Chagos, Vince Cable, and Ed Miliband

The Chagos controversy is now making an impact at the highest levels of government. How will the new

chagos letter

On 13 September, the Staggers exclusively revealed the contents of a letter from the new business secretary, Vince Cable, to his constituent, Dr George Beckmann, claiming that the coalition government was about to come to a "friendly settlement" with the Chagos Islanders, whose case concerning the right of return to their homeland is pending before the European Court of Human Rights. Then followed a frantic attempt by an official at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills to claim that the letter had been sent "in error by his constituency office".

Dr Cable has now sent a second letter to his constituent (see above), also from his constituency office, apologising "for the mistake that was made" in "giving an incorrect impression of the actions of the British Government". Nevertheless, it is highly revealing about the status of the new business secretary that Cable did not feel obliged to toe the conventional Foreign Office line and invoke the usual smokescreen about defence security and "treaty obligations" to the US (note: sorry but an exchange of letters does not constitute a treaty) much used by former British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, and the current minister responsible for British overseas territories, Henry Bellingham, particularly as regards the use of the military base on Diego Garcia, part of the British Indian Ocean Territory.

Instead, in his second letter, Cable makes it abundantly clear where his sympathies lie. He explains that while his busy ministerial role precludes him from "remaining as actively involved with this cause" he ventures, "I am sure that the Chagossian cause will continue to be championed by my colleagues within the Liberal Democrat party and campaigners such as yourself".

Meanwhile, at the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week Mauritius foreign minister, Dr Arvin Boolell, demanded the unconditional return of the Chagos Archipelago, including Diego Garcia, to Mauritius as soon as possible.

It is a sign of the frustration that Mauritius feels with successive UK governments that Boolell was unusually forthright. "The Chagos Archipelago was excised from Mauritian territory illegally by the United Kingdom... this is a flagrant violation of United Nations resolutions 1514 and 2066," he said, referring to the fact that it was illegal under international law for Britain to excise part of the colony of Mauritius in 1965 before granting independence in 1968.

Boolell also reiterated that his government remains fully behind the right of return of the Chagos Islanders and "greatly appreciated the unanimous and unflinching support from the African Union and the Non-Aligned Movement". Further worries for the FCO will come from the announcement by Dr Boolell that his country had decided not to recognise the marine protected area in the British Indian Ocean Territory, which was announced by David Miliband on 1 April.

As for the future -- given that David Miliband, who during his time in government stuck resolutely to Foreign Office policy on Chagos, is now to leave front bench politics to spend more time with his family, the question is whether there will be a change in attitude on the right of return of the Chagos Islanders at the top of the Labour Party. It is well-known that Ed Miliband was supported from early on in his bid for the leadership by the Kinnocks. Although as a FCO minister Baroness Kinnock was obliged to defend the Foreign Secretary's policy towards the Islanders in the House of Lords on 6 April, she was clearly very embarrassed to do so. Perhaps, it is time for Glenys to make amends and use her famous Welsh charm to persuade Ed to follow Dr Cable's lead on this one.

Dr Sean Carey is Research Fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM), Roehampton University.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

On Brexit, David Cameron knows exactly what he's doing

It's not a dead cat - it's about disarming the Leave campaign. 

If you’re explaining, you’re losing. That’s the calculation behind David Cameron’s latest entry into the In-Out (or Remain-Leave in new money) battle. The Prime Minister has warned that were Britain to leave the European Union, the migrant camp at Calais – popularly known as “the Jungle” – could move to Britain. But Eurosceptic campaigners have angrily denounced the remarks, saying that there’s little chance of it happening either way.  

Who’s right? My colleague Henry Zeffman has written a handy explainer of the ins and outs of the row, but the short version is: the Eurosceptic campaigners are broadly right.

But the remarks are very far from a gaffe by Downing Street or Cameron, and they aren’t a “dead cat” strategy – where you say something offensive, prompting a debate about that instead of another, trickier issue – either.

Campaigners for Remain have long been aware that immigration remains their glass jaw. The line wheeled out by Cameron has been long-planned. Late last year, senior members of the In campaign discussed what they saw as the danger points for the campaign. The first was a renegotiation that managed to roll back workplace rights, imperilling the support of the Labour party and the trade unions was one – happily avoided by Cameron’s piecemeal deal.

That the deal would be raked over in the press is not considered a risk point. Stronger In has long known that its path to victory does not run through a sympathetic media. The expectation has long been that even substantial concessions would doubtless have been denounced by the Mail, Telegraph and Sun – and no-one seriously expected that Cameron would emerge with a transformative deal. Since well before the general election, the Prime Minister has been gradually scaling back his demands. The aim has always been to secure as many concessions as possible in order to get an In vote – but Downing Street’s focus has always been on the “as possible” part rather than the “securing concessions” bit.

Today’s row isn’t about deflecting attention from a less-than-stellar deal, but about defanging another “risk point” for the In campaign: border control.

Campaign strategists believe they can throw the issue into neutral by casting doubt on Leave’s ability to control borders any better. One top aide said: “Our line is this: if we vote to leave, the border moves from Calais to Dover, it’s that simple.” They are also keen to make more of the fact that Norway has equally high levels of migration from the European Union as the United Kingdom. While In will never “own” the issue of immigration, they believe they can make the battle sufficiently murky that voters will turn to the areas that favour a Remain vote – national security, economic stability, and keeping people in their jobs.

What the row exposes, rather than a Prime Minister under pressure is a politician who knows exactly what he’s doing – and just how vulnerable the lack of a serious heavyweight at the top makes the Leave campaign(s). Most people won't make a judgement based on reading up the minutinae of European treaties, but on a "sniff test" of which side they think is more trustworthy. It's not a fight about the facts - it's a fight about who is more trusted by the public: David Cameron, or Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling or Priti Patel? As one minister said to me: "I like Priti, but the idea that she can go against the PM as far as voters are concerned is ridiculous. Most people haven't heard of her." 

Leave finds itself in a position uncomfortably like that of Labour in the run-up to the election: with Cameron able to paint himself as the only option guaranteeing stability, against a chaotic and muddled alternative. Without a politician, a business figure or even a prominent celebrity who can provide credibility on the level of the Prime Minister, any row about whether or not Brexit increases the chances of more migrants on Britain’s doorsteps helps Remain – and Cameron. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.