking after his Committee had issued a report, complaining about World Service cuts of 16%.
The motion was also supported by the Chairs of the Defence, International Development, Treasury, Home Affairs, Culture, Media and Sport and Environmental Audit Select Committees:
“That this House notes the Sixth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, The Implications of Cuts to the BBC World Service, HC 849; endorses the Committee’s support for the World Service’s invaluable work in providing a widely respected and trusted news service in combination with high-quality journalism to many countries; considers that the unfolding events in North Africa and the Middle East demonstrate the continuing importance of the ‘soft power’ wielded through the World Service; believes that the value of the World Service far outweighs its relatively small cost; and invites the Government to review its decision to cut spending on the World Service by 16 per cent.”
The importance of soft power in international relations: "It might seem odd to quote no less a person than Osama bin Laden on the importance of soft power, but, talking about jihad, he said: “The media war in this century is one of the strongest methods. It’s…90% of the total preparation for battles”. He was talking about the power and influence of media communications—soft power. Soft power is a rapidly growing way of achieving desired outcomes. In the cold war era, power was expressed in terms of nuclear missiles, industrial capacity, numbers of men under arms, and tanks lined up across the central plains of eastern Europe. Today, none of those factors confers power in quite the same way. The old structures are moving on. Cyber-attacks and the more subtle methods of the information age are the norm. Soft power—the power of Governments to influence behaviour through attraction rather than coercion—dominates. That point is not lost on the Foreign Office, high up on whose list of structural reform priorities—the reforms that it believes should have priority—is the “use of ‘soft power’ to promote British values, advance development and prevent conflict”.
The World Service is soft power at its best: "I can think of no better definition or illustration of the need for the World Service, and it is the opinion of our Committee that the cuts to its output are a false economy. If anything, it should be expanded to address the concerns of a changing world, just as the security services and the number of diplomats to key sensitive postings have been expanded."
Cuts in the World Service are steeper than in the Foreign Office as a whole: "Since its inauguration, the World Service has been funded by the Foreign Office. This will end in 2014 when responsibility will be transferred to the BBC. During the intervening four years, the budget is to be reduced from £241 million to £212 million a year. Taking into account inflation, that is a 16% real- terms cut. Last autumn’s spending review announced that the overall FCO budget would fall by 24%. However, a closer look shows that, once the World Service and the British Council are taken out of the equation, the actual cut in the Foreign Office budget is a shade under 10%. In my judgement and in the opinion of the Select Committee, a 16% cut in the World Service budget, compared with 10% in the Foreign Office budget, is disproportionate. I sympathise with the director of the World Service who argued that the service had to some extent been singled out."
Yesterday was day two of the new Parliament and three more Conservative MPs delivered their maiden speeches.
He spoke fondly of his constituency, highlighting its links with both Pitts, Wilberforce (not to mention Enid Blyton) and shared this anecdote about another former Prime Minister:
"There is a rumour that the greatest Englishman of them all, Sir Winston Churchill, used to stop off in my constituency for a tipple on the way to Chartwell. I have investigated all the public houses in Keston, Bromley Common, West Wickham and Hayes in my attempt to check whether that is correct. So far, I have failed, but I promise that I will keep up the endeavour."
He went on to speak about military casualties in conflicts and the treatment of veterans:
"Since this day last year, we have lost 125 soldiers in Afghanistan. If we use the ratio of one person killed to about three to five wounded, which the military often does, we have casualty losses of something like 625 people since this time last year. That is horrific. It is not all the 9,000-plus military people in Afghanistan whom I am talking about, but more particularly what the Army calls the Bayonets—some 2,000 to 3,000 people who do the business of closing with the enemy, going out of their camps each day to do what they have been trained to do. They know what the casualty rate is, and so do their families, but they nevertheless continue to go out for us each day. Their courage is tremendous, and we all know that courage is not the absence of fear but its mastery. Our soldiers do that for us every day.
"Looking into things further, we also need to consider how many more of these people are going to suffer mentally—something we do not yet see. Let us think back to last week, when Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry VC, perhaps the bravest of the brave, admitted that his own demons drove him to consider suicide, which he actually tried. How many more men and some women are going to get the same feeling? We currently have a fabulous casualty evacuation system in place between the point of wounding and all the way through to the time people leave the armed forces. I am very happy with that and I am particularly pleased that we sometimes have a consultant flown in by a helicopter for casualty evacuation. I am nevertheless concerned about veterans once they leave the Colours, as I have been involved with them... I am delighted that the coalition programme refers to better mental health facilities for veterans. We must get this as good as we can; we owe our veterans through-life care until the end of their time."
James Morris, who gained Halesowen and Rowley Regis from Labour at the election, told the Commons that there was an urgency about "reviving the House and reconnecting it with the people who sent us here":
"At this moment in history, political leaders and those of us, like me, who are humbled to have been elected to this place need to use our imaginations to revive this place and how it operates, and how people perceive politics; forge new alliances at home and abroad; create innovation in our politics and economy; and forge new partnerships in the House for the good of the nation. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to achieve things for this country, decentralise power from central Government to local government and communities, strengthen democratic institutions and restore trust, and, by doing that, to build a stronger nation that is able to continue to play a positive role in world affairs."
Stafford's new MP, Jeremy Lefroy, gave the Commons a detailed tour of his constituency pointing out that it is, among other things, home to the annual V music festival ("a constituency event that I have not yet had the pleasure to attend; I am probably unlikely to do so, but I receive reports on it from my teenage daughter") as well as being the seat that David Cameron himself contested in 1997:
"He is well remembered in the constituency. Indeed, I have had the pleasure of visiting one constituent who pointed out a rock in front of her house that she called the Cameron rock, because he had transported it to that place himself. That shows that manual work is not unknown to those on the Front Bench."
He went to underline his belief in seeking greater links with the Commonwealth:
"The Gracious Speech referred to pursuing 'an enhanced partnership in India', which I welcome. India is, of course, the largest country in the Commonwealth. My experience of living and working in Tanzania, which is a stalwart member, for 11 years, shows that the bonds are strong—indeed, far stronger than many in this country believe. There are great opportunities for us to trade with the Commonwealth. At the moment, it accounts only for 8% of our exports and imports, so there is the potential for far more. If we do not do that, other nations such as China will—and they already are. Economic growth depends on exports, and I am sure that the Government will be looking at every possible avenue to improve this country’s export growth. Political, educational and cultural ties are also important. As a previous speaker mentioned, soft power and strong relationships with Commonwealth countries need to be nurtured."
And he ended his well-crafted speech by quoting one of Stafford's most famous sons, Izaak Walton:
“The person that loses their conscience has nothing left worth keeping.”