Iain Dale: On my radio show, I asked Salmond who he would side with out of Putin or Biden. Can you guess his answer?

16 Apr

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the ‘For the Many’ podcast with Jacqui Smith.

On Wednesday night I interviewed Alex Salmond for half an hour. I think it was the first lengthy broadcast interview he has done recently.

He and I have history. Back in 2015-16 he used to come into the studio once a week and we’d co-host a phone-in together. I knew him a bit anyway and it went quite well. We had a few rumbustious exchanges along the way and the listeners liked it. I have always respected him as a canny political operator and I always relished our half hour combat sessions.

And then he joined RT (Russia Today). We fell out over that. I could not for the life of me understand how a former First Minister could lend credibility to a Kremlin front organisation. His defence was that his programme was independently made and free of editorial influence from the RT bosses. Up to a point, Lord Copper.

Just by appearing on the channel he gave it credibility. And if he couldn’t see that, he was clearly content in being the Kremlin’s tame puppy. Although the interview was about the Scottish elections I made it clear that I wouldn’t do it if any subjects were off limits, and credit to him, he didn’t lay down any conditions at all.

So I asked him if he would say Putin or the Kremlin were behind the Salisbury attacks. I asked him what he thought 85,000 Russian troops were doing on the border of Ukraine. I asked him if he thought the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny had been poisoned by the Russian State. Answers came there none. Just a flow of evasiveness.

I then asked if he had to side with Putin or Biden, which would it be? 99 per cent of the British population would only give one answer to that, but even on this, Salmond was equivocal. I didn’t need to ram home the point. People could draw their own conclusions.

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The Greensill scandal shows no sign of abating, with fresh revelations emerging almost every day.

David Cameron will no doubt have been very happy to see someone else copping some flak, in the form of Bill Crothers. Shockingly, he was working for Greensill while also being in charge of procurement in the Cabinet Office in the very area Greensill was operating in.

I’ve been around the political lobbying world for 30 years, and am very aware of some of the more unsavoury practices, but this one genuinely floored me.

How on earth can that be allowed to happen, and it if happened with Crothers, who is to say that the practice isn’t more widespread?

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On Wednesday night we had Fay Jones, the Conservative MP for Brecon & Radnorshire, on the Cross Question panel.

What a breath of fresh air. She answered questions fluently, without trying to avoid difficult issues and displayed a great sense of humour too. One to watch.

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The last time I was able to go to my house in Norfolk was at the beginning of November. I have a feeling I wrote at the time about how the A11 was shut at Thetford due to roadworks. On Wednesday night I was very excited to be going back again. Some degree of normality, it seemed, was about to resume.

Boy was I right. Five months on, and the A11 was still shut overnight at Thetford! Unbelievable. I’ve heard of Groundhog Day, but this is ridiculous. It’s like the Highways Agency is on a mission to cut Norfolk off from the rest of the country. But then again, there are quite a few people in Norfolk who would be quite happy for that to happen!

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In my job, I get very little time to read for pleasure. Most things I read because I have to, rather than because I choose to.

But there’s nothing I like more than a good political diary. In the last few weeks I’ve completed the Chips Channon diaries and now I’m in the middle of Alastair Campbell’s dairies volume eight, covering 2010-15, and I’m also a third of the way through Alan Duncan’s diaries.

They are all incredibly different, but all equally enjoyable. And in the case of the last two, you need to put any preconceived ideas to one side. Both Campbell and Duncan have certain reputations, but what you get here is a raw contemporary account of events.

Campbell’s book is in parts intensely emotional and if you don’t know him personally, you’ll be astonished at how open and honest he is about his state of mind, motivations and his relationship with his partner and children. You don’t need to have read the previous seven volumes to enjoy volume eight, but I guarantee if you read volume eight, you’ll line the others up too.

Sarah Ingham: After the Batley protests and on this Easter Saturday, a case for tolerating religious belief

3 Apr

Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant.

It says much about religion in this country that, during Holy Week, the Archbishop of Canterbury intervened in the ongoing row about freedom of speech and Islam.

The head of the Anglican Communion told La Repubblica: “We have to be open to hearing things we really dislike.” Justin Welby spoke as the storm over faith and free speech continued. It was sparked by a cartoon image of Mohammed which was allegedly shown to students during a religious studies lesson at Batley Grammar School.

