Cameron's guru goes west

Has Tory decontamination gone for good too?

The more consequential of the two stories contained in the latest extracts from Francis Elliott and James Hanning's book about David Cameron, which I blogged about yesterday, concerned the departure from Number 10 of the Prime Minister's director of strategy, Steve Hilton. "As the Government approached its halfway mark," Elliott and Hanning wrote, "Hilton remained the player in the team 'who believes in things', as one Tory puts it, and one who wanted to make bold, radical changes ... Hilton’s friends began openly wondering whether Cameron shared his passion."

Hilton's decision to take a "sabbatical" (that is likely to turn out to be a permanent furlough) is preoccupying several commentators today. John Rentoul in the Independent on Sunday thinks it marks the end of the first phase of the Cameron government. Rentoul repeats Elliott and Hanning's suggestion that, for a while now, it's been the "cold calculations" of George Osborne that have had the PM's ear, rather than Hilton's "idealistic enthusiasms" about shrinking the state. (Hilton appears to have dealt with the apparent prime ministerial rebuff by raging at civil servants; the mandarinate certainly wasn't begging him to stay.) But, Rentoul adds, that shift in Cameron's affections has wider ramifications:

It is a buddy-movie break-up to touch the hardest of hearts. Yet it also makes a difference to the character of the Government, because it coincides with a mid-term shift in how Cameron is seen by the voters. The Prime Minister used to be more popular than the Conservative Party. He seemed to play the part of unifying national leader well. But our opinion poll today is the first from ComRes that puts his personal rating below Ed Miliband's.

That Cameron is now more unpopular than the Labour leader suggests that Hilton's "decontamination" strategy has failed (the attempt since 2005 to rehabilitate the Tories and to convince voters that they're no longer the "nasty party" being more or less entirely a function of the personality of the Prime Minister). Rentoul is surely right, therefore, to suggest that "Hiltonism – defined as persuading the voters that the Tories are not the party which looks after its own – is the key to the next election." 

Over at Conservative Home, Paul Goodman offers a subtly different, but no less interesting, analysis of the Hilton era. The government's problem, Goodman suggests, is that it hasn't been able to decide who incarnates its authentic self - Hilton or Osborne:

To date, the Conservative part of this Government has been half-Osborne, that most worldly politician of all (reason, calculation, limited aims and a dash of cynicism) and half-Hilton (heart, impulse, transformative ambition and idealism). The Government's mid-term plight has been shaped largely by the lack of a majority and a shortage of money. But trying to be all things to all men has wreaked collateral damage.

Rentoul suggests that Hilton himself must bear some of the blame for this predicament:

The Budget was a historic error, from which all of Cameron's problems flow. It was a betrayal of Hiltonism. In opposition, Hilton would never have contemplated a tax cut for the rich that would so offend the AB liberal demographic group. Yet Hilton himself was complicit in the turn away from his own policy of Tory decontamination. Once in government and charged with progress-chasing, he allowed his frustrations with Europe and the Liberal Democrats to override the need to appeal to centrist voters. By railing against Europe and offending the Lib Dems by trying to curtail maternity rights and to make it easier to sack workers, he seemed to be reverting to a William Hague 2001 strategy.

Of course, some have suspected all along that "Tory decontamination" was only ever skin deep. Certainly, it hasn't turned out to be the definitive solution to the Conservative Party's electoral woes that Hilton and the Cameroons thought it would be.

On his bike: Steve Hilton (photo: Getty Images)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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The Taliban's succession crisis will not diminish its resilience

Haibatullah Akhunzada's appointment as leader of the Taliban may put stress on the movement, but is unlikely to dampen its insurgency. 

After 19 years under the guidance of the Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Omar, the group has now faced two succession crises in under a year. But although Haibatullah Akhunzada’s appointment as leader of the Taliban will likely put stress on the movement, it shows few signals of diminishing its renewed insurgency.

The news pretty much ends speculation about former leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s death in a US airstrike in Pakistan’s south-western Baluchistan province, which was criticised by Islamabad as a violation of its sovereignty.

The Taliban would have prepared extensively for this eventuality. The fast appointment, following days of intense council, appears to be a conspicuous act of decisiveness. It stands in contrast to the two-year delay the movement faced in announcing the death of the Mullah Omar. It will be not be lost on the Taliban that it was subterfuge around the death of Mullah Omar that caused the fracture within the movement which in turn led to the establishment of an ISIS presence in the country.

The appointment is a victory for the Taliban old guard. As former head of the Taliban's judiciary and Mullah Mansour’s deputy, in many ways, Haibatullah is a natural successor. Haibatullah, described by Afghanistan expert Sami Yousafzai as a “stone age Mullah,” demonstrates the Taliban’s inherent tendency to resort to tradition rather than innovation during times of internal crisis.

The decision taken by the Taliban to have an elder statesman of the group at the helm highlights the increasing marginalisation of the Haqqani network, a powerful subset within the Taliban that has been waging an offensive against the government and coalition forces in northwest Pakistan.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network who already has a bounty of 5 million dollars on his head, was touted in some Taliban circles as a potential successor, however the decision to overlook him is a conservative move from the Taliban. 

The Taliban’s leadership of the jihad against the Afghan government is hinged on their claims to religious legitimacy, something the group will hope to affirm through the Haibatullah’s jurisprudential credentials. This assertion of authority has particular significance given the rise of ISIS elements in the country. The last two Taliban chiefs have both declared themselves to be amir ul-momineen or ‘leader of the faithful,’ providing a challenge to the parallel claims of ISIS’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Any suggestions that Mansour’s death will lead to the unravelling of the Taliban are premature. The military targeting of prominent jihadi leaders within group structures has been seen in operations against the leadership of ISIS, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and other groups.

In recent research for the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, we found that it is often less prominent jihadis that play an integral role in keeping the movement alive. Targeted killings do create a void, but this often comes at the expense of addressing the wider support base and ideological draw of militant outfits. This is particularly relevant with a relatively decentralised movement like the Taliban.

Such operations can spur activity. If the example of the Taliban’s previous leadership succession is to be heeded, we might expect renewed attacks across Afghanistan, beyond the group’s strongholds near the eastern border with Pakistan. The brief capture of Kunduz, Afghanistan's fifth-largest city, at the end of September 2015, was a show of strength to answer the numerous internal critics of Mullah Mansour’s new leadership of the movement.

In a news cycle dominated by reports of ISIS, and to a diminishing extent al-Qaeda, atrocities, it is important to comprehend the renewed brutality of the Afghan insurgency.  Data from the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics Global Extremism Monitor found a seventeen per cent rise in fatalities from March to April, marking the start of the Taliban’s spring fighting season. A suicide attack in central Kabul on the headquarters of an elite military unit that killed 64 people was the single most deadly act of terror around the world in the month of April, and the group’s bloodiest attack in the Afghan capital for years. Reports this morning of a suicide attack on a bus killing 10 staff from an appeal court west of Kabul, suggests that the violence shows no sign of diminishing under the new leadership.

All these developments come during a period of renewed impetus behind international peace talks. Last week representatives from Pakistan were joined by delegates from Afghanistan, the United States, and China in an attempt to restart the stalled negotiation process with the Taliban.

Haibatullah Akhunzada’s early leadership moves will be watched closely by these countries, as well as dissonant voices within the movement, to ascertain what the Taliban does next, in a period of unprecedented challenge for the infamously resilient movement. 

Milo Comerford is a South and Central Asia Analyst for the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics