In this week's New Statesman: Boris vs Ken

Jemima Khan interviews the rivals | Jonathan Powell and Mehdi Hasan on Syria | Alastair Sooke on Luc

boris ken

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Ken: "The world is run by monsters"

Boris: "I'll tell you what makes me angry -- lefty crap"

On Friday 3 February, the New Statesman's associate editor, Jemima Khan, sat down with both of the leading contenders for the 2012 London mayoral election - the incumbent, Boris Johnson, and the inaugural mayor, Ken Livingstone, who served from 2000-2008.

Over breakfast, Khan found the Labour challenger spoiling for a fight and offering opinions freely on everything from the "clinically insane" Maggie Thatcher to the "moral imbecile" who runs the BBC. But her lunch partner, the notorious "maverick" Boris, seemed "maddeningly cautious and unforthcoming . . . less fun than I had anticipated".

Read extracts from both interviews here and here

The Syria dilemma: Jonathan Powell and Mehdi Hasan

The crisis in Syria poses a stark dilemma for the west - intervene, or stand by while thousands are massacred. In this week's NS Essay, Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff from 1994 to 2007, makes the case that "we would be foolish" to rule out military intervention in Syria:

If such a civil war spreads across the whole arc of Middle East where Sunni and Shia communities rub up against each other, from Lebanon and Iraq to Iran, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the consequences for all of us will be profound.

Accusations of double standards by the west - "of turning a blind eye to Middle Eastern governments that did not share our values, because they were strategic allies or because of the dependence of our societies on the hydrocarbons their countries produced" - should not lead us to be neutral about what is happening in Syria, Powell writes:

Evil regimes are a threat to, not defenders of, long-term stability and prosperity - and they are best overturned.

Elsewhere in the issue, Mehdi Hasan argues that intervention in the country will not stop the violence and "could prove a moral and political catastrophe":

Syrians . . . should decide their own future. Yes, some are calling for foreign military intervention. But others don't want a rerun of Libya - or, dare I say it, Iraq.

There is no simple solution, Hasan writes, but he outlines the diplomatic alternatives to an attack from the air:

. . . options include exerting further pressure on the Chinese and (especially) the Russians to back a Security Council resolution isolating and condemning the Syrian regime; threatening Assad and his cronies with International Criminal Court indictments; and widening the range of targeted, multilateral sanctions on the regime.

Also in the New Statesman

In Observations, Laurie Penny delivers a scathing response to Andrew Marr's BBC1 series for the royal jubilee, The Diamond Queen:

The BBC's impartiality seems to have been suspended for this hour-long propaganda roll. Given that a substaintial proportion of us still think of the monarchy as an embarrassment at best and at worst, to quote [John] Cooke, "dangerous to the liberty, safety and public interest of the people", you'd think there would be some acknowledgement that not everyone is happy to be a subject . . . "We don't live in a Tory country or a coalition nation; governments are merely lodgers," says Marr, obsequiously describing the point of all this panting and groaning -- the desperate notion that royal pomp and circumstance can bring together a country that is, in reality, only growing more divided. Whether or not the Queen is a lovely old lady with a fantastic array of hats is beside the point. This is not history. This is masturbation. Britain is in too much trouble right now to sit around playing with itself.

Elsewhere, Rafael Behr considers Nick Clegg's prospects for survival in Westminster; Helen Lewis profiles Facebook's $1.6bn woman, Sheryl K Sandberg; Rebecca McClelland travels to Devon to meet the award-winning journalist-photographer Don McCullin; the Third Reich Trilogy historian, Richard J Evans, warns against comparing Germany today with what it was in 1933; Alastair Sooke rhapsodises about the early work of Lucian Freud on display in a major exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and we publish a new poem by the Austrlian writer, John Kinsella.

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Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.