Conservative Diary


25 Aug 2013 08:07:34

Will the National Union of Ministers form a bond over Syria?

By Peter Hoskin
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It appears that the Syrian crisis has escalated to an important point: the West is poised to sanction a military intervention. According to a report in today’s Sun on Sunday (£), David Cameron and Barack Obama “thrashed out a masterplan” during a phone conversation yesterday afternoon. “The most likely option,” it notes, “is air strikes to wipe out Assad’s command and controls system.”

This seems to me one of least complicated ways in which the West can intercede in this horrible, extended conflict. As Camilla Cavendish suggests in the Sunday Times (£), it hurts Assad without putting our military-issue weaponry in the hands of some dodgy-issue terrorists. It doesn’t, however, promise a swift end to the fighting.

But what about Cameron’s Cabinet colleagues? What do they think? It’s worth reading another article from today, this one by Anne McElvoy in the Mail on Sunday. Although it doesn’t go into the specifics of air strikes and weapons drops, it does give a sense of where various ministers stand on Syria. Apparently, Michael Gove, George Osborne and William Hague are the “leaders on the hawkish side”. Whereas, Philip Hammond and Theresa May belong to the “dove faction”, urging caution.

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11 Aug 2013 08:53:51

Defence – a simmering problem that could boil over for Cameron

By Peter Hoskin
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Here’s a game to deflate any Tory’s summer optimism: how many simmering problems can you name that threaten to upset Cameron’s chances in 2015? As it happens, there are quite a few examples in the papers today. There’s the ongoing trouble in Accident and Emergency departments. There’s the precipitous decline in party membership. And there is, of course, the persistent threat presented by UKIP.

But there’s another worry for Cameron that gets mentioned far less than these – and that is defence. Another newspaper story, in the Sunday Times (£), captures one dimension of it. Apparently, only 367 people have enlisted in the Army Reserves during the past three months, against a target of 1,432. Only 50 per cent of the target for the whole year is expected to be achieved. As the paper reports, “the result, according to one former commander, is ‘panic’ among defence officials.”

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16 Jul 2013 13:00:23

Trident or no Trident, today’s report doesn’t really matter

By Peter Hoskin
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Should there be a like-for-like replacement for Trident? In a post for the Comment section of the site, Alistair Thompson suggests that there should be. Myself, I’ve always been a little bit more sceptical.

But here’s the strange thing, as the Trident review is published: it’s something of a moot question. Today’s report, written by the Cabinet Office and overseen by Danny Alexander, is little more than an unfolding of coalition politics. Back when the Coalition Agreement was written, it was promised that – while the Government as a whole would “maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent” and that “the renewal of Trident should be scrutinised to ensure value for money” – the Lib Dems would continue to “make the case for alternatives”. This report was commissioned to look into those alternatives. The Tory half of Government doesn’t agree with them. Nothing has changed in any substantial sense. The final decision on Trident and its replacement will still be taken by whoever’s in power in 2016.

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28 Jun 2013 10:53:24

Is the Defence Secretary really on manoeuvres?

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-06-28 at 09.58.42What is the best course to take in an interview if your name has been touted as a future Conservative leader - and you might not be averse to the prospect? Phillip Hammond provides a masterclass of how to navigate such choppy waters in his interview with Paul Waugh in this week's House magazine.

  • Deflate your prospects - but deny nothing. "Well I think they probably haven’t checked my birth certificate. I’m getting a bit long in the tooth for that kind of thing. Look, I’ll be nearly 60 by the time of the next election.”
  • Attack the LibDems: it never does any harm. “I think it’s people who want to cut spending on the deterrent and really don’t care about maintaining our deterrent capability. That’s not naivety, that’s recklessness with Britain’s national security.”
  • If asked about your state school education, remind readers that you're not a posh boy (and know the price of milk). "I could give you, if you wanted, a list of very expensive public schools that don’t provide a very good education."
  • If portrayed as a Guardian reader, threaten to sue. "The scruffy hair, the tie undone, I’ll accept all of that... But what I absolutely will not accept is the Guardian under my arm. Never in a million years. Actually, I went through a phase of being an FT reader at school.

But is the Defence Secretary really "on manoeuvres"?  An important difference between Hammond and those others mentioned in the same breath as the leadership - Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Theresa May - is that there is no suggestion, no sign of a Hammond team: of an operation that works on his behalf.  (Up to a point, this is also true of the Education Secretary.)

His public demand for a further scaleback in welfare spending can be seen simply as a Minister defending his Department.  And his following in Gove's footsteps on how he'd vote in an In/Out EU referendum were one held today could be read as a man speaking his mind - as could his vocal criticism of Downing Street over same-sex marriage.

None the less, the accumulation of events is suggestive.  But what's good for the goose is good for the gander: having written earlier this morning that it's too early to take a firm view about Boris, it follows that it's too early to take a view on anyone else.  And Hammond has work to do: keeping our armed forces out of the Syrian swamp, for a start.

8 May 2013 15:10:56

The Snoopers' Charter comes sneaking back. Again.

By Mark Wallace
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HOME-OFFICEWhen Nick Clegg announced that the Communications Data Bill - AKA the Snoopers' Charter - was being dropped, he prompted jubiliation from campaigners for privacy, individual liberty and digital technology.

The past history of the issue, however, suggested this wouldn't be the last we would hear of the proposals to gather data on emails. This idea has come up again and again, under different Governments, suggesting it is the pet project of someone or some group within the Home Office Civil Service.

Indeed, when one campaigner tweeted "What's next?" after the Government backed down, I was cynical enough to reply:

And lo, it came to pass. Only hours after the Queen's Speech, the BBC is reporting that the Government is looking at "fresh proposals" to pursue the same rotten idea.

Continue reading "The Snoopers' Charter comes sneaking back. Again." »

8 May 2013 07:08:04

Our Afghan interpreters should be offered refuge in Britain

By Mark Wallace
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Cameron-and-troopsThe Military Covenant is a weighty responsibility. The wars of recent years have greatly increased the public and political recognition of how important it is that those who fight for all of us should receive a fair deal as well as the respect and support they are due in return for their service.

That means many things - from troops in the field getting good body armour to their children getting proper access to schools back home, despite the regular moves involved in a military life. The Armed Forces are some of the most enduring bastions of decency and honourable service in our society - so it is fitting that those of us not in uniform should treat them with the same values they exemplify.

It is not often that I agree with Liberal Conspiracy, but they are right to argue that our responsibility to those who serve extends to offering sanctuary to the Afghan interpreters who helped our troops to do their job over the last 12 years.

This is not an open door to the whole Afghan army, this is an offer specifically for a few hundred people who worked directly for us, and their dependents. These are people who risked their lives to keep our soldiers safe, assisting them in a bitter war against the Taliban, and who could far more easily have stayed at home and looked the other way.

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4 Apr 2013 10:07:03

Cameron gets a steer on Trident from Rahm Emanuel

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-04-04 at 10.04.36There are two core arguments in the Prime Minister's Daily Telegraph article today about Trident, which coincides with his trip north of the border and his visit to Trident-carrying HMS Victorious.

  • Trident provides Scottish jobs, which independence would risk: "I want to thank all those who provide our deterrent. The submariners, away from their families for months on end, who show the highest degree of dedication in training for a duty they hope never to carry out. The families who support them, and who endure such long periods without contact. And the 20,000 people who work onshore – including the engineers and mechanics at Faslane and Devonport; the teams at Rolls-Royce and the Atomic Weapons Establishment; and the architects and construction workers in places like Barrow who design and build our submarines." Beware, all of you: Salmond's risking your livelihoods!
  • The world is as risky as ever - just look at North Korea: "There is a real risk of new nuclear-armed states emerging. Iran continues to defy the will of the international community in its attempts to develop its nuclear capabilities, while the highly unpredictable and aggressive regime in North Korea recently conducted its third nuclear test and could already have enough fissile material to produce more than a dozen nuclear weapons. Last year North Korea unveiled a long-range ballistic missile which it claims can reach the whole of the United States. If this became a reality it would also affect the whole of Europe, including the UK." Take heed, everyone: nuclear proliferation is a risk!

Cameron is right.  North Korea has a record on proliferation as long as your arm - or the forced queue for one of its death camps.

His point would of course be less topical were the present stand-off between its regime and the Obama administration not taking place.

Perhaps Cameron was thinking of the words of Obama's former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, when he had the Telegraph article drafted: "Never let a serious crisis go to waste!"

1 Apr 2013 12:53:33

Are we sticking to the plan in Afghanistan? The generals seem to have their worries…

By Peter Hoskin
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What with the news about benefits, the NHS, financial regulation and energy policy, this story in today’s Independent may struggle for attention. But it deserves noting, at least.

It relates a warning from the most senior UK commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant-General Nick Carter, about troop withdrawals. “Precipitating withdrawal that is not in line with the current plan will damage Afghan confidence,” he says. And he adds that we should “provide the Afghans with the support to take this through into 2014.”

It’s telling, in itself, that the general is saying this. He recommends staying “in line with the current plan” – which is to reduce troop numbers from the 8,000 currently in Afghanistan to around 5,000 by the end of the year – so does that mean he thinks there’s a chance we won’t? Is the plan at risk?

Continue reading "Are we sticking to the plan in Afghanistan? The generals seem to have their worries…" »

5 Mar 2013 07:16:31

The next Conservative leadership election is under way

Screen shot 2013-03-04 at 17.58.32
By Paul Goodman

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There's a triple significance to the post-Eastleigh interventions of the three main Conservative members of the National Union of Ministers - Philip Hammond, Theresa May, and Chris Grayling.

It may look at first glance as though Hammond's plea for savings from welfare to be found to protect his budget, and May and Grayling's interventions over the European Court of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act last weekend, have little connection, if any - but they've more in common than meets the eye.

  • All three show up Downing Street's lack of authority and grip.  It wasn't clear at the weekend whether David Cameron had licensed Hammond to defend his budget.  It now seems that it didn't: today, an anonymous "close ally of the Prime Minister" is quoted as saying: “You cannot be a fiscal conservative and then say that does not apply in your own department.”  And it still isn't clear whether or not Number 10 was aware of, or was perhaps even the source of, this weekend's report that Theresa May favours leaving the ECHR.  (It was presumably aware of Chris Grayling's on-the-record support for tearing up the Human Rights Act).  Indeed, news of her backing for the measure doesn't seem to have come from her, though it hasn't been denied by the Home Office and hasn't drawn a view from Downing Street.  This is the nub of the matter.  Prime Ministers will sometimes encourage Ministers to float ideas, and then let it be known that they approve of them.  But there has been no real follow-up to Grayling's words or May's view from Number 10 - no rowing-in behind abolishing the Act or leaving the ECHR, no sense of political purpose, commitment or direction. Instead, Ken Clarke has taken his colleagues to task. This sense of Ministers stating their own views and going their own way, with Downing Street apparently powerless to prevent them, opened up Number 10 to Mark Field's blood-drawing counter-attack.
  • The May and Grayling follow-up, together with Number 10's own reaction to Eastleigh, shows that it hasn't a settled strategy for dealing with UKIP.  Tearing up the Human Rights Act...leaving the ECHR...restricting the access of immigrants to legal aid and benefits...proposals for less Europe and more border control are leaking from Ministers and Downing Street into the media.  It is unfair to accuse Downing Street of "lurching to the right" after Eastleigh.  (Why do we hear so little from the BBC and others of Ed Miliband "lurching to the left"?)  David Cameron's Sunday Telegraph article was careful to balance "bringing down immigration" with "proper investment in the NHS".  But Downing Street is undoubtedly preoccupied with how to deal with UKIP in the aftermath of Eastleigh and the run-up to this spring's local elections.  Promises of tougher border control and tighter benefit conditions won't be enough - and nor will hints about quitting the ECHR.  UKIP is a boot which angry voters, who believe that Britain is changing for the worse, are using to kick the system.  Those disillusioned voters now include a significant slice of the Conservatives' natural electoral base, who believe that Cameron is a creature of the political class who cares nothing for their values.  May's record of reducing net immigration  won't win them all back.  Nor will Number 10's "Santa Claus" line of attack - at least until voters stop using UKIP as a protest vehicle, and start questioning how it would reconcile tax cuts for "everyone" with more police, prison places, NHS services, student grants, bigger pensions and higher defence spending.  Hammond's intervention on the last shrewdly recognises another UKIP pressure point.

Continue reading "The next Conservative leadership election is under way" »

2 Mar 2013 07:21:18

The National Union of Ministers' target is IDS's budget - not the health and aid ring-fences

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-03-02 at 07.04.09Theresa May was reported earlier this week to have led a Cabinet charge by the "National Union of Ministers" - herself, Philip Hammond and Vince Cable - against the protection of the health, education and aid budgets.  I have certainly heard senior figures in the Home Office suggest that the NHS might like to take a leaf out of its own lead on police reform with a non ring-fenced budget.

But tearing up party and Government pledges on ring-fencing is not the aim of the new N.U.M - or not of all of its members, at any rate.  A Cabinet Minister told me earlier this week that its real aim is the welfare budget. Indeed, my source claimed that the Home Secretary wasn't even at the Cabinet meeting in question, since she was abroad.

And now Philip Hammond breaks cover this morning, giving an interview to the Daily Telegraph in which he warns that "any further reduction in the defence budget would fall on the level of activity that we were able to carry out". (He also gave a quick interview yesterday to the Sun.)  He says:

It is the welfare budget, and other issues dear to Liberal Democrat hearts, that are in this Defence Secretary’s sights. “There is a body of opinion within Cabinet that we have to look at the welfare budget again. The welfare budget is the bit of public spending that has risen the furthest and the fastest and if we are going to get control of public spending on a sustainable basis, we are going to have to do more to tackle the growth in the welfare budget.”

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