Profile: Penny Mordaunt. Ambitious, socially liberal, sacked, then rehabilitated, restive, military-flavoured – and on manoeuvres.

25 May

Last Tuesday, Penny Mordaunt triumphed at the Dispatch Box. In a speech lasting three minutes and 46 seconds she demolished Angela Rayner.

According to Henry Deedes, sketching the contest for The Daily Mail,

“You’d struggle to find a more elegant piece of skewering among Marseille’s finest kebabists.”

Rayner claimed that ministers “act like the rules are for other people”, and have repeatedly broken those rules. Mordaunt replied with icy self-possession:

“The right hon. Lady has made particular accusations today about colleagues, and I want to make a final point, Mr Speaker. If you were to take every single MP she has made an allegation about this afternoon, if you were to look at all the political donations they have received since the pandemic started, since January 2020, and if you were to add them all up and then double them—no, quadruple them—you would just about match what the right hon. Lady herself has received in the same time period. She should thank her lucky stars that we do not play the same games that she does.”

This sounded just the kind of point Michael Gove might have made had he been defending the Government, and some good judges even saw “Michael’s hand” in these words.

Rayner, who now rejoices in the title of shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, had supposed she would be taking on Gove, who is in many ways the most formidable debater on the Government benches.

It was instead Mordaunt, as Paymaster General, outside the Cabinet but a Cabinet Office minister, who was given the chance to remind Conservatives that she too is a considerable Commons performer, and can be relied on to carry the fight to the Opposition.

As ConHome noted in an earlier profile of her, published in March 2016 and predicated on the possibility that she might be a future leader:

“Mordaunt has a go-for-it mentality, which emerges at quite frequent intervals in her career, and is accompanied by a gift for publicity.”

She followed up her Commons performance with a piece in last week’s Daily Telegraph in which she mounted a bold defence of the Government’s record during the pandemic:

“I am proud to be part of this Government and to serve under such a determined, resilient, and popular leader…

“We…prioritised community assets over individual freedoms. The Government’s decision to protect the NHS and save lives was reminiscent of Churchill’s response to the U boat threat. He instinctively recognised that it was the one thing that could really hurt us.

“This is where the Prime Minister deserves personal praise. As someone who is an instinctive libertarian, he made the most difficult decision of his career.”

Her comparison with the Second World War was marred by a horrible blunder, when she described the Battle of El Alamein in 1942 as “the first and last victory of the war that was fought chiefly with British leadership”.

It fell to the present Viscount Slim to remind her that in Burma “the largest British-led campaign of the Second World War” began in 1942, and involved at its height a mainly Commonwealth army of 1.25 million personnel, which nicknamed itself the Forgotten Army, and which, unfortunately, was forgotten by Mordaunt, a former Defence Secretary.

What do Boris Johnson, Bill Gates, Elton John, Tony Blair, Ruth Davidson, Richard Curtis, Richard Branson, Kim Leadbeater, Michael Dobbs, Malcolm Rifkind, Peter Hennessy and Anthony Seldon have in common?

All of them have provided puffs for Mordaunt’s new book, Greater: Britain After The Storm, written with Chris Lewis and published last Thursday.

Blair described it as “uplifting and highly readable”, Branson said it is “utterly uplifting and inspiring”, Curtis settled for “really readable and funny”, while Johnson’s verdict is “loving, invigorating and delivered with characteristic wit”.

One may doubt whether these critics found either the time or the inclination to read the whole book, for like almost all such manifestos, it is sprinkled with ludicrous assertions.

On an early page, the American Ambassador to London, Woody Johnson, is said to have given a speech which is “shorter than the Gettysburg Address and just as powerful”.

In a later chapter, Parliament is dismissed as “about as out of touch with a modern democracy as it’s possible to be”, and some shoot-from-the-hip proposals are made for reform of the Lords and Commons, which earned the book a short write-up in The Sunday Times.

But the point of such a book is not to show literary merit. It is generally written to demonstrate the fitness of the author to be leader, a role reckoned to require energy, vision and grim determination, all of which are needed to get a book finished.

Anyone who would like to see Mordaunt display those qualities in shorter form is referred to her piece in September 2018 for ConHome entitled The twelve new rules of politics, and also to her piece in May 2019 entitled It’s time for servant leadership that will listen to the people.

Mordaunt supported Leave in the EU Referendum of 2016, but saw the need afterwards to bring the two sides together.

Theresa May made her Minister of State for Disabilities from 2016-17, put her in the Cabinet as International Development Secretary from 2017-19, and promoted her to the role of Defence Secretary from May to July 2019.

