Rory Stewart in the House of Commons.
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Senior Labour figures back Rory Stewart for top defence post

Tessa Jowell, Bob Ainsworth and Dan Jarvis endorse the Tory MP as defence select committee chair. 

One small but significant change to the way parliament works in recent years has been the election of chairs to select committees. Previously they were in the gift of party whips. The innovation has been welcomed by MPs who felt that the authority of the legislature had been systematically undermined by an over-mighty executive (although that is more of a hazard when one party has a commanding majority).

One such election happens tomorrow when a new chair will be named for the defence select committee. It is a significant post given the sensitivity of the issues in hand – the future of funding for armed forces in an era of budget austerity; rolling anxiety about Britain’s appetite for military intervention; rapidly shifting views of what constitutes a sensible strategic deployment of limited resources as the nature and scale of new threats emerge and old ones recede.

By predetermined allocation the job goes to a Conservative, but the race is fiercely competitive within that pool. All MPs get a vote, which means candidates have to demonstrate a capacity to work with opposition colleagues. Other attractive criteria include, naturally, experience and expertise in defence matters and a record of independence. The latter point is emphasised by those parliamentarians who see the committee chair as a place where policy rigour and free-thought must trump obedience to the party line.

An early favourite was Keith Simpson, a junior minister at the Foreign Office. Now the lead contenders are said to be Rory Stewart, an author, expert on Afghanistan and former diplomat in Iraq and Julian Lewis, a former front-bencher who shadowed the armed forces portfolio in opposition. Other candidates include Bob Stewart, a former Army officer and Julian Brazier, a junior minister under John Major and a territorial army veteran. At the back of the pack are Crispin Blunt, Tobias Elwood and James Gray.

Tory backers of Rory Stewart are today gladdened by a potentially vital intervention from the Labour camp. Three prominent opposition MPs – Tessa Jowell, Bob Ainsworth and Dan Jarvis – have backed Stewart in an email circulated to colleagues. The latter two signatories in particular will attract note since Ainsworth is a former Defence Secretary and Jarvis served in the Paras and is often cited as one of Labour’s stars-yet-to-rise. Whether their intervention makes a difference will become clear tomorrow. Meanwhile, the effusive tone of the endorsement makes interesting reading for followers of such matters:

 

Dear Colleagues,


We are writing to ask if you might support Rory Stewart to be Chair of the Defence Select Committee. He is a fresh and independent voice and a very thoughtful analyst of UK Defence Policy. He has challenged the government's Afghan strategy, calmly and with real impact. But he continues to argue ‎that interventions are sometimes – as in Bosnia or Rwanda - necessary.‎ He does this on the basis of a unique experience working in and with the military across all the major conflicts of the last two decades.


Having served briefly as an infantry officer in the Black Watch, he served with the Foreign Office in Indonesia, in Bosnia, in Montenegro in the wake of the Kosovo campaign and in Iraq (where he as the deputy governor of two provinces in Southern Iraq). He then left the Foreign Office to set up an NGO, Turquoise Mountain, in Afghanistan. He spent three years living in Kabul establishing a clinic, a primary school, and leading an urban regeneration project. He was appointed Professor of Human Rights at Harvard’s Kennedy School and lectures in Defence Colleges and universities in the US and Britain. He has written three books on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Intervention, focused on defence policy.


He has demonstrated over four years on the Foreign Affairs Committee, that he is a collegial, non-Partisan colleague with exceptional experience and knowledge of recent conflicts. He is not tied to the ‘Cold War’ but instead has reflected deeply on future challenges from Human Rights to Cyber-Security. We feel he would be a dedicated, intelligent, fair and open-minded Chair, never afraid to hold the government to account. We would be very grateful if you would consider voting for him.

 

With best wishes,

 

Tessa Jowell

Bob Ainsworth

Dan Jarvis

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

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.