Harriet Harman at a Hacked Off event in 2013. She has recently come under fire for her PIE connections
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Containing Putin, Paul Dacre’s revenge on Labour, and parenting advice from Boris

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts.

If you want to understand why Ukraine matters to Vladimir Putin, take a look at a map. The historic heart of Russia has a long land frontier, with plains stretching east, south and west, and few natural defences except the brutality of its winters. Since the Mongols overran Russia from the east in the 13th century and Europeans then helped themselves to its territories from the west, its rulers have feared encirclement and land invasion. In recent years, the US has brought 12 of the Soviet Union’s former central European allies into Nato. Rightly or wrongly, Russians fear that Nato will eventually include Georgia and Ukraine, with which the US already has a “strategic partnership” or “security relationship”.

Putin is the unpleasant head of an unpleasant regime and the Russians’ preference for strong and aggressive leaders (think Ivan the Terrible) is another result of their insecure history. Yet how would we feel if, in a decade or so, an independent Scotland formed a “security relationship” with Russia? How did the US respond in the 1960s to Cuba’s alliance with Moscow?

Recently, on CNN, the former Princeton University professor of Russian studies Stephen Cohen said: “We are witnessing . . . the making possibly of the worst history of our lifetime.” He recalled that the late US diplomat George Kennan, an architect of the cold war “containment” policy, had warned in the 1990s that the expansion of Nato was a fateful mistake. It would, Kennan had said, lead to a new cold war, with the border this time not in Berlin but much further east.

 

Alpha Mail

I doubt the exposure of Harriet Harman’s “links” in the 1970s with the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) will do her any long-term damage other than reminding us that she has a patrician distaste for admitting intellectual error or moral shortcoming to a mass audience.

Regardless of one’s views about Harman’s culpability, one is bound, however reluctantly, to admire once more the Daily Mail and its editor, Paul Dacre. The PIE and its so-called links with lefties and civil libertarians is a story that surfaces, on average, every other year. Dacre presumably revived it in revenge for Labour forcing a limited, grudging retraction of allegations that Ed Miliband’s late father hated Britain.

The Mail first splashed the PIE story across its front page on 19 February. Everyone ignored it. Many editors might think that their news sense was temporarily malfunctioning. Not Dacre. In the following seven days, the Mail splashed on “Labour links to child sex group” three more times, shouting ever louder.

Eventually, the media chatterers could talk of little else. Even the Guardian ran PIE “exposures”. Dacre, paranoid and chippy, may be the Putin of Fleet Street but he demonstrates repeatedly that newspapers are far from dead.

 

Bringing up baby

Always ready to turn a good case into a bad one, Boris Johnson, writing in his Daily Telegraph column, compared Harman’s blindness to the dangers of the PIE to the current “tolerance” of Islamic radicalisation. Only “political correctness”, he argued, prevents the authorities taking into care children who are taught “crazy stuff” and “habituated” by their parents to “this utterly bleak and nihilistic view of the world”.

I, too, would prefer children not to be brought up as Islamist radicals. I would also prefer them not to be raised as Tories, prepared to throw poor people out of their home for having too many bedrooms; as Ukip supporters, uncomfortable with hearing any language other than English; or as Blairites, believing crazy stuff about invading countries with governments we don’t like. No wonder the Telegraph website doesn’t show any readers’ comments on Johnson’s column.

 

Sacred and profane

One problem for those who want a non-religious send-off when they die is that churches own most of the best venues. This may explain why a recent memorial service for a non-believer – attended mainly by left-leaning agnostics and atheists, some very militant indeed – was held in a Nonconformist chapel.

The result was a curious truce between the devout and the secular. The resident vicar began with a sort of apology for his presence in, as it were, his own home and hoped we wouldn’t mind a few hymns. I can best describe the singing as less than lusty but there was nothing hushed about the deceased’s friends and colleagues as they spoke in celebration of her life: a fellow mourner counted four uses of the F-word, two of the C-word and one Jesus in the blasphemous sense. In each case, the vicar laughed ostentatiously.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.