Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: This Prime Minister has never sounded so contrite, and it seemed to work

19 Apr

Never has Boris Johnson said sorry so often, so publicly and with such a sombre demeanour. Tory MPs repeatedly sought to extenuate the mistake for which he was given a fixed penalty notice by the Metropolitan Police.

“Nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice,” was Othello’s last plea. Johnson did not make that argument in his statement, and would not be tempted, by dozens of supportive Conservatives, into making it as he took question after question.

Mark Harper (Con, Forest of Dean) was very far from supportive: “I no longer think he is worthy of the great office he holds.”

The Prime Minister did not rise to this, but instead continued to humble himself: “I bitterly regret the event in Downing Street as I said.”

This was a big day for Sir Keir Starmer. He began with the words: “What a joke!”

A difficult opening line. Sir Keir spoke it in the manner of a cook who has handed in his notice.

“They know what he is,” Sir Keir went on, indicating the Conservative benches.

“The Chancellor’s career up in flames,” he continued, as an example of how everything went wrong under Johnson.

But why should Sir Keir mind if the Chancellor’s career has gone up in flames? His aim, after all, was to make sure that Johnson’s career went down in flames, an objective not promoted by making implausible assertions.

“The Prime Minister knows what he is,” Sir Keir continued, still in infuriated cook mode.

He then brought in John Robinson, from Lichfield, who because of Covid rules could not be with his mortally ill wife: “John would have given the world to hold his dying wife’s hand even for nine minutes.”

Johnson nodded, more sombre even than Sir Keir. In July 2019, when he took office, I do not think Johnson would have been capable of this.

A thousand days later, he looks older and sadder, and no sign could be detected of his old habit of lightening a serious moment by making a joke.

By the time Paul Howell (Con, Sedgefield) said of Johnson’s offence, “I certainly do not think it is a resigning matter,” it was clear that most of those on the Tory benches agreed with this remark.

Stephen Kinnock (Lab, Aberavon) referred to the resignations of Neville Chamberlain and Margaret Thatcher. Johnson could not say, but many will have reflected, that Chamberlain’s resignation took place when this country was suffering a military catastrophe, and Thatcher’s when her government was split from head to toe on the European issue, and had introduced the perilously unpopular poll tax.

So the question of proportion hovered over all this. Johnson had spoken also of Ukraine, where great and terrible events are unfolding.

He declined to make the connection. Nor would his accusers, for they were intent on maintaining the highest moral tone. They had every right to do this, perhaps it was their duty to do this, but one could not help feeling that there was an element of willed indignation in some of their protestations.

A new type of MP has come into existence, the MP as social entrepreneur, and this is a profoundly hopeful development

3 Oct

A new type of MP has come into existence: the MP as social entrepreneur.

That thought came to me a few minutes after I arrived, late, for the launch, live-streamed on ConHome, of Trusting the People: The case for community-powered conservatism, an admirable pamphlet bearing the names of ten Conservative MPs and published by The New Social Covenant Unit, which was established earlier this year by Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger.

Claire Coutinho (pictured right; MP for East Surrey since 2019) chaired a passionate debate about how to encourage local leadership in order to mend the grievous social problems and fill the crying social needs which local people know most about.

Michael Gove, the new – indeed first – Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, listened with a sage expression, took notes, nodded his support, and every so often made mellifluous contributions which while they fell short of making policy at a fringe meeting during the party conference, indicated that he will do everything he can to help.

He observed that there is, “to use a phrase I’ve been accused of using too often in the past, a desire on the part of many people to take back control”.

Paul Howell, who in 2019 won Sedgefield for the Conservatives, agreed that local people have “a passionate desire to do something”, and wondered “how we get to the most left-behind neighbourhoods”.

There isn’t any one answer to that question, but what struck this observer is the extent to which Conservative MPs are now rolling up their sleeves and getting involved in the founding of every kind of social enterprise, while at the same time telling central government what it needs to do enable and foster this work.

Guy Opperman, MP since 2010 for Hexham and now a pensions minister, touched on his involvement in setting up two new banks in Northumberland which help people avoid falling into the hands of pay-day lenders.

Impossible in a few words to summarise the debate, but if interested you can watch the whole thing on ConHome.

A generation ago, MPs appeared to be turning into social workers, taking on extra staff to cope with vast amounts of case work, including many very hard cases which no one else had been able to resolve.

MPs are now just as likely to get involved in setting up social enterprises which can help to avert or heal such problems.

None of this is easily reduced to a headline. It is local and various and tends not to fit in the various categories in which politics is usually debated and reported. But it is a profoundly hopeful development.

Robert Halfon: 30 years ago, Major defied foreign policy orthodoxies – and saved thousands of Kurdish lives

7 Apr

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.

The Kurds are an ancient people scattered by historical omissions and commissions over four countries in the Middle East. The only internationally recognised federal unit is in Iraq, largely thanks to the actions of a pragmatically moral British Prime Minister just 30 years ago.

The initial spur was Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 that impelled an international and US-led military campaign to liberate the country. That was achieved by February 1991 and Saddam’s weakness, together with appeals for Saddam to be overthrown, prompted Shia uprisings in the south and a more organised uprising in Kurdistan.

A US General mistakenly allowing Saddam to use his helicopter gunships enabled him to crush the Shia rebellion and to turn on the Kurds who had liberated many cities.

That forced two million Kurds to flee to the mountains on the borders with Iran and Turkey, and some then entered those countries. The Kurds understandably feared further genocide as they had lost nearly 200,000 men, women and children to a genocidal onslaught three years before. Saddam’s forces also then used chemical weapons against Halabja and other towns as well as razing thousands of villages to the ground and forcing Kurds into urban concentration camps.

The 1987/1988 genocide, officially recognised by the UK Parliament in 2013, took place largely out of sight during the Iraq/Iran war. This time, BBC cameras broadcast the haunting scenes of death and misery for millions in the freezing mountains where 500-1,000 people were dying each day.

Conservative MEP Paul Howell, who visited the Turkish border, said ”On television, you only see the faces, you don’t see the ground. There you see human faeces, diarrhoea, sheep’s heads and entrails, it’s as close to hell as you can think of.”

The terrible scenes on our screens galvanized popular British action as concerned citizens scrambled to send 100 tonnes of vital provisions to the Kurds. Kurds in the UK, including Nadhim Zahawi, lobbied the British government while Kurds at home argued for immediate intervention. Some occupied Iraqi embassies.

MPs of all colours were horrified and demanded action. Conservative grandee Julian Amery argued that in any conflict between non-interference in the affairs of other countries and helping refugees in danger, we should back the refugees. Poignantly, Amery’s father was British Colonial Secretary when the RAF bombed Kurdistanis between 1922-1925 and said it was “a splendid training ground for the air force.”

A routine diplomatic response to this could have been to wring hands and send limited aid supplies but urge Iraq to resolve the issue. But new Prime Minister, Sir John Major, had other ideas.

Major was moved by the outpouring of public outrage. He said of Saddam that “Genocide was in the man’s mind, and it was certainly in the man’s character.” Hundreds demonstrated in Glasgow and heard a message from Major: “I regret that I was not able to attend but my thoughts will be with you and the people of Iraq who have fled to escape the brutality of their own government.” Conservative Prime Ministers don’t usually send messages to demonstrations.

He took the issue to Cabinet on March 21 – Kurdish new year, as it happens – and within weeks persuaded the European Union and the United States to implement his notion of a safe haven and no-fly zone for the Iraqi Kurds. They lasted until the liberation of Iraq in 2003.

Millions of refugees, some of whom had been in neighbouring countries since the 1970s and 1980s, returned to their homes in the largest refugee return since 1945. In 1992 they held elections to a parliament and formed their first coalition government on July 4. Despite a bitter civil war between 1994-1998 they laid the foundations of the modern Kurdistan Region.

Major’s actions defied foreign policy orthodoxies which respected sovereign powers and certainly saved thousands or perhaps hundreds of thousands of Kurds. Without such focused military intervention, the Kurdistan Region would not exist today.

Without a decent near-nation that is the Kurdistan Region, Iraq would have been more difficult to stabilise after 2003. Without the Kurdistan Region’s defiance Daesh could have expanded its so-called Caliphate from Mosul to Kurdistan and Baghdad. If this medieval, misogynist but militarily and digitally-sophisticated rape and genocide cult had accessed Iraq’s oil wealth and weaponry, there would have been more deaths there and on our streets. It could have sparked wider war in the Middle East. There wouldn’t now be a place that offers safe havens that may help stop Christians and other religious minorities being made extinct.

Britons can be very proud that Major quickly answered the calls of the Kurds at the moment of their righteous rebellion and intense suffering. Tony Blair deserves tribute too for continuing Major’s safe haven policy.

It has become fashionable to believe that the UK can only do harm in the Middle East. It is true that previous British governments carved up the Middle East to secure oil supplies and forced the Kurds into an Iraq that rejected their rights and existence. At a stroke, Major rebalanced the historical record and our country is now “working closely with our partners” in Iraqi Kurdistan as Boris Johnson recently told me in the Commons. Major’s hurried humanitarian actions averted disaster, saved an historic people and gifted the Free World a decent ally.