Danny Alexander on coalition tensions, the economy, and ginger-hair

I've interviewed Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, for this week's magazine. It's a long, wide-ranging conversation, covering coalition relations, the economy, Liberal Democrat election strategy and ginger-hairedness.

In terms of today's news agenda, there are a couple of lines to pick out. Alexander stays firmly against the idea of cutting the 50p top rate of tax any time soon.

At a time when the whole country faces serious financial challenges, the priority needs to be people on low and middle incomes.

Alexander also suggests that the Lib Dems will fight the next election calling for further tax cuts at the bottom of the earnings scale. The party is already implementing its policy of raising the personal allowance to £10,000 over the course of this parliament. Alexander thinks it should be even higher.

I don't see why, in the next parliament, we shouldn't be trying to get to a situation where people in a full-time job on the minimum wage are paying no income tax at all.

That amounts to a personal allowance of around £12,500.

On another issue making headlines at the moment, Alexander fires a warning shot across the bows of Tory eurosceptics. When asked whether he thinks the crisis in the eurozone is an opportunity to renegotiate Britain's relationship with Brussels, he was adamant:

We should be redoubling our effort, not looking at this as an excuse to further an agenda of weakening our ties.

He also insisted his Tory colleagues in government would not acquiesce to their backbenchers' anti-EU demands:

I haven't heard anyone within government express that view and I think it's completely wrong.

I went on to ask him if he thought David Cameron, George Osborne and William Hague had been on "a journey" towards greater pragmatism in terms of Britain's relations with the EU. He thought a long time before answering with a cautious affirmative.

In the history of Britain's role in Europe, if you go back to aftermath of the Second World War, Conservatives in government recognise that their job is to advance Britain's national interest and Europe -- the European Union -- provides an important forum for doing that. I don't think this government is any different in that respect.

True, perhaps. But not what a lot of people in the Tory party want to hear.

 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.