Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The fog of war

Talk about creating a diversion – the new “military covenant” is no better than a smokescreen to hide what’s really going on.

Ministers want us to forget our armed forces are fighting one and a half wars while they impose defence cuts and boost foreign aid by billions.

Our armed forces are still dying in Afghanistan in a war we will never win. David Cameron has admitted as much by announcing troops will be withdrawn by 2015 whatever is happening in that benighted country.

We are taking part in fruitless bombing raids on Libya where Colonel Gaddafi is still dodging the bullets and our Government is talking about sending in ground troops.

We are scrapping aircraft and carriers and handing redundancy notices to soldiers on the front line.

No wonder “Commander in Chief” Cameron says he has “robust” debates with service chiefs. They must wonder what planet he is on when he’s ordering our troops into battle while at the same time reducing their numbers and their firepower.

Yet he promises a “military covenant” promising, among other things, free IVD courses and priority housing for ex-soldiers.

Into this mess plunges Defence Secretary Liam Fox, opening up a new front in the Whitehall battle by criticising the Coalition’s plan to increase foreign aid by 34 per cent.

It’s not just the Ministry of Defence which can’t understand why we are throwing good money after bad on foreign aid when every other aspect of public spending in being cut.

Foreign aid is a wasteful bucket with a hole in the bottom. Much of the money ends up funding civil wars or in the Swiss bank accounts of bloodthirsty dictators and their henchmen.

It is hard to tell what good it does. Yet we are already spending £7.5 billion. Some of it is going to countries like China and India which both enjoy massively booming economies.

These countries are so wealthy their billionaires are busy swallowing up bargain basement Britain’s remaining assets – MG Rover and Jaguar Land Rover are a couple of obvious examples.

They don’t need our help; if anything, we should be holding out the begging bowl to them.

Yet Mr Bleeding Heart Cameron proposes to increase foreign aid to £11.4 billion in the next two years.

It’s so embarrassing for International Development Secretary that Andrew Mitchell has won the nickname “Lord Bountiful”. He’s apparently even using the title when he sends text messages.

Unlike his Cabinet colleagues, the Sutton Coldfield MP is wandering the world with an open cheque-book wondering what to do with all his loot.

It’s true that, despite everything, Britain is still an affluent country. And there are places where people’s lives are nasty, brutish and short.

It may be the judicious application of aid from richer nations can make some difference to their lives.

But while we offer these handouts, we are expending billions more fighting losing battles in the Middle East.

Mr Cameron “announced” the withdrawal of 400 soldiers from Afghanistan this week but, as it was planned anyway, it’s meaningless and there will still be 9,000 people risking their lives over there.

We are taking part in half-hearted bombing raids on Libya though nobody can agree whether we’re supposed to be protecting civilians, which is legal, or killing Col Gaddafi, which isn’t.

And while our troops are no longer in Iraq, our depleted Royal Navy is still patrolling the Gulf.

The defence cuts – which, let’s not forget, even envisage sharing aircraft carriers with the French – have been imposed by our politicians.

Yet these same politicians don’t seem to have noticed they can’t afford to strut the world stage any longer as if they owned the place.

The cuts are necessary. Partly because the Ministry of Defence has overspent by a cool £38 billion and partly because the country is broke.

But if David Cameron is reducing our military capability and making front-line soldiers redundant, surely he must accept he can’t go round threatening mad dictators with retribution.

Gunboat diplomacy went out of fashion in the Victorian age yet here we are, ineffectually bombing Libya as if our political masters still think of this country as the world’s policeman.

Even the Americans are wisely taking a back seat during the “Arab spring” while Dave and Nicolas Sarkozy of France come over all belligerently humanitarian.

The “military covenant” is a nice idea. Few people would object to the idea that the Government promises to look after its troops once their active-service days are done.

Free bus passes for the wounded and better schools for their kids are all very well but they should not be allowed to draw attention away from the real battle about Britain’s role in the world.

We are not rich and powerful. We can’t afford to impose our will on “poorer countries”. Nor can we afford to send Mr Mitchell off dishing out money we have to borrow to spend to those same banana republics.

The “military covenant” will cost £45 million a year – the Taxpayers’ Alliance says Mr Mitchell’s department will soon be wasting £1 billion simply administrating its great international giveaway.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Does Dave actually want a Tory Government?

If David Cameron really wanted a Conservative Government, he should call a snap General Election now.

A year after the Coalition was formed, it’s clear the Tories’ deal with the Liberal Democrats is falling apart.

The two parties face months, if not years, of wrangling over every decision and every piece of legislation.

The Lib Dems look like dead men walking. It’s hard to imaging a way back from their humiliation at the local elections and in the Alternative Vote referendum.

Whatever happens, they will still be viewed by most voters as having propped up a Conservative Government. Nick Clegg will get the blame for unpopular policies; the Tories will get the credit when things to well.

The Prime Minister has the chance to call an election which might well give him the majority Government he failed to secure a year ago.

With the Lib Dems already down, an early election would provide the knock-out blow.

Labour might pick up a few seats at the Lib Dems’ expense but the Tories would gain more.

And Ed Miliband is hardly a credible option as Prime Minister.

If the Coalition actually lasts a full five years, Labour may see sense and replace Ed with another leader – quite possibly his brother David or even Ed Balls.

Either of these would be a more attractive proposition than the present Labour leader and, therefore, a more formidable foe for the Tories.

So with the Lib Dems likely to get another kicking from the voters and Ed Miliband struggling to revive the Labour Party, this is the ideal moment for Mr Cameron to win a working majority at Westminster.

