Garvan Walshe: Israel’s Jewish-Nationalist-Islamist-Securlarist coalition teeters on the edge of collapse.

9 Jun

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party.

It was hailed as an extraordinary achievement. After months of hard negotiations, a ground-breaking deal had been put together with radical implications for the country’s politics. It looked like years of political instability, in which frequent elections had failed to produce effective government, were finally over.

Now the coalition behind this government has run into major trouble. Rebels on both right and left threaten its majority in parliament. The Prime Minister, no longer the golden boy of the right, can’t even impose his will on his own party.

Things have become particularly sensitive in relation to the application of national law to territory that the government controls but has long been disputed in a centuries-old religious conflict, and to which previous governments had despatched settlers in order to hold onto the land.

The conflict evolved into a terrorist campaign that received support from Arab dictators and which had been thought to have been brought to an end by peace accords, guided by Bill Clinton, in the 1990s.

Yes, it’s been a tough week in the Knesset.

The extreme breadth of the current anti-Netanyahu Israeli administration, comprising everyone from the hardline Jewish nationalist Prime Minister, Nafthali Bennett, to the Islamist Ra’am party – with secularists, free market liberals, former IDF generals and Marxists in between – puts the Tories’ claim to a be a broad church in the shade.

To some surprise, the Israeli coalition weathered an outbreak of violence on the Temple Mount earlier in the spring, thanks to the skill of Foreign Minister (and leader of the largest party in the coalition) Yair Lapid, and a carefully designed system of mutual assured destruction-inspired clauses in the coalition agreement.

The latest coalition crisis concerns the renewal of emergency regulations applying Israeli law to Israeli citizens in the West Bank (specifically that part of it designated ‘area C’ under the Oslo Accords). Failure to do so would leave them under military law.  Actively supporting such a measure was too much for two lawmakers from the coalition’s left.

They didn’t think their opposition would matter because Netanyahu’s Likud party (in opposition) could be relied upon to support the measure, but the never knowingly unopportunist Bibi allowed the law to fail.  Previously a Knesset member from the coalition’s right-wing had stormed out over families being allowed to bring leavened goods for their relatives into public hospitals during Passover (Jewish law and tradition precludes its consumption). 

Though the government can survive without a majority (in Israel, an alternative Prime Minister must be chosen before the old one can be removed, and there’s no alternative candidate who can draw the 61 votes needed), it would have to rely on the support, or at least the abstention, of the Arab-led Joint List to get measures too. The concessions needed would in turn put strain on the coalition’s right wing.

Instead, efforts are being mounted to persuade the rebel MPs to resign their seats in exchange for support in upcoming mayoral contests.  In Israel, this would not require by-elections, as the seats would immediately be filled by the next representatives of the party list for which they stood.

Avoiding an election is of paramount importance for Lapid. Under the coalition agreement, Lapid, whose party holds the largest number of seats in the coalition, will replace Bennet (whose party has far fewer, but who was persuaded to desert Netanyahu by being offered two and half years as Prime Minister) as Prime Minister in August 2023. Bennett, too, knows that Netanyahu, whose raison d’être is to return to the premiership, would never offer him as good a deal as Lapid has. 

But the overriding reason to avoid an election is Netanyahu himself. Current polls put him and his allies at 59 seats (up from the 54 they hold now), and tantalisingly short of the majority they would need to re-install him in the Prime Minister’s Office and keep him out of the Jerusalem District Court where he is presently standing trial for corruption. Though no longer at the height of his powers, only a fool would underestimate his campaigning genius. Should the current Anyone-but-Bibi ensemble collapse under the weight of its diversity, he stands a good chance of being able to return. 

It remains to be seen however whether fear of Netanyahu’s return is enough to concentrate minds. Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas, who owes his position in the political mainstream to an unsuccessful attempt to govern with Netanyahu,  has indicated his willingness to face the voters again. 

Brenda from Be’ersheeva had better get worried. 

The post Garvan Walshe: Israel’s Jewish-Nationalist-Islamist-Securlarist coalition teeters on the edge of collapse. first appeared on Conservative Home.

Garvan Walshe: Elections produce a faint glimpse of hope after Lebanon’s lost decade

26 May

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative party

Two stories emerged from Lebanon’s election (held on May 15th): the loss of a pro-Hezbollah majority in parliament, and the emergence of a new group of younger politicians who want to shake up Lebanon’s post-civil war politics – an activity so badly organised that ‘dysfunction’ no longer serves to describe the inability of the state to maintain the country’s security, enforce the law, provide basic services, or even accountability for major disasters such as the port explosion of 2020.

Dating from the ‘National Pact’ of 1943, Lebanon’s was one of the earliest attempts to reconcile the majoritarian spirit of democracy with a religiously divided public, and a politics that channels religious identity into sectarian competition.

The country’s three main sects are Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims; the President must be Christian, the Prime Minister Sunni and the Speaker of Parliament Shia. Though this reflected the distribution of population and power in the 1940s, by the 1970s Shias had became more numerous and were demanding a greater share of power.

This set off the civil war of the late 1970s and 80s in which Israel and Syria intervened, with Iran-backed (Shia) Hezbollah eventually fighting an insurgency that forced the Israelis out in 2000.  Syrian garrisons stayed for five more years, until revulsion at the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the Prime Minister, made their continued presence untenable, in a peaceful uprising dubbed the ‘Cedar Revolution.’

Hariri was a property developer who made his fortune in Saudi Arabia and secured huge Saudi financing for Lebanon’s reconstruction after the Taif Accord ended the civil war in 1989.

Taif required all militias to give up their weapons. All except Hezbollah mostly complied – with Hezbollah keeping its arsenal in theory to fight Israel but, in reality, to project Iranian power and support Assad’s embattled regime.  Israel, for its part, continues to strike Hezbollah targets in Iran and Syria, though both Israel and Hezbollah try to avoid matters tipping over into a repeat of their inconclusive 2006 war. 

Ever since Hariri’s assassination, Lebanese politics has divided on pro- and anti-Hezbollah lines, with different Sunni and Christian factions jockeying for position, and neither side enjoying a decisive victory.

Most recently, Hezbollah, with its allies in Michel Aoun’s Christian ‘Free Patriotic Movement’, was able to command a parliamentary majority but couldn’t run the country’s institutions. Buffeted by the fall-out from Syria’s civil war (up to a fifth of the population are Syrian refugees), the pandemic, and unable to address these problems because of political gridlock, Lebanon’s economy is a shadow of its former self.

In 2020 a huge, though accidental, explosion of ammonium nitrate (a fertiliser notorious for use as an explosive) laid waste to Beirut’s port, killing 232 people and causing billions of pounds of damage.  Though no culprit has been officially identified, one does not need to be conspiracy theorist to draw inferences from the facts that Aoun blocked attempts to set up an international investigation, and Hezbollah supporters undertook violent protests against the local investigation in 2021.

This was the background against which this year’s parliamentary elections took place, the first test of public opinion since what is sometimes called Lebanon’s ‘October Revolution’ – the public protests against both pro- and anti-Hezbollah sides of the political establishments, which took place in 2019 but had the wind taken out of its sails by the pandemic. 

Many of the protest movement organisers set up new parties to contest this year’s poll, under an electoral system unfriendly to new formations. It aims for religious balance by assigning seats in each multi-member district to specific sects, so new parties need to field not only the right people, but the right people with the right religion in the right places. The established parties operate deep clientelist patronage networks, and vote buying is rife, further limiting breakthroughs.

Nevertheless, these new independents won 13 out of 128 seats. Though hardly enough to hold the balance of power, and likely to be excluded from coalition negotiations, their election at least gives hope that after the chaos and corruption of the last decade, some limited change and political accountability might at last be possible in Lebanon.

James Gurd: The deadly attacks in Israel as three great religious celebrations meet – Passover, Easter and Ramadan.

15 Apr

James Gurd is Executive Director of Conservative Friends of Israel.

News of the brutal terror attack at a busy bar in the heart of Tel Aviv broke during CFI’s first parliamentary delegation since the pandemic. The attack was the fourth such incident in little over a week – the deadliest in 15 years. Our week had been shaped by an inescapable question – was this the beginning of a Third Intifada?

Israelis have an inbuilt resilience to these sorts of tragic incidents. You will be hard pressed to find an Israeli that wasn’t affected in some way by the hundreds of Palestinian terror attacks during the Second Intifada of 2000-2005 which killed over a thousand. There is a growing feeling that something is again brewing.

The night of the Tel Aviv attack I was out and about along Jerusalem’s main Jaffa Street. The security presence was palpable and the city felt unusually quiet – a far cry from previous visits. Police cars patrolled the streets methodically at short intervals and armed police and soldiers were ever present.

The scene will have been similar across much of the country and is likely to continue for another few weeks yet as Israel experiences a rare confluence of three major religious festivals – Passover, Ramadan and Easter.

Ramadan has historically been a time of increased tensions and attacks, and the overlap with Passover and Easter has certainly added to the combustibility of this period. The approaching one-year anniversary of Israel’s latest conflict with the Hamas terror group, as well as Israel’s Independence Day (5th May), will likely serve as additional flashpoints down the line. This period of tension will not be abating any time soon.

The threat of attacks had been anticipated. Jordan – custodian of the holy Muslim sites in Jerusalem – had publicly hosted senior Israeli ministers ahead of the holidays and the two countries had been closely and publicly coordinating.

Israel, for its part, has waived permit restrictions for tens of thousands of Palestinian worshippers to visit the al-Aqsa Mosque on Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount throughout Ramadan. Israeli officials made no change to this policy in the wake of the attacks, perhaps mindful of Hamas’s long history of presenting any perceived Israeli restriction on access to al-Aqsa Mosque as a call to arms.

Hamas has chosen to dial up its rhetoric over Jerusalem regardless but it still seems unlikely that the group will initiate another round of conflict from the Gaza Strip. Less than a year ago, Gaza was the centre of the world’s attention as Israelis sheltered from thousands of rockets and Gazans endured another tragic conflict inflicted by their Hamas overseers. Today, there is relative calm.

In our recent briefing with the Israel Defense Forces on the border with Gaza, it was noted that Hamas was not ready for a major escalation as it was busy rebuilding after Israel delivered a heavy blow to its military capabilities. Hamas is even understood to be preventing rival terror groups – including Palestinian Islamic Jihad – from launching rockets into Israel. This threat level, as always, can change rapidly though.

For now, Hamas appears to be far more willing to unleash its extensive network of cells across the West Bank. A strategy of arms length violence works well for the group as it looks to jointly deliver fatal blows across Israel and threaten the rule of its fierce rival, the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority which governs the West Bank. As ever in the Middle East, Iran is usually no more than one-degree of separation away from any instability and as one of the Islamic Republic’s premier terror franchises it is likely that Hamas is being encouraged to agitate again now.

The PA is vehemently opposed to Hamas strengthening its position in the West Bank through a campaign of violence. 17 years into his four-year term, President Mahmoud Abbas and his PA old-guard are deeply unpopular among Palestinians for their well-documented corruption and there is a growing sense of malaise exacerbated by high-unemployment and stalled peace process. Polls indicate a worrying growth in support for violent acts, especially among younger Palestinians who now make up the majority of the population.

President Abbas may have been applauded by some commentators for his condemnation of two recent terror attacks – albeit under pressure from Jordan and the U.S. – but his Fatah party hasn’t hesitated to celebrate the attacks and their perpetrators. The families of the ‘martyrs’ are even set to be honoured with financial support; one of the deplorable practices which may have led the UK to recently freeze its aid to the PA.

Despite this, Israel is working with the PA’s UK-trained security services to stamp out the shared threat posed by Hamas-driven violence but appear to be having mixed success.

Much of the focus has been on the northern Palestinian city of Jenin where the perpetrators of two recent attacks came from. Regarded as the “capital of resistance” by Palestinians during the Second Intifada due to the many suicide bombers who came from the town, it has again become a hotbed for Hamas and PIJ fighters after the PA appeared to lose control of the area in recent years – although it remains unclear how orchestrated they have been. Israeli security services have reportedly foiled further terror attacks originating in the area but its ongoing security operations in Jenin have led to a series of fatal clashes and firefights which are likely to escalate further.

It is a combustible situation, and will likely spread elsewhere in the West Bank and into Jerusalem. Religious fervour has already seen the desecration of Joseph’s Tomb – a holy Jewish and Muslim site – by Palestinian protestors.

Israel seems to have been less prepared for another dynamic – the possibility of attacks claimed by so-called Islamic State. The Jewish state hasn’t been a major focus of the group and yet two of the recent attacks were undertaken by Arabs living within Israel that had pledged allegiance to the group. It remains to be seen whether IS will seek further attacks in Israel, but Hamas and PIJ are certainly committed to doing so.

The uncertainty over what happens next is looming large. There is a great deal at stake for regional stability in the tense days ahead. While Israelis contend with that inescapable and fraught question over a possible Third Intifada, the world is rightly focused on the Russian onslaught in Ukraine. If events continue to escalate though it may not be long be another international crisis erupts. As ever in the Middle East, unpredictability is the only predictable thing.

John C Hulsman: Britain should abandon Obama’s failed approach to the Middle East

30 Mar

Dr John C Hulsman is the Founder and Managing Partner of John C Hulsman Enterprises, a global political risk firm. He is also a life member of the US Council on Foreign Relations.

“Just when I thought I was out they pull me back in!” So bemoaned the put-upon mobster Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III.

After spending decades at the head of his crime family, all the Don wants to do in his twilight years is to leave behind his unsavory past, allowing the next generation of Corleones free to enjoy the fruits of his ill-gotten gains from a perch of respectability. Of course, as is true in both art and life, escaping from one’s past is devilishly hard.

Presently, Michael’s fictional troubles are mirrored in the real world by British and American attempts to extricate themselves from the thankless Middle East, the political graveyard of both prime ministers and presidents alike.

Following Tony Blair’s ruinous neoconservative debacle in Iraq, both Boris Johnson and Joe Biden have come to power following what might be termed ‘The Barack Obama playbook’ for the region. Its thesis goes something like this:

‘The future of the world is in the Indo-Pacific, where much of the planet’s future risk (the brewing great power competition with China) and future reward (much of the globe’s future economic growth) are both located. As such, the UK and the US much pivot towards Asia and away from the Middle East.’

This is easier to accomplish because of the US shale revolution, which has amazingly transformed America from an energy mendicant to a superpower in a blink of a historical eye. Likewise, the UK gets much of its natural gas from Norway, about the safest political risk source of energy in the world.

In neither case is either great power overly dependent on the volatile Middle East, allowing both to rather easily turn away from this warlike, tempestuous region of thankfully declining importance.

This strategic diminution will see the UK and the US now functioning as off-shore balancing powers. Large-scale western military or diplomatic involvement would only be necessary in the Middle East if the five major regional powers (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, and Egypt) fail to sustain a local balance of power equilibrium in the region, and a general war breaks out, directly threatening western interests.

Short of this emergency, both the UK and the US can pivot towards the far more geopolitically, strategically, and economically important Indo-Pacific, leaving the Middle East backwater largely to its own devices.

As such, Iran must be brought in from the cold, being accepted as a fully-fledged player in the region, rather than as a pariah nation.

This has been British policy for years, embodied in London (along with Paris and Berlin) pushing hard for the reinstatement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal the West struck with Iran in 2015. In return for strict monitoring of its destabilizing nuclear programme, Tehran was relieved from the onerous burden of the very harsh sanctions the West had levied against it.

