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Commons Confidential: Eric Pickles’s lightbulb moment

Plus how disgraced PR Max Clifford’s furniture found its way into Ukip’s HQ.

Conservatives from David Cameron down demand cuts to translation services to force Juan and Jola Foreigner to learn English. While Eric Pickles has issued an edict ordering England’s councils to bin multilingual leaflets, Iain Duncan Smith snips welfare booklets. So imagine my snout’s surprise on receiving a Tory election leaflet in ten languages, including Polish and Lithuanian, in IDS’s Chingford and Woodford Green backyard. Conservative double standards require no translation.

Sex attacker Max Clifford is in jail – and his furniture is in Ukip’s HQ. The Faragist Purple Shirts shared a billet in the same Mayfair block as the pervert predator until he received an unwelcome invitation to stay at one of Her Majesty’s guest houses. Tables and chairs from the disgraced PR’s lair have found their way into Nigel Farage’s command centre. The irony isn’t lost on Ukippers Neil and Christine Hamilton, who sued Clifford after he endorsed entirely false accusations that they had sexually assaulted one of his kiss-and-tell clients.

After the comrades spent last August on the beach, Labour leave is to be curtailed this summer to repel Cameron’s Blue Shorts and the Purple Shirts. I was reminded of a private moan by Ed Miliband suggesting that he feels his shadow cabinet doesn’t pull its weight: “I don’t mind them taking off August,” Mili observed. “It’s the rest of the year that worries me.”

Pickles must be tossing and turning after cops demanded that Tory Essex switch back on the street lights in bits of Big Eric’s Brentwood manor following a crime wave. The Communities Secretary welcomed the great turn-off for helping him sleep while saving money. My disgruntled informant with the torch snarled that the larger-than-life Tory would be safe waddling to the local Indian takeaway when the lamps shine again.

The Beast of Bolsover is enjoying fun at the expense of Michael Gove’s bottom lip. Dennis Skinner, the Commons heckler-in-chief, observed that the lower rim of the Education Secretary’s mouth glistens with spittle when he becomes overexcited at the despatch box. Labour MPs on the awkward squad bench discuss the wetness in a stage whisper and giggle when the radar-lugged Mickey wipes it dry with the back of his hand.

Farage’s deputy, the MEP Paul Nuttall, has discovered that politics is a tiring business. Excited by the election results, the Ukipper took a sleeping pill to get 40 winks. By his own admission, the first broadcast interview of the day was a groggy blur. Meanwhile Nick Clegg would dearly love to wake from his Lib Dumb nightmare. 

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.