He may recall the autumn of 2007, when newly-chosen Prime Minister Gordon Brown was ahead in the polls and his supporters were urging him to hold a General Election.

There was a good reason for an early poll. Mr Brown arrived at Number Ten thanks to a stitch-up in his own party. He had never faced the voters as party leader and run the risk of defeat.

If he had called an election in October 2007, he might well have secured a full five-year term and seen off David Cameron into the bargain.

He bottled it. Instead, he endured economic meltdown, personal humiliation and electoral defeat.

Mr Cameron’s position is different. For a start, he’s promised us five years of Coalition Government and he would be accused of betrayal if he broke the deal so soon.

On the other hand, few people seriously think the Coalition will last a full term whatever the promises made by Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg at the height of their rose garden romance a year ago.

After their drubbing at the polls, the Lib Dems will seize every opportunity to frustrate, harry and undermine their Conservative partners.

Eventually, as electoral reality bites, there will be plenty of Mr Clegg’s MPs who refuse to follow him any longer. They will walk away from the Coalition.

There may well come a point, long before the five years are up, when the Coalition crumbles away, forcing Mr Cameron to call an early election.

Before then, though, he will have to deal with arguments, dissent and splits not only with the Lib Dems but with his own MPs as well.

There are plenty of Conservatives who dislike the Coalition, despise their traditional Lib Dem enemies and see no reason why they should make further concessions to a party which is so weak politically.

If Mr Cameron insists on “bigging-up” Nick and offering him a few open goals, just to shore up his position as leader of the Coalition’s minority party, many Tory backbenchers will squirm with fury.

Every time the Government pays our money to bail out countries in the Euro, for instance, or abides by absurd human rights rulings, Mr Cameron’s supporters will blame his desire to keep the Lib Dems happy.

This makes the job of running the country – especially the task of trying to revive the economy – increasingly difficult.

For many Conservatives who already think the Lib Dem tail has been wagging the Tory dog, the prospect of following a policy of appeasement for the next four years is hard to swallow.

Mr Cameron could resolve these difficulties by calling an election now. The chances are that he would win an outright majority and set his party free.

It would be a gamble, of course. The alternative is years of confused, incoherent and carping Coalition when what the country needs is clarity and purpose.

Unfortunately for the Lib Dems, Nick Clegg is Mr Cameron’s human shield.

It’s not just that the Deputy Prime Minister protects Mr Cameron from his opponents in the country. His presence in Government also defends Mr Cameron from his Tory critics.

Without his Lib Dem whipping boys, Mr Cameron would be exposed. He’s happier leading a Coalition than a Conservative Government with a clear working majority.

So he will struggle on for as long as possible – he doesn’t want outright victory at an early election. He might have to introduce genuine Conservative policies and that would never do.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Labour Scotches the United Kingdom

Now it’s Scotland that matters most. Defeat for Labour north of the border is a disaster for Ed Miliband.

Worse could be in store if, as seems likely, the SNP goes ahead with a referendum on independence for Scotland.

Labour would be wiped out at Westminster and lose any chance of forming a Government for a generation if the party were deprived of its cohort of Scottish MPs.

The Scots won’t care about that. They will vote for independence if they think it’s good for Scotland.

When push comes to shove, I suspect they will think they are better off as part of the union than they would be as an obscure region of the European super-state.

But who knows? The Scots have given Alex Salmond an overwhelming vote of confidence.

That is partly because of the slump in support for Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems who are seen as propping up a Tory Government. But Labour did very badly in Scotland as well and there is no excuse for that other than a rejection of the effete Metropolitan Mr Miliband.

It would be tragic if the legacy of Cameron's first Government were the break-up of the United Kingdom but the Tories would be tempted to support the idea because it would leave them in power at Westminster for the forseeable future.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

They know how you voted

I suppose I’m the last one to notice but it has finally dawned on me there is no such thing as a secret ballot in this country.

The foundation and bedrock of our democracy is no more.

Why has it taken me so long to notice?

When I went to vote in the AV referendum the elections officer took my polling reference number and wrote it down on a list.

Next to my number was already printed the serial number of the ballot paper he gave me.

Obviously, the ballot paper had the same set of numbers. It's like a cheque and a cheque stub.

It follows that if some dubious Government official wanted to discover how I had voted, he could work back from the ballot paper, match its serial number with the number on the officer’s list, read across to the polling reference number and identify me as the voter.

Or you.

Mostly this doesn’t matter. Nobody would bother to check if we voted Yes or No to AV or Tory or Lib Dem in some dull council election.

But suppose you wanted to vote Communist, Socialist Worker, BNP or UKIP. Suppose you backed Sinn Fein or any other fringe party of which the Establishment disapproved.

It wouldn’t be difficult to sort out the relatively few ballot papers with an X by a controversial candidate’s name.

It wouldn’t be difficult to take the serial number and compare it with the elections officer’s little list of voters’ numbers.

And there you are – the secret ballot is no longer secret. They know who you voted for.

I asked the bloke who took my number and gave me my voting slip what happened to the papers once they’d been counted.

He said they were stored somewhere secure. How secure? Oh very, he assured me. For how long? He didn’t know. What happened to them in the end? He didn’t know.

In an era when privacy is disappearing – not because of the media and the courts but thanks to charlatans posing as our friends (Apple, Sony, Google, Experian etc), it’s probably too late to worry that the secret ballot is a fiction.

But it’s another reason not to bother voting.

(And in case you wondered, I voted Yes to AV not because I approve of it but because I disapprove of David Cameron forcing this ridiculous debate on the country when we’re financially up the creek and I wanted to register my protest).