This was a highly suitable post for her, given her service background, outlined in the earlier ConHome profile. Even as Defence Secretary she continued as a Royal Navy reservist, a combination of roles which the Navy found, in the words of one of her colleagues, “mildly uncomfortable”, for she was both extremely senior and rather junior.

By this stage, May’s prime ministership was tottering to its close, and having established that despite her ConHome pieces, she did not have enough support to run for the leadership herself, Mordaunt decided to back Jeremy Hunt, and became a member of his campaign team.

Had Hunt won, she could have expected a senior Cabinet post. But although he got to the final two, he lost heavily to Johnson, who proceeded to sack Mordaunt.

She might have gone off to chair a select committee, the role taken by Hunt himself.  But instead she set to work on her book, and in the reshuffle of February 2020 accepted the post of Paymaster General, well below her previous level.

“I’m sure that Boris has told her if she’s helpful she can come back [into the Cabinet],” a former minister told ConHome. “But Boris tells everyone that.”

“I’m a big fan,” another former minister said. “I would have thought she would be an absolutely prime candidate for promotion to the Cabinet. There’s an awful lot of talent in the party, but I’d put her top of my list.”

“She’s very determined, very ambitious and generally very competitive,” a third ex-minister said, contemplating her chances of one day becoming leader. “But I don’t know how far she has been able to ingratiate herself with the 2019 intake.”

Because of the pandemic, nobody has been able to woo that intake much.

Mordaunt has a headstrong quality, and has on a considerable number of issues defied the Government line. Last summer she said there were many “inconsistencies” in Dominic Cummings’ account of his visit to Barnard Castle, and accused him of undermining the Government’s key public health messages.

She is a resolute social liberal, and in March told the Commons that ‘transmen are men and transwomen are women’, a position far in advance of Government policy.

At about the same time, she defied the Government line by meeting the Muslim Council of Britain.

So she could already have been fired for insubordination. Perhaps this accounts for the more loyal tone she has recently struck, though that could also proceed from the realisation that Johnson is on course to emerge strengthened from the pandemic, which means the best she can hope for is to get back into the Cabinet, which in turn will only happen if she convinces the Prime Minister that she is loyal.

David Alton: The horror of this day, Good Friday, is a horror for our times

2 Apr

Lord Alton of Liverpool is a Crossbench Peer.

Without the certainties of Easter, there would be little cause to describe this day, this Friday, as “Good.” The origins and etymology of the word have been lost in the mists of time, but scholars suggest that its meaning is rooted in the use of good as a representation of holy or pious. In old English it was called “Long Friday” and in the East is sometimes known more graphically as Black Friday.

Whether you believe, or not, the story of this Friday was the story of a bad day for justice: an unjust trial, the violent use of torture, the degrading of human dignity. Mel Gibson left no doubt about the full horror of crucifixion in “The Passion of the Christ”. The harrowing detail is disturbing but undoubtedly accurate. The Romans perfected the art of the slow death and inflicted excruciating pain – intensified by scourging designed to lacerate and expose a man’s wounds.

The crucifixion of an innocent man is an old story, yes, but one that still stirs vast numbers of people. It’s a story with contemporary resonance.

More than two billion people world-wide today identify as Christian and, even in the UK, almost two thirds of the country (33.2 million people) describe themselves as Christian. With 84 per cent of the global population identifying with a religious group – and as the demographics of belief are  weighted in favour of the young  – the world has been getting more religious, not less.

For the non-believer, the religious beliefs of their acquaintances can seem incomprehensible and  threatening. But it cuts both ways.

How we accommodate one another, how we negotiate each other’s beliefs – or lack of them – and how we learn to live alongside each other, with genuine respect for difference, is a defining question for our times. It’s also one our forebears had to address..

In 1948, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and the abject failure to counter a murderous ideology rooted in the hatred of difference, world leaders promulgated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the Convention on the Crime of Genocide. As international institutions have fallen into disrepair, the declarations and treaties – and the duties and obligations which flow from them – need urgent renewal and recalibration.

The UDHR was the civilised world’s response to the infamies of the twentieth century—from the Armenian genocide to the depredations of Stalin’s gulags and Hitler’s concentration camps; it emerged from warped ideologies that elevated nation and race. The Declaration’s stated objective was to realise, “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”.

The four great murderers of the 20th century—Mao, Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot—were united by their hatred of religious faith. It was the bloodiest century in human history with the loss of 100 million lives. And now, in the twenty-first century, often in the name of a religion, millions more have died or been forced to flee their homelands.

Article 18 of the UDHR asserts the right to believe, not to believe,  or to change your belief. It’s a good place to start on a day like this. A defence of the article ought to unite believers and non-believers alike  – and might provide a common platform from which to call out those who violate so many of the other 30 Articles in the UDHR.

