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.

 

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE

 

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.”

Plus:

  • 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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The wildfire victims of forestry neglect - and the trees that saved them

Events in Portugal show how present mismanagement of the natural world reaches far beyond climate change, while also leaving communities more vulnerable to its effects.

When guesthouse owner Liedewij Schieving first heard about the wildfire in nearby Pedrogado Grande, she wasn’t overly concerned. “We always have fires here,” she explains at her home deep in the central Portugese forest.

It was only later that night, eating outside with her 11 guests, that the fear set in: “The wind was starting to smell and the sunset looked weird and dark.” By early the next morning the vast wall of flames had breached their remote valley. “I’ve never been in a war,” Liedewij says, still shaken, “but it was how I imagine war to sound.”

Soaring to temperatures of over 800 centigrade - high enough to melt windscreens and sink tyres into tarmac - the inferno eventually burned over 30,000 hectares of forest. By the time it was quelled, 64 adults and children had lost their lives, some dying trapped in their cars as they tried to escape down an unsafe road. “The biggest tragedy of human life we have known in years,” is how the country’s Prime Minister responded to the news on 18 June.

Two months later, the Pedrogado fire has proved the precusor to another summer of extreme weather events. Across southern and central Europe recent weeks have seen high winds and low humidity whip up wildfires everywhere from Spain to Serbia. At time of writing, 2,000 people in Portugal are trapped in the town of Mação as flames and smoke block their exit. In France, fires recently forced over 20,000 people from their homes and campervans.

Climate change is an unmistakable culprit. A Carbon Brief analysis of 140 studies from around the world found that 63 per cent of extreme weather events are linked to human-caused warming - making them either more likely or more severe.

Yet as countries assess the damage, evidence of humanity’s wider mismanagement of nature is also becoming harder to ignore. In Portugal, the excessive planting of eucalytpus trees is taking some of the blame for recent events. The species is the timber of choice for the country’s powerful paper industry, covering both industry-owned plantations and hundreds of tiny private smallholdings who sell it on. But it also happens to be highly flammable: think Grenfell cladding but spread over nearly a million hectares of land.

Liedewij’s story is evidence of this. Where dense eucalyptus forest once hid her home in dappled shade, the hillside is now charred and bare. “It was terrible,” she says of the moment she opened the gates for the farm animals before fleeing the valley, “we thought we were leaving them behind to grill”. Except that, as in all good disaster films, Liedewij’s goats didn’t burn - and nor did her picturesque house. Instead, fire-retardant willow trees by a nearby stream held the flames naturally at bay. On returning the next morning, she even found the hens laying eggs.

Liedewij Schieving outside her B&B at Quinta da Fonte - the bare hills behind the house show just how close the fire came.

Seen from above, her remote farmstead is now a tiny island of green amid a sea of black. She still panics at the smell from the woodfired heating, but support has poured in from friends both in Portugal and her native Holland, and she soon plans to fully re-open Quinta da Fonte B&B. Many guesthouses in nearby villages have already got back up and running.

Others among her neighbours, however, are not so lucky. Over 10,000 separate fires have destroyed 141,000 hectares of land in Portugal this year alone, with the annual cost of wildfire losses estimated to reach around €200m. A situation that risks further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and neglect that also played their part in the tragedy.

According to Domingos Patacho from the environmental NGO Quercus, the forest has become more hazardous as many of central Portugal's thousands of smallscale landholders leave their land untended to seek better wages elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who remain are often financially dependent on the income from the eucalyptus. They could choose to plant less flammable and water-hungry species, such as native corks or oaks, Patacho explains, but these can take twice as long to mature and provide a return.

The result is rising tension between the Portugese paper industry and the central government. After the June fire, the parliament pledged to push ahead with plans to limit the monoculture plantations. But the country’s Association of the Paper industry has previously warned that any ban on new plantations could hurt exports and jobs.

The reality is that both sides of the eucalyptus spread - both industry-owned and private - need improved regulation. But in a country only recently released from EU imposed austerity measures, debates over how enforcement could be financed are particularly tense. Not least since many areas do not even have an up to date land register, Patacho expplains.

At ESAC, an agrarian research base in central Portugal, professor Antonio Ferreira believes the time is now ripe for discussion between politicians, citizens and researchers about the future of forest land-use as a whole. The country needs to encourage people “to re-introduce native species, which will diversify the landscape and economic activity in those areas,” he says.

And the impulse is far from limited to Portugal. “We need to look at all the social aspects to get the full picture as well as the scientific side of forest management,” says WWF’s Jabier Ruiz of Europe’s wider wildfire problems. One route out of the woods may be greater EU policy support for those living in marginalised, rural areas, he adds.

What is clear is that as the continent warms, the need to improve the balance between social, environmental and commercial interests becomes ever more crucial. And while politicians debate, work at Liedewij’s home is already underway. Over the next few weeks, a group of her eco-minded friends, builders and topographers will help her re-build and re-landscape her farm. From digging terraces to stop landslides, to preventing the eucalyptus from re-emerging too close to the roads, their aim is to regrow a forest that works for all: a slow-burn project perhaps, but a bright one.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.