Conservative Diary


28 Aug 2013 17:44:09

Syria: what do British Muslims think? And could intervention there have domestic consequences?

By Paul Goodman
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British Muslims were strongly opposed to the Iraq War, as I remember from being in the Commons at the time.  Do they take a different view of British missile strikes on Syria - and on military intervention more broadly?  I spoke earlier today to Mohammed Amin, the Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum and a frequent contributor to this website (see here, for example), who doubts whether this is the case, though he stressed that he has neither been canvassing opinion nor seeking views.  "British Muslims' view of the Iraq war tended to be that it consisted of western non-Muslims bombing Iraqi Muslims, and there's no reason to think that their view of intervention in Syria would be different," he told me.

None the less, there is an important difference between Syria now and Iraq pre-invasion.  Saddam maintained his grip on the latter until the country was invaded.  Assad has lost his hold on parts of Syria, which is engulfed in civil war - one, furthermore, of an increasingly sectarian nature.  On the one side are Shi'ite Muslims, some better-off Sunnis, most Christians and the ruling Alawite clans; on the other are Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, many poorer Sunnis and democratic liberals.  Saudi Arabia and Turkey are among the Sunni countries backing the opposition; Shi'ite Iran is the main Muslim supporter of Assad.  There are some signs that this polarisation between the two Islamic traditions is being felt in Britain.

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14 Jul 2013 08:15:41

The roots of the NHS scandal are in a culture that grants human life no absolute value

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-07-14 at 08.14.54Here are the figures.  14 hospital trusts were investigated by the hospital review commissioned by Jeremy Hunt.  Ten require "urgent action".  21 are still failing critically ill patients.  The best part of 3500 people may have died needlessly.  According to the Mail on Sunday, the Health Secretary will make a statement to the Commons on Tuesday.  Hunt has already set out his plans to improve the performance of hospitals - a new "Duty of Candour", the publication of more performance data, clearer responsibility for patient care, new "deep-dive" inspections - and so on.

The Health Secretary has gradually moved, partly under pressure from Conservative backbenchers, to put some of the blame where it belongs - on the consequences of Labour's command and control targets regime.  As the paper points out, Alan Johnson, then the Health Secretary, gave the  Health his "absolute assurance" in 2009, that what was happening in Mid-Staffs was "not indicative of what’s happening in the NHS".  This was untrue, and the Conservative MP Charlotte Leslie wants an inquiry into who knew what, and when.

None the less, party politics and official inquiries only get one so far.  The horrifying treatment of some elderly people in our hospitals and care homes is a symptom of cultural change - one in which there is no longer a presumption that older people should be treated as possessing experience and wisdom, and in which human life itself is no longer seen as possessing absolute value.  "It has saddened me that in the past four months I have heard almost no one use the word “kindness”, writes Camilla Cavendish behind the Sunday Times paywall.

Cavendish was put in charge by the Government with conducting a review into NHS healthcare assistants.  She argues for proper teamwork, shared responsibility, shorter shifts and "weeding out staff who are not caring" (easier said than done).  But it's evident to anyone who reads her piece or who has followed the hospital scandals, that - as the headline on her article puts it -  "What the NHS needs is a degree of kindness. The rest can be taught."  In Britain, that kindness has been rooted in absolute values, formed by the country's Christian tradition.

The country is moving from one in which the churches were the main manifestation of religion to one in which there are many more - and in which the place of religion itself is under question.  But, as Philip Blond suggests on this site today, the faith communities (and specifically the Church of England) have much to contribute in ensuring that public services are stronger and better.  If government was more skilled at utilising the churches - and if some in them didn't see caring as the state's job - older people in our hospitals and institutions would get better care.

27 May 2013 12:12:48

Ministers warn of radicalisation on campus. But what's their position on FOSIS?

Screen shot 2013-05-27 at 12.06.39
By Paul Goodman

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Theresa May has criticised universities for complacency in tackling radicalisation towards extremism on campus.  Mustafa Field of the Mosques and Imams Advisory Board has said: "We are...having hate preachers walking into university campuses and there's not enough work being done around that."  Boris Johnson wrote in his Daily Telegraph column this morning that "universities need to be much, much tougher in their monitoring of Islamic societies. It is utterly wrong to have segregated meetings in a state-funded centre of learning. If visiting speakers start some Islamist schtick – and seek either to call for or justify violence – then the authorities need to summon the police."