In 2019, having read The Times leader writer’s description of our muted response to such anti-Christian persecution as the actions of “spectators at the carnage”, Jeremy Hunt took the well-judged step of commissioning an independent review of the evidence.

The Truro Report concluded that “the level and the nature” of  the persecution of hundreds of millions of Christians was in some regions “arguably coming close to meeting the international definition of genocide.”

Turn a blind eye, pretend you didn’t know, and the persecution leads to atrocity crimes; turn a blind eye, and it becomes open season on believers of all faiths; turn a blind eye, and every one of the other 30 Articles in the UDHR will be breached too.

That we still avert our gaze and have much more to do can be seen in these snapshots from the past few days.

Last weekend, on Palm Sunday, radicals acting, not for the first time, in the name of religion, laid bombs in a church – this time in Makassar in eastern Indonesia, injuring twenty people.

This week, the most important in the Christian calendar, is a favourite target of jihadists. Recall the Easter Day bombings in Sri Lanka in 2019, and the Easter murders of church goers in Lahore’s Gulsha-i-Iqbal Park, picnicking after their Service.

But for many the agonies of Good Friday are a daily occurrence.

Think of Northern Nigeria where Leah Sharibu, a young schoolgirl, remains in the hands of Boko Haram, having been abducted, raped, forcibly converted, and married. Since last Easter, more than 3,000 Christians have been killed in Nigeria – a country which last year received an average of £800,000 in UK aid every single day.

In Pakistan, another Commonwealth country, Maria Shahbaz is just one of around 1,000 Christian and Hindu girls, aged between 12 and 25, who are abducted annually – with impunity. Ten years ago, Shahbaz Bhatti, the Christian Minister for Minorities, was assassinated. No one has been brought to justice. During the same period, Pakistan has been in receipt of £3 billion of UK aid, little of which reaches beleaguered minorities.

In Burma, the illegal military junta is stoking the fires of religious nationalism, targeting ethno-religious minorities such as Christian Kachin and Karen, and Muslim Rohingyas.  The appointment of my friend, Dr Sasa, an ethnic Chin, and a Christian, as the international envoy of Burma’s elected Parliamentarians.

Think, too, of the personal Calvaries of China’s religious minorities: the genocide against Uyghur Muslims; the incarceration of Christians in Hong Kong;  Tibet’s suffering Buddhists;  murdered Falun Gong practitioners ; bulldozed churches and arrested pastors – such as Pastor Wang Yi of Early Rain Church, now serving nine years in prison.

In neighbouring North Korea, another atheistic regime has created  what a UN report describes as “a State without parallel” .  A North Korean escapee from one of the concentration camps was a witness at a hearing I chaired in Westminster. She told us: “They tortured the Christians the most”.

These stories can be replicated in many other jurisdictions, from Sudan to Iran, Eritrea to Iraq – where genocide was the fate of Christians, Yazidis and other minorities.

The man who coined the word “genocide” was the Jewish Polish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, and his work led to the Genocide Convention. He  argued that “international co-operation” was needed, “to liberate mankind from such an odious scourge”.

As a Treaty signatory we are committed to prevent, protect, and punish. But as Parliament has made clear in recent weeks these promises have been honoured mainly in their breach. William Hague was right to say there is a significant “gap between the commitments States have made and the reality of their actions.”

Both the Genocide Convention and Article 18 of the UDHR  are secular documents.  They could still offer the best hope to the religious and non religious alike. Along with better focused and prioritised practical help, through UK aid programmes, we really could turn the tables.

On a day when we remember an unjust trial, the violent use of torture, the degrading of human dignity, and judicial murder, we  might ask whether we march to such a very different tune, too often acquiescing in the shedding of innocent blood?

Good Friday was a bad day for humanity – but even the most monstrous crimes don’t have to be the final word. Beyond the Cross is an empty tomb, giving reassurance, meaning and perspective to our seemingly endless ability to inflict wounds and suffering on one another.

Rehman Chishti and Knox Thames: Freedom of religion is under threat. Trans-Atlantic efforts can combat that.

12 Oct

Rehman Chishti is an MP and the former UK Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on FoRB. Knox Thames served as the US Special Advisor on Religious Minorities at the State Department for both the Obama and Trump administrations.  

The United States and the United Kingdom have worked closely on joint efforts to promote freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) worldwide. It’s a reflection of our shared values, and the partnership presents a unique opportunity for joint action. And the time to act is now.

