By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter.
The combination of Eastleigh and Italy have between them unleashed a tidal wave of commentary about the drawbacks of being governed by the professional politics. Consider Charles Moore's column in today's Daily Telegraph:
"Eastleigh brings out something which more and more voters feel. A quarter of a century ago, when people used to complain in pubs that “they’re all the same”, I used to argue back: it seemed to me patently false. Today, I stay quiet. Nigel Farage says that we have three social democrat parties now. There is a bit of truth in that, but I would put it differently. It is not so much that they all think the same thing. It is more that they are all the same sort of people. They all belong to a political elite whose attitudes and careers are pretty different from those of the rest of us."
Even the briefest inspection of David Cameron and Ed Miliband supports this view. Miliband has been a full-time political apparatchick since University. Cameron briefly had a job in television, but not a career: the post was acknowledged to be a waiting room for the Commons, even by his employers.
By Matthew Barrett
Follow Matthew on Twitter.
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
Follow Matthew on Twitter.
Yesterday, the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond announced plans to bring the Territorial Army - or Army Reserve, as it will be known in future - up to the size and standard of a more professional level than the reputation the TA has sometimes had as being "weekend soldiers". He also announced more benefits for employers of soldiers who chose to serve with the Army Reserve. These are all ideas suggested by the Duke of Westminster, which I wrote about last month. The proposals for strengthening the role and duties of reservists was, mostly, met with a positive reception by Conservative MPs. Below are some of the best contributions to yesterdays' statement.
Former Defence Secretary Liam Fox wanted Philip Hammond to learn from international examples of reservist forces:
"Dr Liam Fox (North Somerset) (Con): I very much welcome the creative and supportive way in which my right hon. Friend set out the Government’s approach to the reserves. Will any legislative changes be required to guarantee that reservists can be used for the full range of military tasks? As part of the consultation, will the Government make available to the House the experiences of how other countries incentivise employers? Other countries, particularly the United States, have a much better record than most of being able to use reservists in a full range of tasks and ensuring that they have a full range of promotional opportunities."
By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter
Even the most cursory glance at today's ConHome newslinks demonstrates that Philip Hammond had a torrid time in the Commons yesterday. I think it is worth listing a selection of the questions he was asked from his own backbenches, and I hope and believe that the one below is representative of those asked.
Readers will see that only one question was supportive, and it came from Peter Luff, who was recently dismissed from the MOD during the reshuffle. (The Defence Secretary will be grateful to Mr Luff for rallying round, especially since he was apparently expected to stay in the department: it was another curious dismissal.)
I have edited Mr Hammond's replies in order to keep this summary reasonably brief, and I think and hope, again, that the result is not unfair to him. The full Hansard record is here. Paul Waugh reports elsewhere that Rory Stewart, who knows more Afghanistan than any other MP, forced William Hague to admit yesterday that 75% of attacks on our troops are not by the Taliban.
Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay): "This announcement threatens to blow a hole in our stated exit strategy, which is heavily reliant on these joint operations continuing until Afghan forces are able to operate independently and provide their own security following ISAF’s withdrawal...What is our mission in Afghanistan? Clarity is required. If we are remaining true to our original mission of eliminating al-Qaeda from Afghanistan, should we not now be doing more to encourage the Americans to conduct non-conditional talks with the Taliban in order to explore possible common ground?"
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Philip Hammond): "I am clear that the mission we are carrying out in Afghanistan is to protect Britain’s national security by denying Afghan space to international terrorists. That is our mission, and that is the mission we will complete."
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East): "The reason why, in opposition, the shadow Defence ministerial team opposed naming an advance date for withdrawal was the fear that the Taliban would redouble their efforts in the run-up to that date. Given that we are where we are with such a date, is it not obvious that a move towards a strategy of maintaining one or more long-term strategic bases in Afghanistan would show the Taliban the need to negotiate a solution and a settlement? Without that, it will not happen."
Hammond: "I can tell the House that the UK Government have no appetite for a long-term combat role in Afghanistan, and have made it very clear that we will be out of the combat role by the end of 2014."
Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): "The Secretary of State made the welcome comment that the international forces wished to lower their profile at a time of trouble, but then he seemed to imply that that applied only to American forces. What action has been taken to protect British forces? What is the approach to their having to co-operate with people who may intend their death, and would he not move more quickly to Afghans policing dangerous places in Afghanistan?"
Hammond: "There is much evidence that there is a much lower risk where long-term partnering arrangements are in place—in other words, where a group of troops are working with a group of Afghan troops on a daily basis—and much more risk where these partnering and mentoring activities are on an ad hoc basis, so that relationships are not built."
Dr Liam Fox (North Somerset) (Con): "Mentoring is one of the most important ways in which we have increased the capability of Afghan forces, and the Secretary of State has made it clear today that the instruction from ISAF in Kabul will not alter the British relationship to partnering. Does he not recognise, however, that the nuances between tactics and strategy can be lost on insurgents, and that the timing of this is unfortunate, so we must redouble our efforts to make it clear to the forces of terror that they cannot push our strategy off course?"
Hammond: "Of course my right hon. Friend is absolutely right: this is the crucial message that needs to be sent to the insurgents."
Mr James Arbuthnot (North East Hampshire) (Con): "My right hon. Friend said that the new measures announced by ISAF were prudent but temporary. In what respect are they temporary? In what respect can they be?"
Hammond: "General Allen has indicated that he intends to review the order in the light of the evolving security environment, and to return to normal operations, as he described it, as soon as possible."
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): "Will my right hon. Friend comment on the fact that American soldiers who are mentoring seem to be slightly safer than our junior NCOs, young officers and soldiers, because they are not right on the front line? It worries me a great deal that we continue to allow our solders to go right to the front line, where they are seemingly in greater danger than their American colleagues."
Hammond: "I do not accept that our soldiers are in greater danger, but it is the case that our model differs from the American model, in that it includes routinely mentoring at company, or tolay, level. That is the model that we have deemed most effective."
Peter Luff (Mid Worcestershire) (Con): "The Secretary of State has made it commendably clear that it is in our vital national interest to stick to the strategy that has been set in Afghanistan. When it comes to the security of British troops, does he take comfort from the words of Brigadier Bob Bruce, who will be leading the 4th Mechanised Brigade in its forthcoming tour of Afghanistan, who has said that we are sending to Afghanistan“the best prepared and the best equipped…Task Force the United Kingdom has ever put into the field?"
Hammond: "I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been a stalwart supporter of the policy and the strategy, which, as I have emphasised this morning, has not changed."
Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con):
"The Secretary of State mentioned earlier that a motive for the attacks
was the despicable video that was published on the internet. Does he
agree that another motive, which I have mentioned to both him and the
Secretary of State for International Development, is the use of drone
strikes, which have killed nearly 1,000 civilians in Pakistan and a
higher number in Afghanistan? Does the Secretary of State not agree that
we urgently need to look at reviewing the use of drone strikes, which
is considered on the front page of The Times today?"
Hammond: "The use of unmanned aerial vehicles to carry out strikes is continuously reviewed, but I do not believe there is any need for a wholesale change to the current approach, which is that UAVs will be used where they are the most appropriate way to execute a particular operation."
A section of the Defence Secretary's statement that particularly caught my eye was another part of his answer to Dr Fox:
"As I said yesterday, the stepping up of these insider attacks is, in fact, a reflection of the success of partnering and mentoring operations."
Given the rising number of green-on-blue killings, I'm not sure that this is an argument I would have used. The chart below is from the Guardian.
Their view in a nutshell is that Afghanistan cannot be transformed into a western-style liberal democracy and that British military commitment to it should be minimal.
By Tim Montgomerie
Follow Tim on Twitter
I am delighted to report that Lord Ashcroft was given a new role in the Prime Minister's reshuffle and it's very much a round-peg-in-round-hole appointment. Regular readers of ConHome will know that our proprietor is fascinated by military history and valour. He has also been a consistent supporter of charities concerned with the welfare of former service men and women. The decision of the PM and Defence Secretary to appoint him as the Government's "Special Representative for Veterans’ Transition" is therefore very appropriate. Michael will work across all government departments to review the help that military personnel receive as they move from uniformed to civilian life. He will audit that help and make recommendations for how it might be improved. The Government intends the appointment to be a signal that it is serious about the military covenant - which it enshrined in law as one of its first acts.
