In this week’s New Statesman: The dream ticket?

With Cameron in crisis, the Tories are ready for Boris and Gove. PLUS: Mehdi Hasan on Islam and gay rights.

Cover Story: Gove and Boris - the dream ticket?

Boris Johnson wins elections. Michael Gove is an ideologue. Together, they can offer what Cameron lacks, writes Rafael Behr in our cover story this week. Behr considers if an alliance could succeed David Cameron and George Osborne at the top of the Tory party. The prospect of a European referendum has exposed divisions in the Conservative ranks that Cameron seems unable to close:

Cameron does not want to take Britain out of the EU; a large part of his party wants nothing more. That makes it inevitable that the Tories will ponder a change of leadership, periodically in public and almost constantly in private.

Though Johnson is a clear favourite among Conservative members, there are concerns about his lack of seriousness and ideological rigour. That, Behr argues, is where a joint ticket with Gove, the Education Secretary, starts to look appealing:

Gove’s appeal to Tories is almost the opposite of Johnson’s. He has no aura of mass-market celebrity but is admired in the party for fixedness of purpose and executive effectiveness . . . The zeal behind the push to convert local authority schools to academies, found new free schools and promote pious cultural conservatism in the curriculum has stunned Labour, infuriated the teaching unions and alienated civil servants. Those things count as triumphs among Conservatives.

Behr highlights the two men’s friendship and the emergence of policy collaboration between them, with Johnson planning to use City Hall powers as Mayor of London to promote free schools. Above all, a Boris-Gove alliance would offer different and complementary traits that many Tories believe are missing in Cameron.

The rational course for the Tories would be to unite behind the Prime Minister, but they have drifted beyond reason and into the realm of longing. There are two things they particularly crave but which Cameron, in their eyes, is incapable of providing. The first is popularity that reaches beyond core Tory voters, yet without a hint of apology for being a Conservative. The second is the firm smack of ideological constancy. In today’s party those dream attributes come with names attached: Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.




The Guest Column: Edward Davey says Eurosceptic Tories are putting party before country

The rise of “multiparty politics” in Britain has been a big factor in the Tory party’s “poor record”, writes the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and Liberal Democrat MP, Edward Davey, in our Diary this week. “How they respond may determine the next election. Do they appease Ukip or confront it?”

The Conservative “appeasers” have won out so far, Davey says, but is the party getting it wrong? He writes:

People need to wake up. When cabinet ministers follow Tory grandees in backing withdrawal from the EU and when the Conservative Party votes against its own Queen’s Speech, stakes have risen. The best we now have from the Conservatives when it comes to pursuing our national interest in Europe is to threaten our partners with renegotiation and an “in or out” referendum, whatever is negotiated. It’s like a hostage-taker saying, “If you give me what I want, I still might shoot you.”

By talking up the prospects of withdrawal, the Tories are damaging our national interest, not strengthening it. And they are doing so on the false promise that it will help them win a general election. This is a clear case of putting party before country. Shame on them.

Read this piece in full, online now.


Mehdi Hasan: As a Muslim, I struggle with the idea of homosexuality, but I oppose homophobia

Writing after the Cambridge theologian Dr Tim Winter and the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson apologised for homophobic comments they had made, Mehdi Hasan issues his own apology for “some pretty inappropriate comments in the past”.

Taking the conversation wider, Hasan says that “many Muslims . . . have a problem, if not with homosexuals, then with homosexuality”. But putting aside his personal “struggles” with the matter, he appeals for a more balanced and progressive relationship between faith and homosexuality – arguing that homophobia and Islamobophia actually have much in common.

You may or may not be surprised to learn that, as a teenager, I was one of those wannabe-macho kids who crudely deployed “gay” as a mark of abuse . . .

It’s now 2013 and I’m 33 years old. My own “youthful enthusiasm” is thankfully, if belatedly, behind me. What happened? Well, for a start, I grew up . . . I acquired a more nuanced understanding of my Islamic faith, a better appreciation of its morals, values and capacity for tolerance . . .

The truth is that Islamophobia and homophobia have much in common: they are both, in the words of the (gay) journalist Patrick Strudwick, “at least partly fuelled by fear. Fear of the unknown . . .” Muslims and gay people alike are victims of this fear – especially when it translates into hate speech or physical attacks. We need to stand side by side against the bigots and hate-mongers, whether of the Islamist or the far-right variety, rather than turn on one another or allow ourselves to be pitted against each other, “Muslims v gays”.


Felicity Cloake: Our big fat fear

In the NS Essay this week, Felicity Cloake writes a special report on the obesity epidemic. As our waistlines have grown, she writes, so has our collective judgment of the overweight – in society, in the workplace, and even in the healthcare system. So how did fattism become “perhaps the last form of socially acceptable forms of prejudice?” She begins:

Almost half of the people surveyed for a Mintel special report in 2009 blamed the rising tide of obesity on “laziness” and a fifth attributed it to greed. Even Tam Fry, the spokesman for the National Obesity Forum, has described the obese as “eating [themselves] silly”.

Indeed, hardly a month goes by without some hysteria in the tabloids about “fat Brit­ain”. Whatever the story, the sentiment is the same – it’s all their own fault.

The government, hardly more understanding, seems to view fat people purely as a selfish drain on scarce national resources. “At a time when our country needs to rebuild our economy,” the former health secretary Andrew Lansley wrote in the introduction to the government’s 2011 Healthy Lives, Healthy People policy paper, “overweight and obesity impair the productivity of individuals and increase absenteeism.” Apparently it’s up to all of us “to be honest” about what we eat and drink. The subtext? If only fat people would lay off the junk, they’d save the economy £7bn a year.


The Mr. Men Game: Richard J Evans challenges Michael Gove’s history agenda

Richard J Evans, Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge, responds to criticisms levelled at him in a recent speech on the teaching of history in schools by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove. Evans wonders why Gove ignored the best account of the subject, the 2011 Ofsted report History for All. Instead, Gove appealed to a number of rather unreliable sources.

It emerged that Gove’s sources included only one properly conducted poll, carried out by Lord Ashcroft to mark the unveiling of the Bomber Command Memorial in London. The rest, including a poll carried out by the hotel chain Premier Inn, was either amateurish, politically biased, or irrelevant.

Why, Evans wonders, “does the Secretary of State feel it necessary to keep denigrating the dedicated people who teach history in our schools? Where is his patriotic pride in the historical profession in our country, the best in the world? The recently released QS rankings of university history departments across the globe put Cambridge top, Oxford second and other British universities such as the LSE, UCL and Warwick only a little way behind.”


Ian Mulheirn: The truth about welfare

What happened to social solidarity in Britain? asks Ian Mulheirn, the director of the Social Market Foundation. When the Beveridge report was released in 1942, people “queued around the block” to get a copy. “Welfare was a vote-winner,” Mulheirn writes, but in the intervening decades “the descent from Beveridge has been total”.

In extracts from his forthcoming publication Beveridge Rebooted, he argues: “Our welfare system today is politically toxic and the public debate about it has become untethered from evidence or a semblance of rational discussion.” Citing comprehensive research, he identifies flaws of the government’s current welfare strategy:

Our welfare system is failing politically. It does not inspire confidence among taxpayers, nor does it provide effective support for those who need it. Increasingly it is seen to be overgenerous, disincentivising work, and out of control. Yet paradoxically, for the vast majority of workers, it provides some of the least generous support available in the developed world for people who experience the misfortune of unemployment.

How did this situation come about?


George Eaton interviews Sarah Wollaston MP

In an interview with George Eaton, the Conservative MP for Totnes, Sarah Wollaston, accuses David Cameron of caving in to drinks and tobacco industry lobbyists by abandoning plans to introduce minimum alcohol pricing and plain packaging for cigarettes.

Asked why Cameron chose not to include these policies in the Queen’s Speech, she replies:

“It’s lobbying. And to those who think that lobbying doesn’t work, well, if it didn’t work they wouldn’t be doing it.”

She adds: “We should not try and compete with Nigel Farage by looking like the party of booze and fags.”


In the Critics

This week, the historian of the Catholic Church John Cornwell reviews On Heaven and Earth, a series of interviews between Jorge Mario Bergoglio, recently named Pope Francis, and the Argentinian rabbi Abraham Skorka, now published as a book. The critical questions to answer about the “first pope from the Americas”, Cornwell argues, are these: “Will he support the progressive Catholic constituency that bemoans the reversal of the ideals of the Second Vatican Council? Or will he encourage the traditionalists, who yearn for the return of the citadel Church of the great Piuses of the 20th century?” On the evidence of these conversations, Cornwell concludes, the Francis papacy will be characterised by a “rhetorical emphasis on the Church’s identity and fellowship with the poor”. However, it is also clear, he notes, that “the new pope is sceptical to the point of cynicism about the secular sphere’s ability to relieve poverty without religion; and he is ominously silent on the strengths of social democracy”.

In books:

  • Leo Robson reviews Fallen Land, the second novel by the young American writer Patrick Flanery: “Flanery smuggles [in] an improbable range of themes and modes. Like many an American novelist before him, he tries to keep the mixture under control by drawing connections . . . but his efforts are strained . . .”
  • The former Labour cabinet minister Andrew Adonis praises Progressive Capitalism by David Sainsbury: “This book is equally important for what it says and for who is saying it . . . A decade ago this prospectus would have seen its author branded ‘Red Sainsbury’. Now it is pretty sensible and mainstream. A new centre ground is being forged.”
  • Olivia Laing enjoys Here and Now, an exchange of letters between the novelists Paul Auster and J M Coetzee: “It’s a spectacle that engages both spectators and participants: there’s something of the tennis match here, a game that is itself a subject of scrutiny.”
  • David Shariatmadari reads The Anatomy of Violence by Adrian Raine: “The message that ought to be taken from this book is that criminality should be seen as a publichealth problem.”
  • Vernon Bogdanor reads a new paperback edition of Britain’s First Government by John Shepherd and Keith Laybourn: “The history of the first Labour government shows how dangerous it is for the party to retreat into a ghetto, isolating itself from other forces on the left.”


  • This week’s Critic at Large is Ned Beauman, recently voted one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. Beauman explores the murky phenomenon of “gang stalking”. “Reading about gang stalking online,” he writes, “can be dispiriting . . . but I confess I also find it addictive.” He confesses his ambivalence: “Gang stalking websites . . . are the ruins of people’s lives and I shouldn’t be cruising them for ephemeral thrills.”
  • Ryan Gilbey reviews Baz Lurhmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby for the big screen: “[The] film is too dependent for its energy on Gatsby’s ostentatious parties to achieve any satirical strikes.”
  • Kate Mossman reviews the new album by Laura Marling: “Her appeal has always been the unadorned purity of her songs.”
  • Antonia Quirke listens to an interview with the writer Jan Morris on Radio 3 (“There hung over the whole interview . . . a flat determination not to mention her gender reassignment . . .”).
  • Andrew Billen watches Jeremy Herrin’s production of The Tempest at Shakespeare’s Globe and concludes: “Not all of the production soared.”
  • Rachel Cooke reviews the ITV adaptation of Kate Summerscale’s prize-winning non-fiction book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (“The time will come when [Olivia] Colman makes an excellent Queen Victoria. She looks marvellous in jet”).


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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.