Religious repression is at all-time highs, with the Pew Forum reporting 84 per cent of the global community lives in countries with high or very high restrictions on faith practices. That’s not to say everyone is persecuted, but that the space for freedom of conscience is shrinking. People of all faiths and worldviews are affected by these trends, which have implications beyond human rights, including international security and the growth of violent religious extremism.

Solving a problem this large requires diverse coalitions. Through our work, we recognised the substantial advantages of partnerships with like-minded governments. Thankfully, there is unprecedented interest in a new trans-Atlantic effort to promote this fundamental freedom.

In the UK, the Truro report, launched the day after Christmas in 2018 by Jeremy Hunt, the then UK Foreign Secretary, specifically examined persecuted Christians. The report found troubling examples of Christian persecution, but noted that other communities also suffer, and recommended Her Majesty’s government do more to assist all persons persecuted for their beliefs. I (Chishti) was tasked with setting the 22 recommendations into policy, getting 17 into place before leaving office.

In the US, the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 created a special ambassador at large on the issue and office, as well as required the annual reporting on religious freedom conditions worldwide. During the Trump administration, the State Department convened two ministerial-level summits that elevated the issue and launched a new Alliance to bring together the most committed countries on advancing religious freedom for all.

We both believe that holistically advocating for everyone’s right, as opposed to singularly focused on just one community, is the best approach. We grounded our activities in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects freedom of conscience, the right to change faith or have no faith, meet alone or with others for worship, and share one’s religious views. While, of course, we should speak out when individual groups face persecution, we must do so in the context of advocating for the right of religious freedom for all. A balanced approach focused on the right will ensure space for all beliefs.

Why? We’ve seen that it’s the most durable path to guaranteeing the right over the long haul. Environments where every individual is free to seek truth as their conscience leads is one where every community can thrive. In contrast, narrowly focused efforts, such as Christian persecution by Hungary or the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s concentration on Muslim persecution, will most likely fall short of their long-term goals. It’s not that Christian and Muslim persecution isn’t happening – it most definitely is, and we must speak out.

But an environment providing freedom of conscience for all will ensure that individual communities can survive in the future. Otherwise, we risk creating religious Bantustans of special exemptions or carve-outs benefiting specific groups.

Working closely with Sam Brownback, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, we instilled this approach into the new International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance and its founding charter. Alongside our Dutch and Brazilian counterparts, the UN Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed, and key civil society experts, we helped build an organisation of 30+ nations from different regional, political, and religious backgrounds. Of course, none of these countries are perfect, but they all agreed to uphold their Article 18 commitments at home and abroad, including contentious issues like conversion and free speech.

Working together with those committed to the same principles can meet the challenges of today. For instance, the Alliance devised new strategies to advocate for all, such as a statement on Covid to ensure that the pandemic doesn’t become a pretext to limit religious freedom. Another vital network we participated in with Canada – the International Contact Group for FoRB – was also grounded in this religious-freedom-for-all approach.

In the face of new challenges and opportunities, progress will depend on North American and European leadership. The challenges facing religious freedom are beyond the capabilities or influence of any one government or organisation. Fortunately, our common understanding creates a platform for coordinated and elevated activity. Now, in addition to the US and UK envoys, others exist in several countries and organisations: Canada, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, EU, the Netherlands, Norway, OSCE, Poland, Romania, Sweden, and the United Nations.

The time is right for a more assertive trans-Atlantic approach, but parliamentarians and governments must demonstrate a lasting commitment to the right. Freedom of thought, conscience, and belief isn’t a conservative or liberal value or some sideshow to other issues, but a fundamental human right relevant to people of all faiths and none worldwide. It deserves the full attention of the international community.

Pressing repressive governments toward reform will not be easy or costless. China is playing hardball, with its persecution of UighursTibetansChristians, and the pressuring of countries daring to speak out. Pakistan’s abusive blasphemy law is in overdrive, while India is taking a wrong turn against minorities. Burma’s genocide against the Rohingya grinds on, while Christians in Nigeria suffer from Boko Haram.

In response, networking efforts among like-minded allies can share the burden and multiply the effectiveness of bilateral engagements. For instance, sanctions and other corrective measures like the Magnitsky act, which our countries have implemented, can create political leverage to encourage change. Hopefully, others in Europe will follow. Speaking out on specific cases is another example, such as on Yemen or blasphemy laws. To further elevate, our countries can use our UN Security Council seats to press for reforms. We can share data and train diplomats. All European and North American countries can immediately response to atrocity crimes, including genocide, or establish early warning systems.

More action is desperately needed. Governments must take this human right seriously and incorporate concerns across their policies. People of faith must speak up for persecuted believers (and non-believers) from other communities, to stand in solidarity with the repressed. Religious leaders should tackle this issue head-on, using their pulpits to advocate for soul freedom of all.

