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.

‘We need to talk about the Union’: An inside look at the new group of Conservative MPs fighting for Britain

16 Oct

Amongst the many changes wrought by the pandemic, one which people might not have predicted has been the way it has brought the constitutional conflict back up to the boil.

For several years after the Brexit referendum the question of Scottish independence remained relatively quiescent, even as the SNP fought tooth and nail to prevent the UK’s exit from the European Union because of how difficult it made their ultimate ambition.

But the breakdown of the ‘four nations’ consensus on Covid-19 has changed all that. Less than a year out from crucial Holyrood elections, the Scottish Government continues to enjoy the ‘rally round the flag’ effect that Boris Johnson has lost (despite a growing laundry list of woes). Both Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford, her Welsh counterpart, are talking seriously about introducing internal movement restrictions inside the UK.

After decades of complacency and a blithe assumption that conceding more powers to Holyrood and Cardiff Bay could buy them off indefinitely, the Government has at least started to wake up to the scale of the challenge. The UK Internal Market Bill was a welcome sign that ministers were prepared to defend the legitimate role of Westminster in national life.

But there will be much more to do over the next few years – and the new Conservative Union Research Group aims to make sure the Party is equipped to do it.

CURG is the brainchild of Robin Millar, the newly-elected MP for Aberconwy in North Wales. A committed unionist – he set out his thinking on the Union in a recent piece for the Daily Express – he was spurred to organise after realising how badly devolution had affected government attitudes towards constituencies such as his. When raising questions about flooding, for example, a response from DEFRA was simply forwarded from the Welsh Government, and at one point the Secretary of State expressed sympathy only for English constituencies affected.

Millar says he isn’t an instinctive centraliser. He’s a fan of subsidiarity and pushed for greater local power whilst a county councillor in Suffolk. But whilst he might be sceptical about Westminster’s capacity to directly run North Wales, he believes that it has not lost its ultimate responsibility towards all British citizens – but, after decades of ‘devolve and forget’, that it sometimes forgets that.

After speaking to other Welsh colleagues, Millar reached out to MPs from other parts of the country including David Bowie, the MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine. The goal was to set up a “simple, focused, and open” group to help backbench Tory MPs (although there were ministers who wished to join) work more effectively in Parliament on Union issues.

Membership has reportedly grown “organically” since the launch, and as of today, the URG apparently counts more than 70 of them amongst its membership. Crucially, four fifths of these represent English constituencies.

Whilst the name obviously invites comparisons with the European Research Group, Millar is clear that the URG is not a “disgruntled caucus”. The Government’s stated goal is to defend the Union, and the URG intends to help.

The Committee: Selaine Saxby, Fay Jones, Robin Millar, Andrew Bowie, and James Davies.

One way of doing this is simply making sure that MPs know more about the Union. Many MPs don’t come into politics to talk about the constitution, and Millar ended up setting himself a lot of reading up over lockdown to make sure he was across the issues. That’s perhaps one reason why the URG is geared towards mobilising people with shared convictions, rather than advocating for a specific and detailed set of solutions.

In Parliament, the group will hopefully help pro-UK MPs to make better-informed and more coordinated interventions on relevant issues by preparing briefing notes and other support. The UK Internal Market Bill is an obvious example, but the URG leadership are keen to highlight that there is a Union dimension to a huge range of issues. Ministers aiming to raise the Government’s profile in devolved policy areas won’t disagree.

Over the longer term, Millar hopes the group will be able to hone the intellectual arguments unionists need to take on the separatists. This involves tackling misleading comparisons between the British and European unions, challenging misleading attacks on the ‘English Government’, defending Westminster’s role in overseeing legitimately UK-wide initiatives such as the Shared Prosperity Fund, and combating the idea that support for the Union is nostalgic or reactionary.

It also means pressing the SNP on the inconsistencies in their vision, including the increasingly salient question of whether territories such as Orkney and Shetland should have the right to go their own way in the event of an independence vote: “Where does separation stop?”

They might also try to persuade ministers to broaden and deepen their arguments against granting Sturgeon a re-run referendum after next year’s Holyrood election. Simply repeating the “once in a generation” mantra won’t be enough, but better arguments are available.

It is too soon to say what sort of ideas might come out of this process. But even if it just gets minds concentrated on the problem and people talking about the Union, the URG would be doing the Party and the country a service. For too long, nationalism has enjoyed the advantage of having permanently-established parties and caucuses focused exclusively on attacking the United Kingdom. It is past time that unionism counter-organised.