As protestors gathered outside the school gates at the end of last week, the teacher involved was suspended and is currently in hiding. He reportedly fears that he and his family will be killed. A spokesman for the Batley Parents and Community Partnership, Yunus Linat, stated that the image was offensive and Islamophobic. Their children should be able to attend school “without having their faith – which is protected in law – or their culture, ridiculed, insulted or vilified”.

For those defending freedom of expression, there is no reason in heaven or on earth why faith should not be ridiculed, insulted or vilified. The sacred must take its chances with the profane. In a letter to Gavin Williamson, Toby Young of the Free Speech Union called for the Department of Education’s guidance on British values to be amended to ensure free speech is prioritised.

In Britain, ‘we don’t do God’ too much. Should we go to church, most are not C of E, but C and E; Christmas and Easter. This is confirmed by the Church of England’s Statistics for Mission. It reports that in 2019, on average 690,000 attended Sunday services, but 1.1 million went to church at Easter, while 2.3 million did so at Christmas, when one third of received Communion.

Perhaps swayed by Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair didn’t “do God” until after he left office. Of recent Prime Ministers, only Theresa May seemed entirely comfortable with public displays of faith. Regularly caught on camera leaving her parish church, the middle-England, Waitrose-shopping vicar’s daughter perfectly embodies the description of the Church of England being ‘the Tory party at prayer’.

Looking like a man born to read a lesson at Matins, David Cameron famously said his faith came and went, a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns. In the Church Times, he also wrote about the Church of England being rooted in the fabric of nation. Describing churches in his Witney constituency that ‘take your breath away with their beauty, simplicity and serenity’, he called for Anglicans ‘to be more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.’

Since the Batley cartoon controversy broke, many commentators have rushed to the barricades to defend freedom of speech. Notably absent from the articles and blogs is any reproduction of the offending image, which allegedly first appeared in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015. Given that it led to the 12 people being shot dead, it is unsurprising that few are in any hurry to reprint: je ne suis pas Charlie.

For the commentariat to treat this cartoon as radioactive but then demand it be shown in schools is baffling. It is almost as baffling as the clumsy decision to include it in a lesson plan, especially after the execution of French teacher Samuel Paty last October, after it was mendaciously claimed that he showed images of the Prophet to his students.

Ten years ago, the 2011 Census seemed to highlight a move away from religion – or more accurately, from Christianity. Some 14 million people in England and Wales – 25 per cent – answered ‘No Religion’, up from 7.7 million in 2001. About 2.7 million people identified as Muslim, up from 1.5 million in ten years. Although the number of those identifying as Christian had dropped since 2001, it still stood at 33.2 million, accounting for 59 per cent of those who replied.

As we await the results of the 2021 Census, its predecessor probably did little to gladden the heart of zealous atheist Professor Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion. A decade ago, its findings underlined that Britain is a Christian country, but one where, with his usual prescience, Prince Charles was correct in talking about being a future defender of faiths.

Much of the comment surrounding recent events at Batley Grammar School has vilified sincerely held religious belief, while suggesting that British values are under threat. But many consider that the foremost British value which they hold dear is tolerance – which includes tolerating the creeds of others.

As the Archbishop stated, “Exercise your freedom of speech but don’t prevent other people exercising their freedom of speech”. He reminded us that the blasphemy laws were abolished comparatively recently, with the support of the Church. Blasphemy, he suggested, is “morally a bad choice, in the sense of denigrating other people’s faith in a bad way, but it should not be a criminal matter”.

Tolerance should be extended to the couple of dozen demonstrators who made their noisy protest outside the Batley school gate: equally those protestors should reciprocate that tolerance. Perhaps this weekend, above all, they should reflect on the Christian message of forgiveness.

Happy Easter. As the late, great comedian Dave Allen used to say, may your God go with you.

Iain Dale: How many Cabinet members would your fantasy Cabinet. I count five. And it gets worse.

20 Aug

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to defend what’s happened over the last week or ten days with exam results.

Clustershambles doesn’t really cover it. And the trouble is that it has affected a huge number of people, not just the students and teachers concerned, but their parents and grandparents too.

Add them up, and we’re talking several million people, I imagine. Like the Dominic Cummings’ Barnard Castle trip, it’s had cut-through.

The latest YouGov poll, out on Wednesday should a four point dip in the Tory ratings to 40 per cent. While that is still a two point lead, it’s not difficult to imagine that next week Labour could be ahead for the first time in, well, many years.

Optimists might point out that we are three and a half years away from a general election and that time is a great healer. Maybe, but once a Government gets a reputation for crass incompetence it is very difficult to shake off.

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It was reported by The Independent (yes, it still exists online) that Gavin Williamson offered his resignation on Monday, but that it was rejected by the Prime Minister. Only they know the truth of this, but it certainly hasn’t been denied by the beleaguered Education Secretary.

If he did indeed do the honourable thing, all credit to him. But surely if you resign, you, er, resign. It’s all very well for the Prime Minister to have said (if he in fact did), well, you got us into this, you get us out, but in the end once a politician loses the confidence of his or her client groups, it’s very difficult to get things back on an even keel.

Your Cabinet colleagues look at you as a dead man walking. Your enemies can’t wait until your inevitable denouement, and your “friends” melt away at the first whiff of grapeshot. If you’re going to survive, you don’t have long to plan how to do it. In Williamson’s case, he has until Christmas, given that I am led to understand that the reshuffle is now planned for January.

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The trouble with this Cabinet is that it has a distinctly second-rate feel about it. How many of them would make it into a Thatcher or Major cabinet. Very few, I would venture to suggest.

I interviewed Alastair Campbell on Wednesday (it will be on the Iain Dale All Talk podcast next Wednesday), and he reckoned that most of the current crew wouldn’t have even made it to Minister of State in Mrs T’s day.

Do it yourself. Go through the whole cabinet, and think how many of them would make your own fantasy cabinet. I just did so and came up with a total of five. Lamentable.

But it gets worse. Look down the list of Ministers of State – the ministers who would normally be next in line for the cabinet. I count five that are cabinet material. This is a dire state of affairs.

But it gets even worse. Normally you have a range of former ministers who you could think about bringing back to add a bit of weight and gravitas. Trouble is, most of them left Parliament at the last election. Looking at the greybeards on the Tory benches with cabinet experience you have Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis, John Redwood, Maria Miller, Greg Clark, Stephen Crabb, Liam Fox, Cheryl Gillan, Chris Grayling, Damian Green, Mark Harper, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Andrea Leadsom, Theresa May, Esther McVey, Andrew Mitchell, Owen Paterson and Theresa Villiers.

Now, how many of those could realistically be restored to cabinet status to bring something extra in terms of political weight, gravitas or character? I’ll leave that to your impeccable judgement.

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So far this year, I haven’t taken any holiday at all. However, next week I’m on holiday in Norfolk – apart from the fact that I’ll be writing this column, doing several podcasts and appearing on Any Questions.

I realised last week that I’ve lost the art of doing nothing. If I’m watching TV, I’ve got my laptop open and I will be flicking through Twitter or something.

Next week, I’m going to try to do some reading, and I mean reading for pleasure – not reading something because I have to for my job. Talking of which I have just done an hour-long interview for my Iain Dale Book Club podcast with Danny Finkelstein. He’s just published a book of his collected columns. What a truly fascinating man he is. The podcast will be released on Friday 4 September.

Rob Sutton: Top Tories on Twitter. Case Study 2) Johnny Mercer

30 Jun

Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

Number 11: Johnny Mercer

Mercer narrowly missed a spot in the top 10, and everyone ranked ahead of him is either a current or recent Secretary of State. For a Parliamentary Under-Secretary who has been in his first ministerial role for under a year, that’s an impressive achievement.

Before entering politics, Mercer did three tours of Afghanistan in the Army, retiring at the rank of captain. Unseating Labour’s Alison Seabeck in Plymouth Moor View at the 2015 general election, he has grown his parliamentary majority from just 2.4 per cent to 29.2 per cent.

His posts can be playful and self-effacing. When one of his campaign boards was vandalised with expletives, he took the opportunity to make a light-hearted video about it. His interactions with other members in the House feel more like office banter than the work of a national legislature.

They can also take a more serious tone. He entered Parliament as a man on a mission and is quite happy to ruffle some feathers along the way. He recently shared a scathing attack on Alastair Campbell. A post mocking Jeremy Corbyn received almost 20,000 likes. A fight with local newspaper the Plymouth Herald went viral. And a confrontation with a constituent who had allegedly spat at a young female Conservative campaigner is one of his most popular posts.

This skill in picking battles has carried over into his parliamentary career. He withdrew his support for Theresa May late during her tenure and was an early backer of Boris Johnson’s leadership bid. This loyalty translated into his first ministerial appointment,

Mercer has seen his political clout and parliamentary majority grow steadily in just five years. It seems entirely possible that he’ll be a Secretary of State five years from now.