Conservative Diary

Foreign affairs

18 Sep 2013 06:51:24

Who is winning the Coalition? Us or the Lib Dems?


By Mark Wallace
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Now that both parties are fighting to take credit for the coalition's achievements, rather than seeking to blame each other for its impact, it seems an opportune moment to ask: who is winning the Coalition? Do the Lib Dems or the Conservatives enjoy more success in Government?

Let's tot it up, match by match, across thirteen key policy areas:

Home Office

With PCCs introduced, an immigration cap in place, the concept of regional immigration limits rejected, spending cuts to the police but crime falling regardless and even the now-famous "Go Home" vans, the Home Office is a round victory for the Conservatives. The Lib Dems will be happy about the scrapping of ID cards, but it's worth remembering that this was Tory policy at the election, too.

Blues 2 - 0 Yellows

Local Government

Both parties described themselves as localist in the run-up to 2010, but the plan the Government have implemented is almost entirely Eric Pickles'.  Spending transparency, guaranteed referenda for council tax increases over 5 per cent and relaxed planning regulations all point to a Conservative win.

Blues 2 - 0 Yellows


It's a little hard to say how the different parties have fared in the Justice department. The failure to fulfil the Tory pledge for automatic jail sentences for carrying a knife illegally and the fact the Human Rights Act still has not been replaced by a British Bill of Rights are certainly points against the Conservatives, but they were respectively scored by Ken Clarke and a Commission set up by the Prime Minister, so count as own goals. Since he took over as Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling has been pushing ahead more productively with cuts to legal aid, reform of the courts system and a new, more accountable prison regime. The Lib Dems have had barely a look-in, but the own goals go on their tally - we can expect a better rematch later in the Parliament.

Blues 3 - 2 Yellows

Constitutional Reform

The Lib Dems had a good sequence of play early on - for a while it looked like they might romp home. They certainly secured the referendum on AV which they had demanded, but then the electorate overwhelmingly rejected the plan. Lords reform briefly came onto the agenda, before being torpedoed by Tory backbench opposition. In revenge, Clegg sank the boundary reform the Conservatives desperately need to iron out structural bias in the election system. Both sides lose out - a no-score draw.

Blues 0 - 0 Yellows


It's fair to say Michael Gove has emerged victorious on almost every measure in Education. The academies scheme has been dramatically extended, Free Schools are springing up and new, more rigorous exams are in place. The flagship Lib Dem policy of the Pupil Premium has been implemented, but their promise to aboilish tuition fees has been entirely reversed.

Blues 5 - 1 Yellows


Both parties supported High Speed 2 in 2010, and despite heavy fire from all sides it remains Government policy. The Lib Dem policy of introducing road pricing has been rejected, and replaced by reductions and freezes in fuel prices, driven by Rob Halfon. Clegg and Cameron both promised that Heathrow would not be expanded, and they've got their way - with Lib Dem support for the policy helping to overwhelm any Tory suggestions it be revoked.

Blues 2 - 1 Yellows 


The decision to hold a Strategic Defence Review rather partially removed this department from the realm of pure party politics early on in the parliament. However, the Lib Dems regularly boast that they have managed to delay any decision to replace Trident until at least 2015, while the Conservatives have successfully slimmed down the MoD's size and balanced its budget for the first time in years. A score draw.

Blues 1 - 1 Yellows


Energy and Environment

Chris Huhne, and later Ed Davey, have dominated these policy fields from DECC until Owen Paterson gave DEFRA more Tory bite in the last year. The Green Deal is in place (and splashing money everywhere), wind farms are still going ahead despite the Tories wishing to implement a moratorium and the Green Investment Bank has got the go-ahead. Shale gas has now been given the green light, but only after lengthy delays thanks to Lib Dem opposition. 

Blues 1 - Yellows 5

Tax and Spend

Both parties agreed on the need for austerity after the Brown years, but we should note that the Lib Dem manifesto proposed £15 billion of spending cuts, delayed until 2011-12. Austerity has been larger than that, and began immediately. While Clegg and Alexander's presence in the Quad has certainly reduced the fiscal tightening somewhat, Government policy looks closer to Osborne's position than theirs.

On tax, it's a different story. The 50p rate is gone, but it is now 45p rather than the 40p many Tories would have preferred. The income tax threshold is rising to £10,000, following a Lib Dem manifesto pledge - though it's not a policy many Conservatives are uncomfortable about. It's fair to say Osborne's enthusiasm for tax cuts (for example on Inheritance Tax) has been sizeably hindered by his coalition partners.