Philip Hammond, Secretary of State for Defence, commented:
“This is an important new appointment which is further confirmation of this Government’s commitment to looking after those who give so much to protect and serve the United Kingdom. Lord Ashcroft has a long-standing and deep interest in the Armed Forces and a track record of support for veterans.”
> The Sun welcomed the appointment this morning.
> Lord Ashcroft has also been appointed to the Privy Council. Other new appointees were Greg Barker, Hugh Robertson, Andrew Stunnell, Paul Burstow and Lord Wallace.
By Matthew Barrett
Follow Matthew on Twitter.
Philip Hammond's statement to the House this afternoon announcing cuts to the Army was bound to be a challenging time for the Secretary of State for Defence. The announcement signals the beginning of a long transformation for the Army, and jobs will undoubtedly be lost as a result of the changes. Mr Hammond told the House that the 5th Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland, 2nd Battalion the Royal Fusiliers, 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire regiment, 3rd Battalion the Mercian Regiment and the 2nd Battalion the Royal Welsh would all be "withdrawn" or disbanded. The Secretary of State said:
"These withdrawals and mergers, unwelcome as I know they will be in the units affected, are fair and balanced, and have been carefully structure to minimise the impact of the regular manpower reduction and optimise the military effectiveness of the Army."
By Joseph Willits
Follow Joseph on Twitter
Phillip Hammond, the Defence Secretary has said in the Commons yesterday that "all submariner roles will be open to women" in response to questions from Tory MPs Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) and Harriet Baldwin (West Worcestershire). Hammond was asked by the MPs what the role of women would be on submarines, including on Vanguard and Astute class, after his 8th December announcement earlier this month that the Royal Navy submarine service would begin recruiting women.
Hammond said that as a result of this wider recruitment, there would be an increased talent pool for the Royal Navy, and that both males and females will endure the same training and be assessed using the same criteria. The Defence Secretary said he was "confident that there will be sufficient interest from female personnel to serve on board Royal Navy submarines."
Dinenage asked "when it is most likely that women will first be put into training and service on submarines?" Hammond replied:
"Female officers will serve on Vanguard class submarines from late 2013, followed by ratings in 2015, and that women will be able to serve on Astute class submarines as both officers and ratings from about 2016."
By Joseph Willits
Follow Joseph on Twitter
Yesterday was Phillip Hammond's first opportunity to answer defence questions. Hammond's address to Parliament also followed a recent, first trip to Afghanistan, where the Defence Secretary marked Armistice Day with 3,000 British troops at Camp Bastion. Whilst in Afghanistan, Hammond said:
''British troops are making significant progress in Helmand to rid the country of a brutal insurgency that is a threat to our country and the people of Afghanistan."
In Parliament yesterday, Hammond echoed the remarks he made at Camp Bastion, describing the "fantastic job" and "progress" British troops are "making both in reversing the momentum of the insurgency and in training the Afghan security forces to defend their own country". Hammond's assessment was that "the security situation in central Helmand has improved" and that improvements had been made in the capability and numbers of British trained Afghan national security forces.
Hammond was asked by Nicholas Soames MP, if he had come to a decision about "which particular areas we will specialise in training Afghans after 2015". In response, the Defence Secretary reiterated Cameron's "commitment that Britain will take the lead role in the Afghan national officer training academy" just outside of Kabul, which hold responsibility for training the "bulk of officer recruits to the Afghan national security forces".
Transport Secretary Philip Hammond yesterday made a statement to the Commons on High Speed Rail. Here are extracts from what he said.
The overall aim of the policy is to deliver green growth across whole of UK: "One of the coalition's main objectives is to build an economy that is more balanced both sectorally and geographically, and that will deliver sustainable economic growth while also delivering on our climate change targets. Investment in infrastructure, and transport infrastructure in particular, will be a key part of that approach. To deliver economic growth and carbon reduction, we must provide attractive alternatives to short-haul aviation while addressing the issue of scarce rail capacity between city centres. Network Rail has calculated that by 2024 the west coast main line will effectively be full, with no further enhancements that could reasonably be made to meet future demand... It is my view that a high-speed rail network will deliver a transformational change to the way Britain works and competes in the 21st century. It will allow the economies of the midlands and the north to benefit much more directly from the economic engine of London, tackling the north-south divide more effectively than half a century of regional policy has done, expanding labour markets and bringing our major conurbations closer together."
Journey times to Birmingham, the north and Scotland will be slashed: "Central Birmingham will be brought within 49 minutes of London-potentially less for non-stopping services-and within one hour five minutes of Leeds. The released capacity on the west coast main line offers the possibility of commuter-frequency fast services to London from places such as Coventry and Milton Keynes. By running trains seamlessly on to existing inter-city routes, the proposed network will also bring Glasgow and Edinburgh within three and a half hours of London, which is fast enough to induce a major shift of passengers from domestic aviation."
50% of the proposed route will be amended to address local and conservation concerns: " I travelled the length of it and talked directly to local authorities, property owners, and many of the protest groups and their Members of Parliament, and I commissioned additional work on the options for improving the proposed alignment. As a consequence, significant amendments have been made to both the vertical and horizontal alignment, and to the proposed mitigation measures. In total, around 50% of the preferred route proposal published in March has been amended in some respect."
Compensation for property owners: "Despite our best efforts at mitigation, however, we will not be able to avoid all impacts on property values. Where a project that is in the national interest imposes significant financial loss on individuals, it is right and proper that they should be compensated fairly for that loss, so I have asked my officials to prepare a range of options for a scheme to assist those whose properties will not be required for the construction of the railway, but who will none the less see a significant diminution of value as a result of the construction of the line."
Read the statement in full.
Opening for the Opposition was Shadow Chief Secretary Philip Hammond and here are a few excerpts from his speech:
"Listening to the Chancellor and the Prime Minister yesterday, and to the Chief Secretary, one would think that the global financial crisis had caused the meltdown in Britain’s public finances, but that is not what has happened. According to the Treasury’s figures, the economic recession accounts for about a quarter of Britain’s deficit—that is the cyclical part of the deficit, which economic recovery will eventually eliminate—but three quarters of it is structural, and requires a structural response.
"The truth is not that the financial crisis has caused the fiscal crisis, but that for many years the global financial boom masked the scale of the underlying fiscal problem as this profligate Government spent the tax receipts that were the proceeds of a series of bubbles in financial assets, and property in particular, as if they were permanent features of the economic landscape. The real structural crisis that needs to be addressed is not caused by the Government’s support for the banking system, as they like to imply. In fact, none of this year’s £178 billion deficit is directly attributable to support provided for the banks.
"The pre-Budget report was the Government’s last chance to set out a credible path to fiscal stability, to put our economy back on the road to sustainable growth and enduring prosperity, and to ensure our triple-A credit rating. They blew that chance, and now the country knows beyond doubt that only a change of Government can deliver the economic change that Britain needs. The present Government have shown themselves to be unfit for office by shirking their task in the nation’s hour of economic need."
"There is a fact here that we must all face: whoever is in government after the next general election will have to cut public spending... The fact is that this Government are being driven not by the needs of the economy and the medium and long-term best interests of the British people, but by the needs of the Labour party and the insistence of the Prime Minister and the Schools Secretary that the scale of the fiscal problem, the challenge of dealing with it and the true price of not dealing with it are to be concealed at all costs from the British public until after polling day. No price is too high to pay, provided the bill does not arrive until 7 May. No burden is too heavy to bear if it is the Prime Minister’s successor who will bear it.
"That is the most systematically reckless, cynical and dishonest strategy for dealing with a fiscal crisis that anyone in the House will be able to recall."
Click here to read his full contribution.
It was Treasury questions yesterday.
Shadow Chancellor George Osborne poured scorn on the Budget growth forecasts:
"As the Chancellor knows, the growth forecasts that he gave us in the Budget last week, which predicted a return to boom levels of growth in just two years, and that the economy would stay at those boom levels, were greeted with near-universal derision, yet they were the fiction on which he constructed every other Budget forecast. When he gave those forecasts, did he know that the IMF was planning to contradict them flatly just an hour later?
Mr. Darling: Yes, of course I knew the IMF forecasts. The IMF takes a more pessimistic view, not just of our economy but of every economy across the world. However, we ensure that our forecasts are based on the information that we have. If hon. Members look at the IMF and its forecasting over the past three months, they will see that it has downrated its forecasting three times since last October, which demonstrates the uncertainty in the system. However, I believe that because of the action that we are taking, because of the fact that we have low interest rates, because inflation will be coming down this year, and because of the action that most other countries are taking to look after and support their economies, that will have an effect, which is why I remain confident that we will see growth return towards the end of this year.
Mr. Osborne: Frankly, I do not think the Chancellor is in any position to lecture anyone else about downgrading their forecasts after last week. Is not the truth this—that the dishonest Budget has completely unravelled in the space of just a week? We have seen the IMF produce those growth forecasts, which were wholly different from the ones given an hour earlier to the House of Commons. We have the CBI saying that there is no credible or rigorous plan to deal with the deficit. We have the Institute for Fiscal Studies pointing to the black hole, and yesterday a former member of the Cabinet, beside whom the Chancellor sat at the Cabinet table, said that his tax plans were a breach of a manifesto promise that is damaging not just to the Labour party, but to the economy. Today we had the Prime Minister getting a lecture in prudence while he was in Warsaw. We are used to Polish builders telling us to fix the roof when the sun is shining, but not the Polish Prime Minister as well.
Does not the collapse of the Budget in the past week and the damage to the Chancellor’s credibility make an almost unanswerable case for an independent office for Budget responsibility, so that we get independent forecasts on Budget day and the assumptions of the Budget are believed by the public?
The Equitable Life scandal was rightly prioritised by Conservative members, who leapt on Economic Secretary to the Treasury Ian Pearson, who had this to say:
"I am very disappointed that the Public Administration Committee should choose to obscure the real help that it accepts the Government’s payments scheme will deliver under extreme headlines, seemingly driven by an uncritical acceptance of the findings of the ombudsman’s report and by its unjustifiable and irresponsible characterisation of the manner of the Government’s response. [ Interruption. ] As a Government, we do not depart lightly from any of the ombudsman’s findings, but— [ Interruption. ]
Ian Pearson: The Government do not depart lightly from any of the ombudsman’s findings, but in such an important and complex case we have a clear duty to the taxpayer to ensure that our response is informed by a proper and comprehensive consideration of her report. That is what we have done and, as I have indicated previously, we want to move forward with an ex gratia payment scheme just as quickly as possible. We are talking to Sir John Chadwick about the advice that he is providing."
South Staffordshire's Sir Patrick Cormack (above right) was appalled:
"Is the Minister aware that he has just made one of the most shameful statements to have been made from that Dispatch Box in many years? He has rubbished a Committee presided over by one of his own greatly respected colleagues, and discounted the unprecedented second letter from the ombudsman that we all received this week. He has had no support from the Benches behind him, as not a single Labour Member has risen to echo his words. He should be deeply ashamed of himself, because he is bringing the Government and the whole system into disrepute.
Ian Pearson: I have a lot of respect for the hon. Gentleman, who has a very long track record of upholding standards in this House, but we have departed from the ombudsman’s findings only where we have clear and cogent reasons for doing so. We have applied scrupulously the terms of the Parliamentary Commissioners Act 1967, as interpreted by the Court of Appeal in the Bradley judgment. For no other reasons have we departed from those findings. I have to say that I remain very disappointed indeed that the PAC does not appear to have understood some of the arguments that we have made to it."
(The Public Administration Committee is chaired by Dr Tony Wright.)
The Commons also hosted Treasury questions yesterday.
Shadow Chancellor George Osborne scented blood:
"Are we really expected to believe that when the Prime Minister appointed Sir James Crosby to the board of the Financial Services Authority, and when the current Chancellor promoted him to the job of deputy chairman in 2007, neither of them had any idea that they were appointing someone whose business model at HBOS was being investigated by the regulator whose board they were appointing him to?
Mr. Darling: As the Prime Minister has just told the Liaison Committee, Sir James’s appointment in 2003 was made on the recommendation of a selection panel that followed an open competition, and that panel, which was chaired by the senior official then responsible for banking regulation, Sir James Sassoon, recommended the appointment of James Crosby. At that time, there was no reason to question that appointment. With the benefit of hindsight, many people now make claims about what they say they knew at that time, but the then Chancellor followed the proper procedures and followed the advice, and he had no reason not to make the appointment.
The FSA has said that in 2002, and subsequently, it drew attention to a number of concerns, as it did with several other organisations. In terms of the law, the way in which the FSA supervises any bank, let alone this one, is a matter for it. Neither the subsequent investigation into the allegations made against James Crosby, nor the concerns that it had, were reported to the Treasury. I would not expect them to have been, given the information that I have from the chief executive of the FSA at the moment.
Mr. Osborne: Either the Chancellor knew what was going on and did nothing, or he was entirely ignorant, and neither is much of a defence. Is not the net closing in on the Prime Minister and the Chancellor? Their accomplices are resigning, their alibi that no one knew what was going on has been blown apart, and their fingerprints are all over the mistakes that were made during the age of irresponsibility.
Is there a coherent view in the Cabinet about how long this recession will last? We know what the Treasury’s forecasts are, and we know what the Chancellor says about the economy recovering halfway through this year, but today the Health Secretary has said that we need to be ready for two years of recession. Is the Health Secretary expressing the collective view of the Government on this issue?
Mr. Darling: In relation to the FSA, the hon. Gentleman’s claims are frankly ridiculous. Appointments were made in the normal way, which is a great deal more open than for some of the appointments that were made in the past. At the time, there was no reason not to accept the recommendations in relation to Sir James Crosby.
On the broader economic picture, as I have said to the House on a number of occasions, there has been an extremely sharp downturn not just in this country but in countries right across the world, and we can see the effects of that. I am clear, though, that if we had followed the hon. Gentleman’s advice and done absolutely nothing to prevent the full effects of the recession from being felt, the impact and the long-term damage to this country would have been substantial. I believe that the action that we have taken is not only justified but will ensure that this recession will be shorter and less painful than would otherwise be the case. I am sorry that the Conservative party continues to take the view that there is absolutely nothing that they are prepared to do to help people and businesses in this country."
Following Shadow Chancellor George Osborne's success in securing it, the House of Commons held an Emergency Debate on the Pre-Budget Report yesterday.
Mr Osborne was on bullish form:
"The public would have found it extraordinary if the House of Commons had not properly considered the huge tax measures put forward by the Chancellor on Monday, or indeed the tax measures concealed by the Chancellor on Monday. Those measures are being debated by families across the country who fear their impact, and it is astonishing that the Government did not want them debated in the House of Commons.
The only explanation is that the Prime Minister is running away from the argument, because he knows that he is losing the argument. This Budget started to unravel from the moment it was delivered. The doubling of the national debt shocked the entire country. [ Interruption .] Labour MPs may not be shocked, but the country is shocked to realise that the Government have taken it to the edge of bankruptcy. Within minutes of the report being published, it became clear that the national insurance rises would, contrary to the Chancellor’s claims, hit people on modest incomes. The small print of the Budget book shows that the Chancellor had been less than candid about the stealthy duty rises on alcohol and petrol. Then we discovered the £100 billion black hole in the tax revenues with no explanation of how it will be filled.
Yesterday lunchtime, the Institute for Fiscal Studies pointed out that the new top rate would raise, in its words, “virtually nothing”. The Governor of the Bank of England told the Treasury Select Committee yesterday that the Government should be focusing on fixing the banking system. Meanwhile, retailers are up in arms about the huge costs and logistical nightmare imposed by the temporary VAT cut. Last night, the Chancellor U-turned on the proposed hike in whisky duty, which he had announced only 24 hours earlier. Finally, it has been revealed in an official Treasury document signed off by a Treasury Minister that there is a secret tax bombshell to increase VAT to 18.5 per cent."