I am not so cynical as to write that much is said about extremism but nothing is done.  Theresa May has keep a lot of hate preachers out of the country, starting as she meant to go on with Zakir Naik.  The Times suggested behind its paywall on Saturday that counter-terror co-ordinators are already gathering information on radicalisation towards extremism on campus.  There is progress.  But I am concerned about David Cameron's measured reaction last week degenerating into a "crackdown" (with the attendant risk of the return of the "Snoopers' Charter").  Let me be clear:  I'm all for extremist preachers being kept off campus, websites being shut down, extremism being tackled in prisons, Anjem Choudary's benefits being stopped (why is he still getting any?) and so - a real crackdown.

But when one reads of the Prime Minister's new Ministerial task force - TERFOR - producing initiatives on "disrupting extremist activity" and "challenging poisonous activities", it's worth remembering that John Reid set up the Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU) in to do precisely that under Labour - as long ago as 2007. In short and despite advances, there is a pattern.  An outrage happens.  Ministers promise action.  Memories start fading. Newspapers lose interest.  Officials resist action, as in the case of Cameron's Munich speech.  So do politicians (in some instances).  It's two steps forward and one step back, and that's if we're lucky.  If we're unlucky, we have what Andrew Gilligan has called the Government being tough where it should be liberal, and liberal where it should be tough.  In other words, questionable groups get favours from Ministers while innocent citizens have their freedoms compromised.

I have a simple test. On the one hand, the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) has been condemmed by Theresa May and Nick Clegg, two of the most senior Ministers in government, for failing to “fully challenge terrorist and extremist ideology”.  (May ordered civil servants to withdraw from a FOSIS graduate recruitment fair.) On the other, Sayeeda Warsi attended a FOSIS event in the House of Lords and, according to Gilligan, "supported claims by FOSIS that extremism was “no more prevalent” in universities than in any other parts of society".  Can Ministers please get their ducks in a row?  "You say I am repeating/ Something I have said before. I shall say it again./ Shall I say it again?..."

21 May 2013 08:05:25

The same-sex marriage bill. Bad when it started. Just as bad now. It should be opposed today.

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-05-21 at 07.43.19No political party should alter a bedrock institution without the following conditions applying - especially if it is the Conservative Party.  A sizeable campaign to change that institution should be in place: in other words, there should be real evidence of public pressure.  The Party should then discuss and debate the matter internally.  If the Party then decides on change, if should say so unambiguously in its general election manifesto.  If it doesn't win the election, but enters into Coalition, any commitment to effect that change should be written into the consequent Coalition Agreement.  Ideally, any bill enacting the change should be preceded by a Green Paper in which any  problematic consequences of the bill could be aired, and solutions thereby sought.  Such solutions could then be written into the bill, or tacked on to it by amendments.  Finally, the bill should be subject to a geniunely free vote.

Not a single one of these conditions apply to the same-sex marriage bill, on which MPs will vote this evening.

No campaign for same-sex marriage preceded the bill.  (Although Stonewall has consistently favoured same-sex marriage, it didn't launch a big campaign for it - at least partly because it thought the Government wouldn't concede it.)  There was no discussion within the Conservative Party, especially at local level.  There was no manifesto commitment.  There was no Coalition Agreement undertaking.  There was no Green Paper.  There have been no significant amendments - other than Labour's on equal civil partnerships.  And there has been no free vote, at least at when it comes to members of the Executive: it has been made very clear to Ministers which lobby the Prime Minister wants them to go into.  For these reasons alone, Tory backbenchers should vote against the bill at Third Reading this evening.  The way in which it has been introduced and championed has broken every rule of good government and party management.

The Loongate row is still reverberating in the Party, especially at local Association level.  The key point about it is that too many Conservatives, from the Cabinet table to the grassroots, believe that the controversial words are what is thought and said of them in Downing Street. No measure has done more to buttress that impression than the same-sex marriage bill - which has been imposed on the Party with such absolutism, and which is the cause of such a bitter culture war.  Many older people especially see the measure as a deliberate assault on their values: the bill might thus almost have been designed as a recruiting-sergeant for UKIP.  For this reason alone, Tory MPs should vote against the bill this evening in good heart.  They will certainly grasp that Ministers haven't a clue what the courts will do when they get to work on Equality Act challenges, and that the bill is consequently a threat to religious freedom.

9 Apr 2013 06:55:39

An Iron Lady of Christian faith

By Tim Montgomerie
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One of the best pieces you'll read in the papers this morning is in the Daily Mail from Cynthia Crawford - 'Crawfie' - Lady Thatcher's personal assistant during her time at Number 10 and her lifelong friend. In a intimate portrait Crawfie - as Lady Thatcher called her - writes about Mrs Thatcher the private person - including her love of fashion and, in this extract, her personal faith:

"It was the private face of Lady T that I knew best. I saw her humanity. I was with her when she wept privately for our soldiers killed in the Falklands. I knelt beside her when — careless of her own close brush with death — we prayed together at our bedsides for the bereaved on the night of the Brighton bomb."

In The Times (link to follow) we also have a piece from her former Head of the Number 10 Policy Unit, Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach. Brian writes about the Iron Lady's faith. Here's an extract:

"For Margaret Thatcher the Christian faith was not only intensely personal, it was also the basis of her approach to economic and social policy. She was a politician not a theologian but she had an instinctive grasp of orthodox Christian theology. She placed great stress on the Old Testament and referred to her perspective as Judaeo-Christian rather than simply Christian. Christian social doctrine was in the Old Testament, while its spirit and deeper meaning were set out by Jesus in the gospels. She had great regard for the Chief Rabbi, who was later ennobled and more generally for the commitment to family, public service and charity shown by the Jewish Community. By taking key elements from both the Old and New Testaments she argued that we gain “a view of the universe, a proper attitude to work and principles to shape economic and social life”. The creation mandate, care for the environment, private property rights, the rule of law, economic justice, provisions for the elderly, the sick and the disabled were all principles which influenced her policies and which grew out of her Judaeo-Christian world view."

2 Apr 2013 08:28:45

Careful with the churches, George

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-04-02 at 08.24.05There is no row between the Government and the churches over the welfare reform measures that came into effect yesterday.  The church report which sparked reports of a clash was published over a month ago, and reported over the weekend by the BBC as if it were new.  Bias, anyone? So when the Daily Telegraph (£) (for example) reports this morning that George Osborne will today respond to "a weekend of criticism about benefits cuts from Labour, leading church groups and prominent figures on the Left:, it's worth bearing this artificiality in mind.

I'm not suggesting for a moment that church leaders support the Government, but the context of their reaction to its policies is very different from that of the 1980s, when a special report for the then Archbishop of Canterbury, "Faith in the City" criticised Margaret Thatcher's economic policy.  Church attendance is even lower.  The Catholic Church has been blighted by the child abuse scandals, and the spectre of militant Islamism has fed a backlash against religion.  Neither the Human Rights Act nor the Equality Act existed in the mid-1980s, and the European Court of Human Rights was less intrusive and aggressive.

As I write in today's Daily Telegraph, the churches do invaluable work with the poor and deprived, running, as one bishop put it, "post offices, cafes, doctors' surgeries, asylum rights centres, homeless outreach and bereavement counselling, job creation and economic regeneration programmes, eco-initiatives [and] youth clubs".  The Chancellor and the Government should therefore handle church criticism, when it comes, respectfully and carefully.  Furthermore, a big slice of people receiving tax credits are working - which helps to explain why the slob-on-a-couch posters which CCHQ rushed out, and quickly backed off, were a mistake: a caricature of how some present-day conservatives think Margaret Thatcher campaigned.  (She was both more positive and more subtle.)

None the less, there is a difference between what worshippers in the pews think and what bishops in the Lords, and elsewhere, say.  Very simply, episcopal criticisms of the Government are often reactionary, in the literal sense of the word - a harking-back to the years of the Attlee post-war settlement, when more men worked in manufacturing, more people were married, women didn't enjoy the same opportunities as today and there were far fewer ethnic minorities.  When a coalition of churches lines up to attack the Government's welfare policies, or George Carey pops up to attack its social policy, the policy presciptions they yearn for are often out-of-date.

This doesn't mean that David Cameron has a thoroughly thought-out approach to the churches, or that all church criticism is always wrong.  (The same-sex marriage debacle was a self-inflicted wound; the treatment of one-earner couples could turn into another.)  But the longer church leaders confuse the Attlee settlement with a New Jerusalem, the safer the Prime Minister will feel in first complimenting them, and then ignoring them - secure in the knowledge that more churchgoers agree with his stance on welfare than some bishops care to admit.

30 Mar 2013 23:59:00

David Cameron celebrates hitting 0.7% overseas aid target in his Easter message

By Tim Montgomerie
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David Cameron once downplayed his faith but he used his Christmas message to suggest he took faith very seriously. His Easter message, just released, is also emphatic:

“I send my best wishes to all those in the United Kingdom and around the world celebrating Easter this year in what is an incredibly exciting time for the Christian faith worldwide.

This year’s Holy Week and Easter celebrations follow an extraordinary few days for Christians; not only with the enthronement of Justin Welby as our new Archbishop of Canterbury, but also with the election of Pope Francis in Rome.

In the Bible, Saint Peter reminds us of the hope that comes from new birth through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Christians, it also reminds us of Jesus’s legacy of generosity, tolerance, mercy, and forgiveness. That legacy lives on in so many Christian charities and churches both at home and abroad. Whether they are meeting the needs of the poor, helping people in trouble, or providing spiritual guidance and support to those in need, faith institutions perform an incredible role to the benefit of our society. As long as I am Prime Minister, they will have the support of this Government.

With that in mind, I am particularly proud to lead a Government that has kept its promise to invest 0.7 per cent of our gross national income on helping the world’s poorest*, and I am grateful that we have been able to partner with both Christian and non-Christian charities to relieve suffering overseas.

I hope you have a very happy Easter.”

I'm not sure it will convince George Carey however. The former Archbishop of Canterbury used an article in yesterday's Daily Mail to suggest that David Cameron was increasing British Christians' fears of persecution. Lord Bates was very unimpressed. In an article for ConHome the Tory peer argued that if anyone was to blame for Christianity's marginalisation it was churchleaders like Dr Carey who talked a lot about issues that weren't central to the lives of their declining flocks.

* Most Tory MPs in marginal seats told Matthew Parris of The Times that the PM was right to honour his aid commitments.

6 Feb 2013 08:27:52

Can Cameron heal his divided Conservative coalition? Here are three suggestions for the Tory leader...

By Tim Montgomerie
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Screen Shot 2013-02-06 at 07.43.13

81 Tory MPs rebelled on David Nuttall's EU referendum motion.

91 Tory MPs voted against Lords reform.

143 Tory MPs have voted against the Coalition's policies at some point. 37 are hardcore rebels.

136 Tory MPs voted, last night, against the Tory leadership's position on gay marriage. Another forty abstained.

Technically, of course, last night's vote wasn't a rebellion against government policy. It was a free vote. But it was certainly a vote against one of David Cameron's most important initiatives since becoming Prime Minister and also against his model of modernisation. Read today's papers and the result is certainly being presented as a rebellion against his authority. The party looks divided in the eyes of voters and voters don't like divided parties. Very divided. Some gay people may have new confidence in the PM but less faith in the Conservative Party.

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5 Feb 2013 19:22:05

Same-sex marriage: Ayes - 400. Noes - 175.

By Paul Goodman
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9.30 pm Update: According to the Guardian, 127 Tory MPs supported the bill, 136 opposed it, and 40 MPs either voted both ways (actively abstaining) or did not vote at all.  According to Paul Waugh, 40% of payroll vote (47/119) failed to support the Prime Minister, and 70% of backbenchers (129/184) failed to back him.

7.45pm Update: We have our first real rebel estimate - the number of those Conservative MPs who voted against the programme motion.  There were 55 votes against it - it's not clear at this stage how many were Tories.  60 blue votes would be a fifth of the Parliamentary Party.

7.30pm Update: Preliminary estimate from Paul Waugh of PoliticsHome - 132 Tory MPs voted with the Prime Minister and 139 against.

I wrote earlier that an important test for David Cameron would be whether he can get the support of 152 Conservative MPs.

My first reaction to the figures above is that, assuming some 30 MPs of other parties voted No, the Tory No vote looks to be on the high side.

Nicholas Watt of the Guardian is tweeting Labour sources as saying that more Conservative MPs have voted against the Prime Minister than with him. Let's see.

5 Feb 2013 11:11:51

Will more than half the Conservative Parliamentary Party follow Cameron into the Aye lobby this evening?

By Paul Goodman
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All free votes are free votes, but some are less free than others.  Today's same-sex marriage bill vote will help to prove the point.  The programme motion will be whipped.  So, as Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart point out this morning, will some votes be at committee and report.  The Second Reading vote won't be completely free from whipping, either - or at least a form of it.

The Whips Office is officially neutral on Second Reading. (Indeed, a chunk of the office will vote against it).  And there is a lively backbench whipping operation against second reading.  But with both David Cameron and George Osborne in favour of the bill, and effectively controlling patronage between them, requests to "help" the Prime Minister today have a certain status.

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