Goals for each side, but level pegging so far.

Blues 2 - Yellows 2

Welfare Reform

Like Eric Pickles, Iain Duncan Smith went into the 2010 election with a coherent plan and a deep personal dedication to his brief. As a result, he's got his way on the bulk of his proposals. The two parties have collaborated to protect the Universal Credit scheme from Treasury attempts to axe it or scale it back. It says a lot that the Lib Dems' main impact on the DWP has been to veto IDS' offers to make even more savings from his budget.

Blues 2 - Yellows 1

Business and Banks

Vince Cable has long touted his Department as the heartland of Lib Dem opposition to Conservative leadership of the coalition. He's certainly managed to get the Government to adopt his industrial strategy, and blocked the Beecroft reforms to workplace regulation. But he has also had to accept the abolition of the Regional Development Agencies and the Conservative-driven cuts to red tape. The decider is the Government's decision to accept the Lib Dem policy to break up the banks.

Blues 2 - Yellows 3


To say the Health and Social Care Act proved controversial is an understatement. Various of the policies within it are drawn from the Conservative 2010 manifesto, although Lib Dem opposition forced the Government into a "listening period" and resulted in several changes to the legislation. 

Blues 2 - Yellows 1


This always seemed likely to be the sticking point of the Coalition. Clegg has prevented Cameron from offering an earlier referendum, and the Conservatives have been forced to use a Private Member's Bill to pursue their policy post-2015. However, the Lib Dems so far have been too afraid of public opinion to vote against the Wharton Bill, resorting to wrecking attempts in the Committees. The In/Out referendum is on the way, but Yellow blocking tactics have left the Blues open to attack by UKIP.

Blues 1 - Yellows 2

Scores so far

Here are the overall scores from the first half of the Parliamentary season. Of 13 matches, there have been 7 Blue victories, 3 Yellow wins and 3 draws. 25 goals for the Conservatives and 19 for the Liberal Democrats leaves the goal difference at +6 for the Blue team.

The contest is only going to become more hotly contested - as can be seen by Nick Clegg's attempt to take the credit for Rob Halfon's ideas today - so we will continue to watch every match and report back.

17 Sep 2013 15:12:57

Euroscepticism is rising on the Continent, but is it enough to aid Cameron's renegotiation?

By Mark Wallace
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Euro meltdownTwo new polls out today offer some insight into the state of euroscepticism across the Continent. 

First, a poll by Ifop for the French newspaper La Croix shows rising opposition to Brussels. Their findings are that:

"In Spain, 37 percent of respondents said EU membership was a bad thing, up from 26 percent in June 2012, rising to 43 percent in France (from 38 percent), 44 percent in eurozone powerhouse Germany (from 36 percent) and 45 percent in Italy (from 39 percent)."

Following hard on their heels is Open Europe, who have polled German voters to find:

"Strong support for devolving powers from the EU to member states: By a margin of two to one (50% in favour, 26% against), German voters say the next German Chancellor should back the efforts by some European politicians to decentralise powers from the EU to the national, regional or local level."

German euroscepticism seems increasingly deep-seated, over a number of policy areas

OE Policy List

The European Parliament and the EU Commission are also viewed as the two most untrustworthy institutions by German voters - further testimony to the stereotype of teutonic common sense.

This has potentially interesting connotations for David Cameron's renegotiation. I've long been sceptical of his chances for success (particularly given the woeful Balance of Competences review), but the new polling suggests widespread sympathy among European electorates for his position.

Continue reading "Euroscepticism is rising on the Continent, but is it enough to aid Cameron's renegotiation?" »

15 Sep 2013 13:51:15

Switzerland shows that life outside the EU isn't just possible, it can be better

EU Exit
By Mark Wallace
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Only a couple of years ago, conventional wisdom in Westminster scoffed at the concept of leaving the EU. Yet today we have an in/out referendum on the horizon and the Sunday Times magazine devoting a whole edition to the EU question. How times have changed.

The highlight is Dominic Lawson's essay on his recent visit to Switzerland, in which he explores how the Swiss live outside the EU.

His journey was inspired by David Cameron's put-down to eurosceptics:

“If your vision of Britain is that we should just withdraw and become a sort of greater Switzerland, I think that would be a complete denial of our national interests.”