Everyone speaking up for everyone, even outside their belief system, is most impactful for the global effort. By working together, as rights-respecting communities on each side of the Atlantic, we can make a difference.

Benedict Rogers: It’s time for Raab to bring Magnitsky sanctions to bear on those oppressing Hong Kong

25 Aug

Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch, co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.

It is not often that one sees Iain Duncan Smith, John McDonnell, Natalie Bennett, Andrew Adonis, Alistair Carmichael and the Scottish Nationalists on the same page.

Bringing the former Conservative Party leader and Brexiteer together with the former Labour Shadow Chancellor, the former Green Party leader, the former Labour minister and leading Remainer, the Liberal Democrats foreign affairs spokesperson, and two SNP MPs is an achievement – and as far as I can see it is Carrie Lam’s, the Hong Kong Chief Executive, only achievement.

Last week these politicians, together with David Davis, the former Brexit Secretary, Helena Kennedy, a leading human rights barrister and Labour peer, and 12 other Parliamentarians, wrote to the Foreign Secretary in support of calls for the imposition of targeted Magnitsky sanctions against Hong Kong and Chinese government officials responsible for grave human rights violations and a flagrant breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

Their letter follows a personal appeal to Dominic Raab by Nathan Law, the highest-profile pro-democracy activist to escape Hong Kong since the imposition of the new draconian national security law on 1 July.

In 2016, Law was elected Hong Kong’s youngest ever legislator, at the age of 23, but was disqualified the following year for quoting Mahatma Gandhi when he took his oath of office. He was then sentenced to eight months in jail for his role in leading the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement protests. In his letter, Law writes:

As a party to the legally binding Sino British Joint Declaration, the United Kingdom holds a unique position in advocating for Hong Kong. I earnestly hope that the UK government would take the important step to sanction Ms Carrie Lam and other officials involved, so to send a clear signal –– not just to Beijing, but also to other countries in the free world that we ought to stand firm against an oppressive regime which disrespects both their citizens’ rights and the international norms.  Please safeguard our shared belief in freedom and human rights as well as the pursuit of democracy in Hong Kong. Please stand with Hong Kong.”

Since the imposition of the national security law on Hong Kong by Beijing, Britain has responded robustly, by announcing a generous package to allow Hong Kongers who hold British National Overseas (BNO) passports to come to the UK on a “pathway to citizenship”, and by suspending our extradition agreement with Hong Kong. These are very welcome steps, but there is much more than needs to be done.

Although the new law has only been in place for less than two months, we are already seeing its dramatic impact on Hong Kong. The arrest of several prominent activists, particularly the entrepreneur and media proprieter Jimmy Lai, the police raid on his pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, and the arrest of Law’s colleague Agnes Chow and ITN reporter Wilson Li; the issuing of arrest warrants for six Hong Kong activists outside Hong Kong, including Law; and the banning of slogans, the withdrawal of pro-democracy books from libraries and the censorship of school textbooks; all indicate the end of Hong Kong’s autonomy under “one country, two systems” and the destruction of the city’s fundamental rights and freedoms.

It is right for the British Government to respond to events proportionately, and with a staggered approach. There is no point in firing all our ammunition in one go, and then having nothing left to deploy. But the events in Hong Kong in recent weeks require a response that goes beyond rhetoric. That’s why it is time for targeted sanctions.

The United States has already imposed its Magnitsky sanctions on Lam and other officials, but it is vital that the international community act in as united and co-ordinated a way as possible. Hong Kong must not become – or even be perceived to be – a pawn in a US-China fight, but rather as the front line in the fight for freedom and the international rules-based order.

For that reason, the rest of the free world has a duty to act, and as the co-signatory of the Joint Declaration guaranteeing Hong Kong’s continued autonomy, it is right that Britain should lead the way.

Our Magnitsky sanctions legislation is now in place, and so far 49 individuals from Russia, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Burma are on the list. Raab is one of the architects of this legislation – dating back to his days on the backbenches when he championed the idea – and he is said to regard it as a legacy issue. So he has every interest in ensuring that this sanctions regime is meaningful.

To do that, those responsible for dismantling freedoms in Hong Kong, once one of Asia’s most open cities, and the violation of an international treaty – as well as those perpetrating some of the 21st Century’s most egregious atrocity crimes against the Uyghurs – must be held to account. If Lam cannot be sanctioned for presiding over a year of shocking police brutality and repression, who can?

So the 19 Parliamentarians who signed this letter are right to declare: “We stand with Nathan in this appeal.” I do too, and I hope that the Foreign Secretary will act soon.