The Obama thesis was that with Iran rejoining the Middle East as an accepted regional power, the West can leave the region to its own devices, and then – with a modicum of stability ensured there – pivot to Asia. All this was upended by the volatile administration of Donald Trump, which abrogated the deal in 2018; London is now determined to reinstate it.

So far, so elegant. But in typical Obama fashion, this rational thesis does not survive contact with the real world for long.

First, the JCPOA (like most of the overrated ex-President’s agenda) is so much less than meets the eye. At its best, even its defenders acknowledge it merely kicks the can down the road, placing its hopes on a highly dubious strategic bet.

For while the sanctions relief offered by the UK and its allies have no set time limit, the strictures on Iran’s nuclear program surely do.

Several of the key sunset clauses in the original JCPOA run out by 2030. One of the main reasons opponents of the JCPOA, such as myself, opposed the agreement is that, by simply waiting things out, Iran legally pockets its economic winnings, gets rid of the sanctions and then can kick the inspectors out in 2030, re-starting its nuclear programme.

The inconvenient truth of the Obama playbook, backed by the UK, is that it is based on an unspoken strategic bet about changes to the internal workings of the still-revolutionary state of Iran.

Obama bet (almost surely wrongly) that by 2030 Tehran, now nestled in the international family of nations, will have modified its revolutionary behavior. If this is so, on its own volition it will choose not to alienate the rest of the world and try to break out and become an outlaw nuclear power.

However, the opposite seems to be the case. The country is still led by the fervently anti-western Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The day-to-day government is the most hard-line in Iran’s history, being led by President Ebrahim Raisi, ‘The Butcher of Tehran’. Likewise, both the parliament and the judiciary are currently as hard-line as has ever been the case since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

In other words, every single real world political risk fact contradicts the West’s overly-hopeful political risk bet on Iran’s mythical coming moderation.

Second, JCPOA is also a deal strictly limited to the nuclear realm; it has almost nothing to say about Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s (IRGC’s) wider efforts to construct a dominant, revisionist ‘Shia Crescent’ in the region, linking Tehran to Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

This anti-western power bloc has been on the march at the expense of Western allies, such as Israel and the Sunni-dominated Gulf monarchies. To ignore the rest of Iran’s strategic, anti-Western toolkit is to willfully miss the forest for the trees.

Recently, a third objection to the Obama playbook has emerged. Due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, energy is a pressing need again.

Johnson is rightly wooing Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the Saudi Crown Prince, with whom London has retained good ties (unlike Biden’s moralizing administration), to pump more oil to make up for the energy shock caused by the Ukraine war. A gormless Europe is at last awakening to the obvious fact that security of energy supply actually matters. It turns out that the Middle East is not such a strategic backwater, after all.

In other words, all the premises on which the Obama playbook regarding Iran – so slavishly followed by the present British Government – are demonstrably wrong. Iran is not moderating its political and strategic behavior; the narrow focus of the JCPOA does not overly hinder Iran’s revolutionary toolkit; and the Middle East itself has found a new strategic importance, given the world’s present energy shock.

Ironically, the best hope of scuppering a new JCPOA agreement may be the Iranians themselves.

Filled with a new confidence due to the Ukrainian war, as Tehran is all too well aware that the West is desperate to pivot to Europe and Asia as its main strategic preoccupations to deal with great powers Russia and China, at the last minute Iran is driving a very hard bargain with its western interlocutors. Demanding that the IRGC be taken off the US’s foreign terrorist list may amount to a bridge too far for even pliant western negotiators.

One can only hope Tehran overplays its hand; for the UK has made a great error in following the Obama playbook.

Robin Millar: History teaches us that appeasing aggression only fuels more aggression. It’s a lesson we must apply to Ukraine.

26 Jan

Robin Millar is the MP for Aberconwy.

Earlier this month Russian troops were deployed to suppress a civilian uprising and to protect Russian nationals, economic and military assets. Russian supplied weapons were used by the Russian-trained security services who were ordered to “shoot to kill” protesters who had revolted against the Russian-backed dictator of their country.

This situation played out in Kazhakstan, a former Soviet republic – but it serves as a reminder that Russia is determined to maintain its influence throughout the former Soviet Union. It also serves as a stark warning of the seriousness of the situation on Ukraine’s border and the small but real prospect of Russian invasion.

There are clear incentives for western involvement to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

First, the West has a moral obligation to take an interest and to act. Ukraine is a Western-looking country with aspirations to join NATO, a defensive alliance. Russia’s response to such aspirations held by other former Soviet republics has been to try and install a puppet regime – historically with a scant regard for democracy or human rights. Further afield, Russia’s actions in Syria under Assad and Belarus under Lukashenko must raise concerns for the fate that awaits the people of Ukraine, should their country fall.

Second, practically, a Russian invasion would drive up our cost of living, energy prices, inflation and threaten our post pandemic economic recovery. While the UK imports minimal quantities of Russian gas – depending instead on imports of LPG imports from the Middle East and of gas through pipelines from Norway – we are as exposed as any other economy to wholesale gas price increases. Should Russia restrict, by which I really mean weaponise, gas supplies in the event of conflict, prices would be pushed even higher than present record levels.

Third, unchecked, an invasion would have huge geopolitical implications for Europe and the West. Plenty of other states around the world will be watching to see if Western words are followed by action. China – and Taiwan – will have noted the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, led by an increasingly introvert US.