And yet, notes Lawson, Switzerland isn't doing half badly:

"Outside the EU it has thrived, with the lowest unemployment rate on the continent — and in July it signed a trailblazing free-trade deal with China."

"...Britain’s annual net contributions to the EU budget run at over £8bn. While wealthy Switzerland, in return for selective facilitated access to the single market, has paid out a grand total of £860m over the past five years, and retains the right to control how its aid to the poorer EU countries is spent on the ground, rather than allowing it to be channelled through the Brussels bureaucracy."

Inherent to the article is the simple fact that Switzerland disproves so much of the scaremongering put about by those who think we should remain as EU members. Being better off and having control of our own trading relationships with the growing economies outside the EU, while paying far less money to Brussels, seems a very long way from "a complete denial of our national interests".

Lawson also secured a rare interview with Christoph Blocher, the man who funded the 1992 campaign which kept Switzerland as an independent nation. The challenges Blocher faced 20 years ago are likely to be very similar to those the British Out campaign will face in 2017:

"The old political class, the government, the parliament, the business organisations, the unions, they were all for entry.” And why was that? “They were afraid that we were always too small as a nation and that it would be better to be part of something bigger. And perhaps the politicians thought they would have more power."

Despite the institutions heaped against him, he won. Two decades later, the doom predicted by Euro-enthusiasts has not befallen Switzerland, and only 6 per cent of the population support joining the EU. When Paddy Ashdown stood up yesterday to declare that "tens of thousands" of jobs would be lost if Britain became independent - a watered down version of an old falsehood - he should perhaps have borne in mind the egg which has adorned the faces of his counterparts in Switzerland for many years.

The frustration they still feel is evident in Lawson's interview with Christa Markwalder, a representative of the Swiss Liberal Democratic party. She is forced to admit that

"at the moment it’s hopeless, we will never win a popular vote on it."

The Swiss story is precisely what British eurosceptics need. We must put forward a positive, viable vision for our future without the EU - and we must be able to rebut the unfounded fears raised bythe project's fanatics, whether they are talking down Britain's economic capabilities or threatening the prospect of a re-run of World War One. 

No-one would suggest a Britain free of Brussels would be exactly like Switzerland - if anything we should seek to be in an even better position. But the prosperous and free existence of the Swiss shows that there is an attractive alternative to being little Europeans, hiding from the world behind trade barriers and handing our democratic rights over to unelected Commissioners while the EU becomes ever less competitive and ever more dysfunctional.

Perhaps it would be most appropriate to leave the last word to that rare beast, a self-confessed "unrepentant EU fanatic" who is willing to tell the truth about how a non-EU Britain would manage its affairs -Wolfgang Munchau:

“Everything would be up for grabs. Britain can negotiate a favourable or a non-favourable deal. My best guess is that an exit would put Britain in a similar situation to Switzerland, which would not exactly be an economic disaster. The UK is a large economy with a small industrial base. For such a country the regulatory burden of the single market outweighs the benefits. There may be reasons why the UK may wish to remain a member of the EU, but whatever they are, they are not economic.”


7 Sep 2013 11:46:27

Cameron's good decision on Syria and aid

By Paul Goodman
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This site is quick to boo David Cameron when it disagrees with him - as earlier today, for example, when considering HS2.  By the same token, ConservativeHome should be swift to cheer him when we agree with a decision he's made.  I wrote earlier this week that the Government is in a good position to offer a lead to other countries on Syria and aid (that was before Putin's spokesman apparently dismissed Britain as a "small island", and the Prime Minister crafted a Hugh Grant moment in response).  A combination of humanitarian feeling and self-interest should move Ministers both to help Syria's refugees and support its neighbours: were the civil war to spread across its borders, the consequent turmoil would be likely to shake the world's economy and thus ours.  I repeat: a way of beginning to grasp the scale of the Syrian conflict is to imagine that it was Britain.  Were this the case, over 20 million people here would be in need of food, water, medical care, shelter - or would simply have fled abroad: that's more than three times the population of London.

Continue reading "Cameron's good decision on Syria and aid" »

6 Sep 2013 14:54:17

“Just a small island … no one pays any attention to them..." (See graph)

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-09-06 at 14.50.39
(Hat-tip: Andrew Lilico, who sent us the graph.)

