Wreckage of the airliner that crashed in rebel-held east Ukraine. Photo: Getty
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Europe has a duty to act more effectively on the Russia Ukraine conflict

The Labour MP Mike Gapes argues that it is becoming increasingly likely the crashed airliner in Ukraine was shot down by Russian separatist fighters, and that it's time Europe took action on the Russia/Ukraine conflict.

We must await the outcome of inspections, satellite monitoring data and examination of the black box to be sure, but it seems increasingly likely a Russian-made Buk surface-to-air missile system, supplied by Moscow to pro-Russia separatist fighters in Eastern Ukraine, and perhaps even operated by Russian-trained personnel, shot down the Malaysia Airlines flight killing 298 people.

The enormity of this crime raises serious concerns and huge implications. 

As the President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko said, "This was not an 'incident', this was not a 'catastrophe', this was a terrorist act."

The US had already just imposed further tougher sanctions on Russia for continuing to provide weapons to the Russian separatist rebels. Although the EU sanctions regime is less tough, reflecting ongoing dependence of several states on Gazprom supplies, I think there will now be public pressure on governments here, in the Netherlands and elsewhere to do much more. But the problem we face is that Russia, despite its mounting economic problems and capital flight, still holds several cards. It is a permanent member of the Security Council, able and willing to use its veto to protect its position in Syria, Iran and elsewhere. And the British financial system, London property markets and Conservative party are still very happy to take money from Russian oligarchs.

Putin knows this very well but he also knows that Russia cannot afford to be regarded as a terrorist-backing rogue state. He must swiftly act to rein in the extremists in Donetsk and cooperate in an international investigation of this war crime. He should also work rapidly to end the conflict with Ukraine. But he probably will not do this because his whole strategy in Ukraine was based on pressure to keep it under Russian domination and prevent Ukraine associating with western countries through the EU. That is why he occupied and annexed Crimea, tearing up an agreement signed by Russia in Budapest in 1994, and why he has armed and supported separatist extremists in Ukraine.

If Putin does not change course, we face not just a new cold war but the danger of intensified armed conflict in parts of the former Soviet Union. The forthcoming NATO summit in Wales in September will be the most important for a generation. Is Europe prepared to act more effectively to stand up against terrorism or do we just want business as usual with Putin and his oligarchs?

Mike Gapes is Labour MP for Ilford South and is a member of the foreign affairs select committee

Flickr/Nic Gould
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Why haven't we heard more about the allegations of Tory election fraud?

Police and prosecutors have joined a probe into election fraud allegations that could erase the Tory majority.

The facts

The Conservative Party is facing accusations of breaking election spending rules during its 2015 campaign. Following a Channel 4 investigation, it has admitted to failing to declare more than £38,000 of expenses, money it says was spent on accommodation for Tory activists.

It’s up to the Electoral Commission, which met this week with prosecutors and police forces, to decide whether or not to launch criminal investigations into this spending.

Allegations that the money benefited campaigns in individual seats have put the Tories in hot water – they may have illegally exceeded the constituency-specific spending limit. Making a false spending declaration in an election carries a punishment of up to a year in prison and/or an unlimited fine, and anyone found guilty is also barred from running in a general election or holding any elected office for three years.

But the party claims that, as the money was spent on “BattleBus” activists who were driving around the country, it counts as national spending from HQ, rather than being part of individual candidates’ spending.

The Electoral Commission, Crown Prosecution Service and representatives of 15 police forces met this week to discuss the claims. This has resulted in extra time being allowed (an extension on the 12 months allowed under the Representation of the People Act) for relevant police forces to decide what action to take.

Up to 29 Conservative candidates are thought to have benefitted from “BattleBus” campaigning, many of whom were fighting marginal seats.

As Channel 4’s Michael Crick reported yesterday:

“It will be interesting to see if they actually start naming constituencies where they think offences may have occurred. That would then put elected MPs, Conservative MPs, in the frame.

“And indeed, if they were to look at all the constituencies that we’ve been making allegations about over the last few months, it could actually endanger the government’s majority in the House of Commons.”

The conspiracy claims

So why haven’t we heard about this? It undermines the credibility of the entire Tory general election campaign. The claims could even constitute a scandal that would trigger by-elections across the country and potentially erase the Tory majority. The Tories have a working majority of 18, so if they lost in 18 by-elections (were at least 18 MPs to be found guilty), then they would lose their majority.

Some, particularly online leftwing voices, have accused the media of conspiring not to cover this story. Our rightwing press and the cowardly BBC, they argue, are ignoring a story that could potentially call the Conservative general election victory into question.

Anger about this story being low on the political agenda is understandable. It hasn’t been prominent, considering it could result in prosecutions (indeed, the Devon and Cornwall police force is reportedly already investigating, following its meeting with the Electoral Commission). And if, say, The Sun were a left-leaning paper, it probably would have framed it in a dramatic way that would have grabbed readers’ attention.

But there isn’t a media conspiracy of silence. BBC News has been covering developments since the beginning of the year, including similar claims about 2014 by-elections, and Grant Shapps MP (Conservative chairman during the election) was hauled onto the BBC Daily Politics sofa to respond to the allegations. And the BBC’s Today programme put the allegations to Communities & Local Government Secretary Greg Clark this morning. Channel 4 News has been investigating the story, and breaking developments, from the start. The Mirror has done a big investigation into each of the MPs’ campaigns that have been accused. And all of the main papers have published news reports on the story.

The reason it may seem like silence, or lack of due prominence, is because this is an ongoing investigation. So far there have been no arrests, and the allegations remain just that: allegations. Care is required by media organisations not to falsely accuse anyone of criminal activity. And, pushed by journalists, the Conservatives have given their side of the story, so we’re not going to get a great deal more from them. Now it’s up to police forces to decide to take action.

So far, the only things to report on have been what would and would not count as a breach of electoral law (rather a dry subject), and whether or not the Electoral Commission would achieve an extension on the time allowed by law for investigating (also somewhat technical). And, however dull, these things have been reported. They may not have been shared a huge amount online, or bounced to the top of “most-read” boxes – but this is because readers aren’t usually that interested in the ins and outs of the Representation of the People Act, no matter how much those who want this government toppled wish they were.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.