History teaches us that appeasing aggression only fuels more aggression. Even after 30 years, Russia has never fully accepted the independence of these former Soviet republics and has yearned to bring them back within its sphere of influence. Should Ukraine fall, Russia’s focus will shift to the Baltic States – each with their own significant Russian minorities.

However, the UK, along with our NATO allies, has been deterring them by overtly defending NATO member states.

Military deployments have included RAF Typhoon fighter jets to Lithuania in support of Baltic Air Policing in June 2021 – resulting in multiple interceptions of Russian military aircraft. In May last year an RAF-led military Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) was sent to the Baltic region as a component of Operation Cabrit – the British operational deployment to Estonia where UK troops are leading a multinational battlegroup.

This battle group forms part of the NATO-enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) mission, designed to improve Euro-Atlantic security, reassure NATO allies and deter NATO adversaries. Additional NATO reinforcements to the Baltic Sea include Denmark deploying a frigate and F-16 fighter jets, and the US reportedly deploying additional warships and aircraft to the region, along with thousands of additional troops.

As NATO members, the Baltic States fall under the umbrella of NATO’s collective defence – the unique and enduring principle that binds all NATO members together: an attack, be it armed, cyber or CBRN, against one member is an attack against them all. Russian aggression against the Baltic States is therefore a scenario that must be deterred. NATO can provide this deterrence.

However, NATO must stand united – which is easier said than done.

Last week the US President cast doubt on that unity, mutual commitment and determination. He undermined weeks of diplomacy and careful positioning when he stated: “what you’re going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades and it depends on what it does… It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion, and then we end up having to fight about what to do and not do etc”. He continued to say, “there are differences in NATO as to what countries are willing to do, depending on what happens.”

Closer to home, Germany, a key alliance member, is one of the world’s major arms manufactures and exporters and supplies weapons to nations such as Egypt, Israel and Pakistan. However, it is actively blocking the transfer to Ukraine from other alliance members urgently needed weapons including long range artillery shells and their delivery systems.

And this is exactly why the role of the UK is vital.

Shortly after being elected as the Member of Parliament for Aberconwy in 2019 I was privileged to be selected to participate in the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be briefed on our military preparedness in Eastern Europe and on the threat that Russia represents on several fronts. I am also grateful to have observed, first-hand, the professionalism and dedication of our Armed Forces personnel, along with the high standard of training that they receive.

The UK is showing leadership in supporting Ukraine and in deterring Russian aggression. In August last year Jeremy Quin, the Defence Minister, told Parliament that “since 2015, the UK has trained over 21,000 Ukrainian military personnel in medical skills, logistics, counter improvised explosive devices, leadership and infantry tactics as part of Operation Orbital.”

More recently, recognising that a Russian invasion would be led by armoured columns crossing the border, the UK has provided targeted support to the Ukrainian military by airlifting 2,000 Next Generation Light Anti-Tank (NLAW) missiles. Given the scale of Russian armour this contribution is hugely significant in deterring Russian aggression, although it will not have gone unnoticed that public flight data shows the transport flights of this vital cargo are deviating around German airspace.

The price of this support is indeed high, but the cost of failure will be undoubtedly worse.

Our military support of Ukraine’s freedom is a symbol of the UK as a force for good in the world – every bit as much as our leadership in support for COVAX, the programme to provide Covid-19 vaccines to developing nations. As I write, “God Save the Queen” is trending on social media in Ukraine.

Every effort must be made to secure a diplomatic solution. But we must not repeat the mistake of Chamberlain, to confuse peace with an absence of conflict, until it is too late. Russia must know that any invasion of Ukraine will be resisted, militarily if necessary, by a united and determined NATO.

Professor Pollard’s warning about unsustainable vaccine boosters should actually give us hope

6 Jan

With the success and speed of the Government’s vaccine booster programme, it’s easy to think that this is the future now; that going forward, the nation will be jabbed at monthly intervals, so as to keep Coronavirus under control.

However, over the last week, Professor Pollard, Chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccine and Immunisation, as well as Director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, cast doubt on this plan. In a newspaper interview, he warned that vaccinating the planet every six months was not affordable or sustainable, and that there still isn’t “full certainty” on the benefits of a fourth booster, even though Israel has gone ahead with it for members of the population aged over 60.

What does this mean for the Government’s strategy going forward? Although Pollard doesn’t make any decisions on its policies – due to his involvement making vaccines – he’s still one of the most important advisers in the country, and his words offer clues about what ministers’ next moves and thinking may be.

For one, Pollard suggested that it’s “not unreasonable” to think a future Covid vaccine scheme could be like the flu programme, albeit the latter has a more seasonal pattern. The comparison between the two diseases has been made before, but it’s become much easier to argue for in recent times, due to the Omicron variant – symbolising that we may have milder variants to come  – and immunity building in the population, either naturally or through the vaccine. It would mean that far from giving everyone multiple vaccines, we become more selective, with only the vulnerable contacted and inoculated.

Pollard also said that we need to vaccinate the whole planet “not just our little corner of it”. This is not the first time he has offered such a warning. In July, writing for The Times, he urged the public to think of its “responsibility to humanity”, flagging the fact that without even, widespread distribution, new variants can emerge. He concluded by saying “It is difficult to justify getting third doses ourselves, especially if not clearly needed, ahead of zero-dose people whose lives remain at risk.”

This argument has been one that hasn’t gained much traction over the last few years. Although the UK takes part in the COVAX scheme, which has provided huge numbers of vaccines (100 million doses by June 2022), there hasn’t been palpable public support for letting other nations “catch up” before moving onto boosters.

One imagines attitudes might have changed here, however, though. Gordon Brown recently became one of the most vocal supporters of better worldwide distribution, calling the current situation a “stain on our soul”, and, in general, there’s more awareness that current jabs could be rendered ineffective if variants grow elsewhere. In 2022, we can expect an even greater drive from governments and the World Health Organization, to get the world jabbed.

Overall, even though Pollard’s words appeared to surprise many – sparking a lot of dramatic headlines – there was quite a positive message underneath them, with him saying that the worst of the pandemic is “behind us”.

Given that more than 90 per cent of over 12s having had their first vaccine in Britain, and 80 per cent having had two doses of it, we have every reason to be hopeful moving forward. In an encouraging sign that we can expect less lockdowns, Pollard said that society has to open up at some point – and that there’s no point in trying to stop all infections.

Sometimes it’s hard to forget, too, that there are plenty of unknown variables that will shape our future battle(s) with Covid, just as the vaccine was a game changer. Scientists continue to work on even better inoculations, so that they’re better tailored to new variants. 

Moreover, they are being developed into different forms, which, in turn, should make them easier to distribute around the world. One company, for instance, is developing a dry-powder formulation of a Covid vaccine for a single-user inhaler; another, a pill, targets mucosal cells in the intestine; and researchers in Lancaster are looking into nasal spray, and that’s just the start of it.

All in all, while it’s could be taken as a bad sign that boosters aren’t “sustainable”, Pollard’s interview indicates a “new normal” to which we can all aspire.

Chris Skidmore: For the UK to become a global science superpower, the Chancellor must set out a clear plan this week

26 Oct

Chris Skidmore MP was Science and Research Minister between 2018-2020 and co-author of Britannia Unchained.  

10 years ago, I was sat around a cramped room in Westminster with four members of the Cabinet – the current Foreign, Home, Business and Justice Secretaries. We had recently launched our first book, After the Coalition at Conservative Party Conference, which attempted to chart a course away from what seemed like endless compromise with our Liberal Democrat partners.

Now we were planning a second – not on domestic policy, but instead on how Britain risked missing out on the huge transformational changes on the international stage, if we did not begin to chart our own course as a nation that looked to Asia and other emerging economies for lessons on how to deliver future economic growth. Rather than accept a diminishing role for the UK, why not begin to invest in a strategy that could maintain our international influence?

So Britannia Unchained was born, as each of us decided upon a chapter we would write. I chose what seemed an obvious and essential narrative: the need for the UK to take science, R&D and innovation seriously. By 2011, government investment in science had basically flatlined, while our investment in research and development as a proportion of overall GDP had slipped backwards, to an embarrassing 1.6 per cent of our total national spend.

Meanwhile, other nations such as the US and China had bold plans to be reaching three per cent and above, spurred on in part to the emerging science and tech powerhouses of South Korea and Israel, who were spending around 4.5 per cent of their expenditure on investment in the technologies of the future.

As a result, both nations had transformed their economies from largely agrarian to high-tech within a few decades, bringing in international private investment while at the same time becoming global leaders in electronics, computers and communications. Establishing clusters of high-tech businesses where none had existed before, this investment in R&D resulted in an entire upskilling of their populations, making them some of the most educated in the world.

It shouldn’t be hard to see, I argued then, the importance of why investing in research and science effectively was the same as investing in your future success as a nation in a century dominated by technological change. We could be another Israel or South Korea too – but only if we took a long term and strategic vision of where we wanted the UK to be. We had some of the best universities and researchers in the world, particularly in the life sciences, but they were managing to achieve extraordinary results with little money.

That needed to change. Fast forward seven years, and as Science and Research Minister, I had the opportunity to make that investment, securing the Government’s manifesto commitment to raise its spending on R&D from £12 billion a year to £22 billion by 2025.

In turn, this had the potential to leverage in additional private research investments from international companies into the UK, thanks to the establishment of R&D tax credits, ideally to the tune of around £70 billion a year – allowing the UK to finally reach around 2.4 per cent of its GDP being spent on science and research by 2027, a target set back in 2017. Even with this investment, the UK would only sit in the middling league of the OECD average, watching as other nations continued to pull ahead.

The UK could still be another Israel or South Korea, if we set ourselves a strategy and stuck to it. But that most important commodity of all in politics, time itself, is slipping away. The Spending Review is Boris Johnson’s last chance to deliver a successful vision for increased investment in R&D. The money promised in 2019 has yet to materialise, and if there is not a clear plan from the Chancellor this week, then the Prime Minister’s vision of the UK as a ‘global science superpower’ would have been torn up by the Treasury.

And with but days until the UK takes the leadership of the international stage at COP26 in Glasgow, expectations are set that it will be investment in new renewable technologies, nuclear power and innovation in carbon emissions reductions that can deliver net zero by 2050. None of this can happen without the UK stepping up to make investments in research, which is desperately needed.

The alternative is that we slip not only further behind in the global race, watching as South Korea, Japan or China disappear over the horizon, we will start to go in the wrong direction: researchers and companies choosing to place their faith elsewhere, in countries that recognise the integral purpose of science to future economic growth.

2021 has demonstrated the incredible potential that science, research and development has not only to transform lives, but to save lives also: the UK has been rightly praised for its early investment in its vaccine programme, which was made possible thanks to our life sciences industry and high levels of existing R&D spend. To paraphrase Isaac Newton, we are standing on the shoulder of giants, of those generations before who made those strategic choices to invest in pharma in the UK.

What we cannot afford to do is to end 2021 by not continuing to place our faith in research and development, the investment for which must flow. As I wrote back in Britannia Unchained a decade ago, we can build a new future for the UK by recognising that future should be grounded in innovation and research. That future, and the Prime Minister’s vision of the UK as that science superpower, risks being lost this week if we do not act now.

Robert Halfon: How my friend David Amess showed me the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount

20 Oct

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

I’m from the Jewish faith so readers might not be surprised to learn that I wasn’t an expert on the Sermon on the Mount. However, thanks to my wonderful former colleague Sir David Amess, I soon became one.

One of the fondest memories I have of David was during a visit to Jerusalem hosted by the Conservative Friends of Israel. We were discussing the next day’s itinerary, which included a trip to the sea of Galilee. David said to me that, during this trip, he would make sure that I would fully understand what the Sermon on the Mount was all about.

As we got on the minibus to begin the journey, I spotted that David had borrowed a large white sheet from his hotel room. Upon questioning him about why he had brought this with him, I was told with a smile, to “wait and see”.

Later that day we arrived at the sacred spot. Moved by the historical significance of the location, I was momentarily distracted. I turned around and suddenly, there appeared a biblical figure shrouded in white, walking around.

It was none other than David, who was attempting to provide me with a literal visualisation as to what happened many thousands of years ago. In the midst of our laughter, I remember spotting a few Japanese tourists being shocked by this apparition, wondering what on earth was going on and perhaps thinking that the Messiah had arrived.

This was typical of David. Not only was he one of the kindest and most compassionate MPs I have ever met, but he had an incredible sense of humour which never dampened, no matter what the situation.

Later that afternoon, we returned to the city to visit the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. David got out of our minibus and promptly threw up in a plant pot outside the building. This was not because he was making a statement about his view on Middle Eastern politics, but more because of the slightly dodgy kebab we had eaten for lunch.

Despite the unprompted nausea, it was a truly wonderful experience to visit Israel with David. For many years he was a friend both of Israel and of the Jewish people. Indeed, he spoke many times in Parliament against anti-Semitism.

He also relentlessly campaigned to cut the cost of living and combat fuel poverty. Better than most, he understood the ladder of opportunity that we as Conservatives must continue to extend. This, in part, is why he did so much to support the improvement of educational settings, particularly children and early years provision.

His Adjournment debates were legendary. I remember watching him in absolute awe because when he spoke, not only did he cover the topic in question, but effortlessly managed to include at least 50 constituency issues in the space of one speech. He had a unique and original skill of public speaking that few possess. It is my hope that, one day, his speeches will be published so they can be enjoyed by a wider audience

David embodied a truth: that being an MP is not just a job, it is a vocation. He recognised that being elected, and the honour of serving your constituents – however you can – is a way of life.

Of course, this tragedy will once again bring to light the need for care and caution when it comes to MPs’ security.

However, I doubt that he would want all of us to live our lives only meeting constituents on Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Interacting with our constituents goes beyond this, because most MPs also host stalls and visits in their constituencies, or walk about their towns and city centres. Whether these events are policed, or whether these activities are advertised or not, it is easy for these types of people to find and locate MPs.

But it is vital we continue these activities so that the remarkable link that exists between Parliamentarians and the public is not broken. We must not be cowed by the actions of a few. David would not have wanted that.

To me, David Amess was the original blue-collar Conservative. Brought up in East London, he embodied the values of an Essex man – of decency, hard work and of a social entrepreneur.

He wasn’t just friends with the great and the good, and he helped me in the dark days of Opposition when I first arrived in Harlow in 1999 and stood for election in 2001.

It is hard to believe that such a good man has been lost in this tragic way. It is not enough to say that he will be missed. All of us will never forget him, and I will do my part to make sure I honour his memory every way I can.

Jon Moynihan and Christopher Howarth: In an age of global insecurity, Truss’s appointment could mark a watershed in foreign policy

23 Sep

Jon Moynihan was the CEO and Chairman of PA Consulting Group, as well as a member of the board of Vote Leave. Christopher Howarth is a former accountant, lawyer and TA soldier.

The promotion of Liz Truss to Foreign Secretary has the potential to mark a watershed in British foreign policy. Creative, iconoclastic, and bullet resistant, Truss has, as Trade Secretary, made multiple trade breakthroughs by combining pragmatism and optimism.

Recognising as she does the great geopolitical changes around the world during just this past decade, she has the opportunity to make her mark on our history by formulating, with the Prime Minister, a new foreign policy approach for the UK, one that cashes the Brexit Dividend while recognising the dramatic changes in the world that have occurred over the past decade.

There has never been a golden age of global peace and prosperity, but the world has definitely worsened recently. The EU, not yet reconciled to UK departure and torn between an anxiety to contain Russia and a desire for Russia’s energy, is an always unreliable partner, with the France/AUKUS row showing that the EU and its member countries often act in opposite directions.

The botched withdrawal from Afghanistan threatens to recreate a safe haven for arms and terrorism exports. Biden’s fumbles and abandonment of Trump’s Middle East gains give Iran a renewed chance to further its nuclear and regional ambitions within the Shiite Arc and beyond, destabilising states from Yemen to Iraq and threatening Israel.

In Africa, South Africa’s continued implosion has accelerated. Further north, the arena around east Congo contains Hieronymus Bosch-like scenes of civil and interregional war, rape, slavery, and economic exploitation. Across Africa, an old tradition, the military coup, has re-emerged; both military and civil autocrats bolster themselves with Russian mercenaries.

The Indian subcontinent is now a more dangerous place because of Afghanistan’s implosion. Myanmar has taken a huge step backward. Thailand is repressive. South and Central America are the least concerning areas, but only by comparison; democratisations that followed the Falkland Islands war in the 1980s have steadily drifted leftwards, with Venezuela a stark yet apparently unheeded warning.

This brings us, finally, to the two greatest problems: Russia and China. Russia, even in its position of weakness, creates instability, threatens invasion, in its near abroad – Ukraine and Baltics in particular. In further-away countries, the Wagner Group spearheads a new colonialism.

The group of thugs and oligarchs around Putin maintain a steely extractive grip on their own country. Russia has a formidable cyber hacking arm which makes money (through ransomware) and disrupts the West.

Russia opportunistically allies itself with the far stronger China, whose intelligent and to date successful long-term policy, starting with the Belt-and-Road initiative, is quite clearly that of world domination.

In its near abroad, China extends its reach bit by bit, building roads into Pakistan and Afghanistan and railways toward Europe; building illegal villages in Bhutan and pushing Indian soldiers off Himalayan precipices. It refuses to bring North Korea to heel even as that country becomes an ever-greater nuclear and cyber menace (even as large numbers of North Koreans starve to death).

Despite the West’s long-held concern, that led to Obama’s “pivot to Asia”, China continues with its long-term maritime strategy, building piece-by-piece what is eventually likely to become the most formidable Navy in the world.

It builds ports in Sri Lanka, Djibouti, Gwadar and on; it fortifies islands and atolls across the vast expanses of China’s 9-dash-line claim; it threatens Taiwan. In the meantime, China extracts every last ounce of the West’s technological capability via legal and illegal routes; buying, spying, hacking, sending its students in waves to the west so as to learn and return.

The spectacle of China building a F-35 clone 10 years before expected was a wakeup. It highlighted that the role of science – in weapons development, cyber defence and offence, intelligence, and industry – is key, yet in the UK, as in most of the West, we are falling behind and are increasingly unable to protect even what IP we have.

These are some of the strategic challenges facing the UK. What should the UK response be?

In short, our new foreign policy doctrine should first, realise the Brexit dividend, and second, respond to the new bifurcated hegemonic structure: The US (no longer the global hegemon) with its allies, versus China and Russia with their satrapies.

The Brexit Dividend: The UK has not been a super-power for 100 years, but it is a significant power, one with a unique ability to be at the centre of alliances addressing current and future threats. Now we’re a fully sovereign power, we can forge our own policy based on our own interests, with full control of defence, trade and development.

The EU, built around a single market and customs union, always lacked a coherent foreign policy. The UK as a member was saddled with a trade policy serving the interests of others, not us, and a foreign policy unaligned even with the EU’s own trade agreements – the German or Cypriot veto, for example, preventing any serious criticism of Russia or China.

The Bifurcated Hegemony: things are going to get tougher. We will have to tighten our uses of trade and subordinate it and Aid to new geopolitical imperatives; anticorruption and cementing new treaties will have to take precedence over softer fashionable favourites.

Our new ability to focus on our own (and global) security came good in the recent AUKUS negotiations. The UK played to its strengths; a trading partner, trusted and with unique technology (more Brexit dividend: as an EU member the UK could not have discussed trade policy; would have had to support French interests; and would have been pressured to be more accommodating to China).

Promoting specific UK interests becomes central; no more need to outsource our development money (and trade deficit) to Brussels. A sovereign UK can use its aid and trade policy as twin tools to improve stability and growth in Africa, helping countries trade their way out of poverty –win-win for the UK in prosperity and influence.

In the Middle East we can work better with historic partners on security and trade. Joining CPTPP (the pacific trade partnership), and the hinted deemphasis of Canada and NZ from the 5eyes network, points to a more complex future, awash with interlocking networks and relationships of different strength.

We can also now push our objectives in global councils – protecting intellectual property, combating cyber espionage and theft, resisting authoritarian states seeking to subvert international organisations and our values. The UK now has the opportunity to work flexibly with different models to meet differing and emerging threats and opportunities. It’s an exciting new chapter in UK foreign policy.

Such an approach has the makings of a distinctly Conservative foreign policy; pragmatic but optimistic, believing in Britain, British values and a global role; with loyalty to old allies and friends and an instinctive belief that global engagement is good for both us and the world.

As Margaret Thatcher always clearly said: a decrease in British (and American) global influence would be very bad for the world. Fortunately, Truss, being a Thatcherite, recognises the opportunities the UK has. She brings to the Foreign Office unique insights into how to further UK interests and global stability. A new Johnson/Truss doctrine can put them into action.