3 Sep 2013 22:05:52

What Britain can do to help Syrians

By Paul Goodman
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Supporters and opponents of military intervention in Syria should be able to agree on a twin point.  First, that what is happening to Syrians themselves is a humanitarian disaster and, second, that the calamity which they are undergoing threatens to undermine Syria's neighbours - and Britain's interests.  The scale of suffering challenges description, so I take refuge in numbers.  According to DFID, there are almost seven million people in need of assistance in Syria, out of a total population of some 23 million.  Over four million have been displaced from their homes; almost two million have fled to other countries.  Half of all refugees are children.

Were Britain Syria, that's the equivalent of over 20 million people in need of food, water, medical care, shelter - or simply fled abroad: more than three times the population of London.  Were six million Britons to flee mostly to, say, France, Spain and Ireland, the consequences for those countries, especially the last, would be severe. So are the effects of the flight from Syria on Turkey; on Iraq, itself unstable; on Lebanon - which is even more so - and on Jordan, one of our main allies in the region (whose population has been driven up by some eight per cent - see the video report above).

Continue reading "What Britain can do to help Syrians" »

2 Sep 2013 08:09:55

There should be no second Commons vote on Syria. We must stay out of its civil war.

By Paul Goodman
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I sent out yesterday the following series of tweets on Syria, which re-iterated the case against intervention. Here they are:

  • A dictatorship bent on using chemical weapons against its own people is unlikely to be deterred by a single series of strikes.
  • If as is likely Assad continues to use such weapons after any such strike, the alternatives are further intervention or backing down.
  • Further intervention would mean arming rebels, military advice, a no-fly zone - and perhaps "boots on the ground". We would thereby assume a share of responsibility for Syria.
  • It is most unlikely that Assad would be replaced by pro-western democratic liberals if ousted.
  • It is probable that Assad would be replaced by a Muslim Brotherhood-flavoured, Hamas-type regime.
  • Extremist Shiites have not carried out terrorist acts in Britain since 9/11: extremist Sunnis have carried out such acts. British troops in Syria would be vulnerable to attacks by both.
  • Britain thus has no national interest in intervening in Syria's civil war.  In any event, we can now project less military power abroad than ten years ago.
  • From a humanitarian point of view, it's worth remembering that both sides in Syria's civil war are committing atrocities.
  • Thursday's Commons vote didn't commit Britain to action. There was thus a strong case for anti-interventionist Tory MPs to support David Cameron.
  • However, those MPs had legitimate worries about Britain being drawn into Syrian conflict. So did voters. The Commons reflected their view.
  • Cameron acted sincerely, but made a horrible mess of party management. The voters will note.
  • Miliband acted opportunistically, probably insincerely, but made a temporary succeess of party management. Voters will note.
  • The special relationship (such as it is): it will recover. It's worth adding that the vote helped to send Obama to Congress, which will displease him.
  • Government authority on foreign policy: this is weakened - because last week's backbench defiance of the whips wasn't a one-off. Rebellions have become more frequent.
  • On foreign policy, the Government is weaker abroad and the Commons is stronger at home. Take your view on whether the latter gain is worth the former loss.
  • Britain should be pro-America, but not to the point where we simply approve everything a US President proposes.
  • Britain should be pro-intervention when practicable (Libya), but not when it's neither practicable nor desirable (Syria).
  • Voters have gradudally got more Euro-sceptic (over 25 years or so) and more intervention-sceptuc (since Iraq). Those who dislike this must get used to it.
  • Finally: it's easy to be swayed, on Syria or anything, by the heat of moment or coverage of atrocities. It's harder by far to think things through.

This morning, I'd add a further thought:

  • None the less, domestic politics and our national interest are the same as they were last week.  a third or more of Conservative MPs and a majority of voters are opposed to military action in Syria.  Over half of Liberal Democrats MPs voted against the Government last week.  The Labour Party is traumatised by Iraq and has a weak leader: it would thus be an unreliable partner any military quest.  As above, there is no strategic or political case for intervention.
  • David Cameron's apple cart turned over last week.  Putting the apples back in it will take time and trouble.  He mustn't let it be upset all over again.

1 Sep 2013 14:16:51

Gove's passion: for schools, Syria - and democracy everywhere

By Paul Goodman

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Andrew Gimson has correctly fingered David Cameron's temperament as Anglican, which makes it very different from Michael Gove's Manichean-flavoured one - of which the latter's view of foreign affairs is a reminder. This helps to explain why, although the Prime Minister and Education Secretary are friends, Gove almost certainly won't be sent to the Foreign Office in any second Cameron-led government. It's true that in opposition, Cameron tilted towards an interventionist-sceptic view of the world, and in government has tiled away from it again, as his actions in Libya and aspirations for Syria show. However, this makes him even less likely than before to send Gove to King Charles Street. He needs a Foreign Secretary who can sell intervention, if necessary, to a instinctively resistant Party - a role that William Hague could have played over Syria had he indicated more caution than the Prime Minister. The Education Secretary is not that person. If that second Cameron-led Government happens, Gove will be a candidate for the Home and not the Foreign Office.

Continue reading "Gove's passion: for schools, Syria - and democracy everywhere" »

1 Sep 2013 08:37:46

This is democracy - it's good for all of us, so get used to it

By Mark Wallace
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CommonsIn my view, Parliament made a mistake on Thursday. In fact, it made the latest mistake in an series of mistakes Britain has been making for two years.

Had we helped to protect innocent Syrians at the start of the conflict, rather than waiting while Assad slaughtered a hundred thousand of his own people and drove the survivors into the arms of extremists, then things would be very different today.

As it is, we will continue to sit on our hands, like people peering through their curtains while someone is murdered in the street outside. I wrote the other day that we may well say "Never again", yet again, as a result - and come to regret allowing yet another massacre of the type we promised and failed to prevent in Bosnia and Rwanda.

However, it is right that this was Parliament's mistake to make. The Conservative manifesto in 2010 promised that Royal Prerogative powers would be subject to greater democratic oversight, and so they now are. War costs lives and money, but it also changes our national identity in fundamental ways - the people's representatives, not just the Prime Minister, must have a say in deciding to engage in it.

Continue reading "This is democracy - it's good for all of us, so get used to it" »

31 Aug 2013 19:35:29

Obama seeks Congress approval for military action in Syria

By Harry Phibbs
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David Cameron has set a trend. President Barack Obama is to seek Congressional approval for military action against the Syrian regime:

I'm confident in the case our government has made without waiting for U.N. inspectors.  I'm comfortable going forward without the approval of a United Nations Security Council that, so far, has been completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable.  As a consequence, many people have advised against taking this decision to Congress, and undoubtedly, they were impacted by what we saw happen in the United Kingdom this week when the Parliament of our closest ally failed to pass a resolution with a similar goal, even as the Prime Minister supported taking action.

Yet, while I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective.  We should have this debate, because the issues are too big for business as usual.  And this morning, John Boehner, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell agreed that this is the right thing to do for our democracy.

Will Congress approve? Public opinion is split. However while most oppose "boots on the grounds", that is not what is proposed. A poll found that action "limited to airstrikes using cruise missiles launched from U.S. naval ships that were meant to destroy military units and infrastructure that have been used to carry out chemical attacks," had 50 percent support while 40 percent opposed.

Furthermore, generally the Republican criticism of President Obama is of being too soft on the Assad regime.

The House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said in June:

"Despite the President's rhetoric and red lines, President Assad's brutal assault on his own people and the Syrian conflict has only become more violent.

"I have heard loudly and clearly from our closest partners in the region who are desperate for American leadership. They see the Syrian crisis spinning out of control, empowering Iran, and fueling instability in a critical region.

"My colleagues and I stand ready to work with the President. I call on President Obama to explain to the Congress and the American people his plan to bring this conflict to an end in a manner that protects the interests of the United States and our allies."

The minority Democrats leader Nancy Pelosi has also been pressing for military action.

The Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, has yet to make his views clear. The Republican Minority leader in the Senate, Senator Mitch McConnell has criticised President Obama for not being tougher on the Syrian regime.

If the President can carry most of the Democrats I can't see him losing the vote given the general stance of the Republicans.

The President is certainly giving a clear message:

Our intelligence shows the Assad regime and its forces preparing to use chemical weapons, launching rockets in the highly populated suburbs of Damascus, and acknowledging that a chemical weapons attack took place.  And all of this corroborates what the world can plainly see -- hospitals overflowing with victims; terrible images of the dead.  All told, well over 1,000 people were murdered. Several hundred of them were children -- young girls and boys gassed to death by their own government.

This attack is an assault on human dignity.  It also presents a serious danger to our national security. It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.  It endangers our friends and our partners along Syria’s borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons, or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm.

In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted.