Chagos: coalition ditches promise to reverse policy

UK government ministers come out against resettlement of Indian Ocean islanders.

If a week is a long time in politics, surely it is an age since the UK's coalition government was formed. And it's also the summer holidays, which is usually the time when civil servants conspire with ministers to smuggle unpopular items into the public domain in order to escape parliamentary scrutiny and public debate.

Both these factors might well explain why the government appears to have ditched the pre-election commitment made by William Hague and Nick Clegg to change the former Labour government's shameful policy towards the former inhabitants of the Chagos Islands, forcibly removed from their homeland to make way for the US military base on Diego Garcia.

A recent letter written by the minister responsible for British Overseas Territories, Henry Bellingham, to the leader of the Chagos Refugee Group, Olivier Bancoult, leaves little ambiguity about the new government's policy:

The UK government will continue to contest the case brought by the Chagos Islanders to the European Court of Human Rights. This is because we believe that the arguments against allowing resettlement on the grounds of defence, security and feasibility are clear and compelling.

Interestingly, despite his hesitation when pressed in parliament in late May to endorse the initiative announced by the former foreign secretary David Miliband, to turn the Chagos Archipelago into a marine protected area, and therefore uninhabitable territory, on 1 April -- Maundy Thursday afternoon (another device to wrong-foot parliament) -- Bellingham seems to have become an enthusiastic convert. He also tells Bancoult:

The Government also believes that a Marine Protected Area (MPA) is the right way ahead for furthering environmental protection of the Territory and encouraging others to do the same in important and vulnerable areas under their sovereign control.

This will come as a shock not only to the Chagos exiles, who were led to believe that their fortunes were about to change, but also to the government of Mauritius, which has been told on numerous occasions that the territory will be returned when it is "no longer needed for defence purposes".

The intention was reiterated when the new Foreign Secretary, William Hague, met Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam during a private visit to the UK by the Mauritian leader in early June.

However, as an old hand at the political game, Ramgoolam remained sceptical and was wise enough to pay a visit to the offices of his London lawyers about reclaiming the archipelago, which was detached from the colony of Mauritius in 1965, in breach of international law, before independence from Britain in 1968.

Perhaps the Mauritian premier should consider giving them another call.

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

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.