Warsi: Huhne may stand down regardless of court verdict

The Conservative co-chair says that Huhne's Eastleigh seat is a "target" and the Tories would "fight

Chris Huhne has already withdrawn from the cabinet as he faces trial for allegedly perverting the course of justice -- and now it appears his Conservative coalition partners already have their eye on his parliamentary seat, even though the outcome of the trial has yet to be decided.

In an in-depth interview with The House magazine, Sayeeda Warsi, the co-chairman of the Conservative Party, has said that she is readying the Tories for a potential by-election fight in Eastleigh:

The party is ready for any by-election at any time. When a by-election is called in Eastleigh then of course we will kick in to action.

Note the use of "when", not "if". She added:

It is a target seat and I think we would fight it hard and we would fight it to win. I don't think the Lib Dems are dug in there. It's winnable. We will do everything we can to win it.

Last month, Guido Fawkes reported that 2,000 Tory party activists were dispatched to Eastleigh just two days after Huhne's court appearance. The Eastleigh Conservative Party insisted that the surge was to do with upcoming local elections rather than a potential by-election, but the timing was difficult to ignore. Warsi said that she has already been campaigning in Eastleigh, recently appearing at an event for local members.

Warsi -- not known for her discretion -- took the unusual step of suggesting that Huhne could step down even if he is found innocent. While she acknowledged that the outcome of the trial is yet to be decided, she said:

The by-election could be called because, you know, Chris might stand down irrespective of what happens at the court case.

The Tories have hardly been supportive of Huhne, who is accused of persuading his ex-wife Vicky Pryce to take his penalty points for a speeding offence nearly ten years ago. In February the Daily Mail reported that David Cameron told attendees of a Tory ball for wealthy donors: "we had to speed to get here on time. It's a good job Samantha was driving -- or at least, that's what it says on the forms!"

In response to Warsi's comments, a Lib Dem spokesman said: "Chris Huhne is denying the allegations against him, so talk of a by-election is extremely premature." The Times (£) quotes an unnamed Lib Dem source saying that the suggestion that Huhne could stand down even if found innocent "display[s] a slight lack of knowledge of Chris".

Huhne denies all allegations and is next due in court in May. While his thoughts may be on the pending trial, perhaps he should also be keeping an eye on the activities of the coalition partners already eyeing up his grave.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.