My apology to the Tories

I was just joking about only liking Ken Clarke.

On Friday night, I appeared on Radio 4's Any Questions, with former the mayor of London Ken Livingstone, Kenneth Clarke MP and Julia Goldsworthy MP. You can listen to it here.

In the middle of a rather lively exchange with Ken Clarke over the Tories' debt delusion, I remarked:

Ken is one of the best chancellors of the Exchequer we've had in many, many years. He's the only Tory I like [boo! hiss!], let's be honest. But, but, he's wrong on this [the deficit].

I'm not sure if the audience hissed and booed because they were angry that I'd said I liked Clarke or because I'd said that, among Tories, I liked only Clarke.

But on reflection, I have an apology to make to the Conservative Party. There are, in fact, lots of Tories whom I admire, appreciate and/or like -- while disagreeing with most of their policies, principles and positions. On the current front bench, as well as Ken Clarke, I have to admit a soft spot for Oliver Letwin, David Willetts, Dominic Grieve and Sayeeda Warsi.

Going back through recent history, the names Michael Heseltine, Chris Patten, Ian Gilmour, Iain MacLeod, Rab Butler and Winston Churchill spring to mind. (Disclaimer: I include Churchill because he led this nation to victory over Nazism; I nonetheless continue to abhor and despise his racist views and his use of chemical weapons against the Iraqis -- 70 years before Saddam Hussein.)

So, which Tories do you like? From a left/liberal perspective? Answers below the line, please . . .

On a side note, Ken Clarke also made a couple of factually inaccurate remarks that I wanted to challenge in this post.

1) On the subject of Lord Cashcroft, Clarke predictably tried to deflect the questions by repeatedly referring to the non-dom Labour donor Lord Paul, even though Paul is not deputy chairman of the Labour Party, is not funding Laboury's marginal seats campaign, and did not give repeated undertakings to his party leadership or the House of Lords that he would become a "permanent resident" of the UK, for tax purposes, upon becoming a peer. On Friday night, I pointed out to Clarke that Lord Paul had not given millions to Labour, as Ashcroft has to the Conservatives. Clarke responded:

No, Lord Paul has given several million [pounds].

Wrong. As the Ministry of Truth blog points out:

For one thing, it's a bit of a reach to call Lord Paul a major Labour donor when the Electoral Commission's records show that he's made only one personal donation to the party (a mere £10,000 in 2001) while his company, Caparo, has donated the princely sum of £14,250 in three donations, one in 2002 and two more in 2008.

Caparo were a little more generous with Gordon Brown during the period when he was raising funds for his campaign for the Labour leadership, but only to the tune of £45,000 in two donations, which is loose change compared to the amount that Ashcroft has funnelled into the Conservative Party since 2003.

2) On the subject of the rules about non-domiciles, I pointed out that the rules were an anachronism and should be abolished. I also highlighted how Britain ploughs a lonely furrow on this issue -- few other countries offer such a tax loophole to their squillionaire class, not even free-market, low-tax America. Clarke, a former chancellor of the Exchequer in this country, responded:

That's not true. That's not true.

Really? I asked the leading tax accountant Richard Murphy whether or not the Americans make a distinction between domicile and residency for tax purposes. His response? "Absolute bollocks." Oh, and here's the BBC website's take:

Few other countries have such a loophole. Most, like the United States, insist that if you live in the country you have to pay taxes on your worldwide earnings.

In general, over the course of the one-hour radio debate, I couldn't help but feel sorry for Clarke. His heart clearly wasn't in it. Had he been leader of the Conservative Party over the past decade -- the great "What if . . .?" question of modern British politics -- we would probably not have had Michael Ashcroft ennobled and made deputy chair of the Conservative Party. Nor for that matter would we have had the Tories' proposed inheritance-tax cut for the country's 3,000 richest estates or the Tories' strange alliance in Europe with the "ultra-nationalist right". Oh, and we might have avoided the Iraq war, too . . .

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage