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The façade cracks

David Cameron is widely accepted as a “moderniser” and as having heralded a new kind of Conservatism. But are these changes quite so deep as he would have us believe?

When, in August, Peter Mandelson found himself at the same restaurant – the Taverna Agni, on the Greek island of Corfu – as the shadow chancellor George Osborne, the unlikely meeting was “by chance, not by choice”. Contrary to reports, the dinner, with 20 others, did not involve Mandelson “pouring poison” about Gordon Brown into Osborne’s ear (though Osborne attacked certain senior Tories, according to some of those present). Instead, the two politicians, who had spent little time together before, discussed approaches to effecting and managing change in their respective parties.

Unlike Osborne, who has spoken to several journalists about the dinner since then, Mandelson is reluctant to reveal the substance of what he considers to be a private conversation. But in his interview with the New Statesman last week he did give a hint of his verdict. “[The Tories] have managed to change their image rather quickly . . . but I don’t think they have done the equivalent major changes [as we did] and I don’t think they have carried the party entirely with them.”

Suddenly, at the end of the party conference season and following a dramatic reshuffle in which, against the backdrop of the worst economic crisis in living memory, Gordon Brown has partially re-established his authority, it is the Conservatives rather than Labour who are under pressure for the first time in more than a year. “The tide may be turning,” one senior Tory conceded this week. “I used to think we were definitely going to win; now it is less clear.”

Osborne has long been keen to portray himself as a moderniser within the Conservative Party, in the image of the young Mandelson. Yet he has always maintained, along with David Cameron, that the Tories do not need “a Clause Four moment” comparable to when Tony Blair symbolically abolished Labour’s commitment to nationalisation to prove to the electorate the party had changed and was ready to govern. Instead, the Tory leadership appears to believe, as Labour’s did through much of the 1980s, that the voters were wrong but will eventually come round to the party’s way of thinking.

The lasting reluctance of the media properly to scrutinise the opposition means that Cameron will almost certainly go into the next election having failed to take on his party on any single major issue. Two years ago, he called for “significantly less” immigration, abandoning any short-lived attempt to dampen rhetoric on that issue. And in April this year he used an article in the Sun to denounce the government for lying over “uncontrolled immigration”. In the same month, he ordered a return to the party’s “core vote strategy”, a focus on traditional issues such as immigration and Europe, issues so unsuccessfully pursued by his close ally William Hague, and Michael Howard and Iain Duncan Smith before him.

He presides over the most anti-European parliamentary party in Conservative history, having based part of his leadership campaign on the party’s withdrawal from membership of the centrist conservative grouping in Brussels. In the midst of a series of expenses scandals involving the Tory MP Derek Conway and three Tory MEPs, Cameron pushed hard, again in the Sun, for a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. He said that having a referendum would help to “clean up politics”, but this was a distraction.

On last year’s messy education row, in which Cameron attempted to halt the creation of more grammar schools, he subsequently retreated, under pressure from the right, and went out of his way to emphasise that this was “not a Clause Four moment”. He said: “I don’t go round picking fights [with my party].”

More generally, Cameron’s talk of a “social revolution” – his desire to heal our “broken society” – simply amounts in practice to little more than a hardening of support for the traditional family: tax breaks for mothers to stay at home and for married couples. Even global warming and the environment are no longer priorities. In May, Cameron failed to mention the words “environment” or “climate change” in a 1,200-word statement about his priorities for government, and his adviser Zac Goldsmith has been sidelined.

Before the conference season, Cameron appeared firm in his belief that Labour would very soon erupt into full-scale civil war; and he himself had otherwise just to remain calm and patient and the election would be his to win. But if the cliché is true that oppositions don’t win elections; government’s lose them, as many Tories believe, then the question might be asked: why did Mandelson, Blair, Brown and Alastair Campbell work so assiduously to create new Labour?

Conservative MPs on the pro-European left of the party are concerned about its fundamental policy direction. They say that the prospect of genuine – including fiscal – change was killed off at the crucial moment when Cameron audaciously entered the leadership contest against Kenneth Clarke in 2005, and, on the advice of the Tory MP and Times writer Michael Gove, now the shadow secretary of state for children, schools and families, adopted Michael Portillo’s socially liberal agenda. Portillo, about whom Gove wrote a biography, had also refused to back Clarke for the leadership in 2001.

So, instead of the wholesale, root and branch change that Clarke embodied – as with Neil Kinnock with Militant in the 1980s, and Blair with Clause Four in the 1990s – the Tories remained committed to a right-wing fiscal policy, especially cutting inheritance tax for the rich.

Some of the more thoughtful Tories privately worry that it is an ideological commitment to free-market fundamentalism that leaves the party open to Labour’s attacks over, for example, the shadow chancellor’s comment that “people make loads of money out of the misery of others”, as well as expose the Tories’ short-sighted failure last month to condemn the practice of “short-selling” shares in the City.

On the right of the party, meanwhile, the disaffected David Davis is increasingly emerging as the focal point for dissent. Davis, who fell out with the neoconservatives in the shadow cabinet, led by Gove and Osborne, and whom Osborne is known privately to attack, is keeping his head down after his crusading by-election victory. Early this week, he was ona fact-finding mission in Kabul. But at Westminster someof his allies say there is nothing “modern” about the way in which some members of the shadow cabinet privately support the government on 42-day detention and ID cards, but without either the confidence or the integrity to say so publicly.

At the same time, on the left, Clarke, who also opposed ID cards, would have made the totemic commitment to tax and spending cuts. Further, he would not have made the risky commitment to sharing the proceeds of growth that enables Brown to portray the Tories as cutters of investment in hospitals and schools. And it is unlikely that the former chancellor would have allowed the Tories to be as exposed as they now are by the international financial crisis.



This week, with Labour more united than it has been for nearly a year, there are the first signs of panic and discord inside Conservative Central Office, as well as a return to what Mandelson calls “Tory dirty tricks”. The most obvious dirty trick was the leaking to the Sunday Times that Mandelson had criticised Brown over dinner in Corfu. This is not true.

The second, less noticed, dirty trick concerns the role of Michael Ashcroft, who is back in Central Office as deputy chairman. On 29 September, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary, Cameron’s Money Men, one of the revelations of which was that Ashcroft was using Bearwood Corporate Services, a subsidiary of one of his companies in Belize, as a conduit through which to funnel funds into the Tory party in an apparent violation of the spirit, if not the essence, of electoral law. Sir Alistair Graham, the former standards committee chair, told the programme that the almost £3m donation should be investigated by the Electoral Commission and returned by the Conservatives.

In the process of making the film, Dartmouth, the production company, had a researcher donate money (two instalments of £167) to the Conservatives. Central Office found out about this and leaked the story about the researcher to the papers to distract from the larger issue of Ashcroft. Iain Dale, the influential but partisan Tory blogger, wrote about the researcher earlier this month, and the Mail on Sunday followed up, tracking down the researcher to her home. Labour sources blame Cameron’s press office for what happened and for the persecution of the researcher. “How did the papers get hold of her address and a private letter written by her to the treasurer of the Tory party?” asks one Labour figure. “Do the Tories, and David Cameron personally, who is quoted in the piece attacking Channel 4, feel comfortable with aiding photographers using long lenses to secretly photograph a 24-year-old woman who hasn’t broken any law outside her private home address?”

Channel 4 sources asked, too, why Central Office is so exercised about a £300 donation via a third party, but is failing to investigate the alleged £3m donation via a third party which they received from their own deputy chairman, on whose residency and tax status Cameron continues to remain silent.


Early in Cameron’s leadership, there was a fascinating moment during a little-watched interview on Sky News during which, unusually, he was asked questions “from the left” as opposed to “from the right”, a process rarely, if ever, repeated since.

The interviewer quoted the new leader as saying that he wakes up every morning and asks himself: “How can I change the Conservative Party today?” So how would he change the party, he was asked. It was a question Tony Blair would have relished. But Cameron faltered and – showing one of those occasional flashes of rage – sought to terminate the interview.

Cameron, who does not suffer from a lack of self-confidence, would do well to remember that there are those who oppose him in the Conservative Party and who are not convinced by his inconsistent and often opportunistic leadership. On the left, Clarke remains the true hero. On the right, Davis lurks dangerously on the back benches, as he did when he was an effective public accounts committee chairman under William Hague.

The role of Boris Johnson should not be forgotten, nor should his carefully planned denunciation as “piffle” the Tory leader’s claim that Britain is a “broken society”. Johnson’s unilateral sacking of Sir Ian Blair as Metropolitan Police Commissioner, his rallying call at the party conference against Labour for seeking to “punish the capitalists and to bring in new regulations to fetter the banks”, are further indication of his ambition and a reminder that his position as Mayor of London makes him the most powerful Conservative in the country. In the autumn last year, as Gordon Brown led by 10 per cent in the polls, the former Conservative Party chairman Michael Ancram was among those publicly to criticise the Cameron leadership. He broke cover with an “alternative manifesto”, espousing a return to traditional, hard-right Tory values. Cameron suddenly looked vulnerable. But Brown was undermined by equivocation over when to call an election, the 10p tax fiasco and a series of blunders – not all of which were his fault. Cameron, so jittery for a period, recovered his composure, aided by a media-friendly conference performance.

But as Mandelson said last week: “What goes down can come up”; and whatever they say in public, shadow cabinet members accept that the return of Mandelson, as well as Alastair Campbell, is a cause for anxiety in the Tory ranks. “The Tory revolution has taken a puncture. It is by no means wrecked but there is certainly more of a contest than there was a month ago,” says Peter Hitchens of the Mail on Sunday.

The battle lines are now drawn between the experience of Brown and other senior ministers, and a callow Conservative leadership that has won over the media but not changed the party as extensively, or fundamentally, as it would like many of us to believe. Ultimately, the electorate will decide. But in aweek in which George Howarth has called for an end to hostilities within the Labour Party, senior Conservatives from both the right and left in the party are beginning to accept that, far from being won, what will be an especially hard-fought general election campaign has not yet even begun.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The facade cracks

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Inside the minds of the Isis murderers

As pressure on the terror group who claimed responsiblity for the Manchester attack intensifies, the threat to Britain will only become more acute.

The police and security services had consistently warned that a significant terrorist attack in Britain was inevitable. Yet no warning could have prepared us for the horror of the suicide attack on the Manchester Arena on Monday night. Twenty-two people were killed and at least 60 were wounded as they were leaving a concert by Ariana Grande in what was the most deadly attack in Britain since the London bombings of 7 July 2005, in which 56 people died.

Like the London bombers, the Manchester suicide attacker, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was British. He was 22, lived in Manchester and studied business management at Salford University before dropping out. He worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. The son of Libyans, Abedi is said to have returned recently from a visit to the North African country, where Islamic State has a foothold.

Ariana Grande is a former children’s TV star who made her name on channels such as Nickelodeon. Her fan base is overwhelmingly young and female, and many of those killed or wounded were children, including Saffie Rose Roussos, an eight-year-old girl from Leyland, Lancashire.

Islamic State inevitably claimed responsibility for the massacre, dismissing the victims as “crusaders”, “polytheists” and “worshippers of the cross”. This is not the first time Islamist terrorists have targeted children.

A Chechen jihadist group calling itself ­Riyad-us Saliheen (meaning “Gardens of the Righteous”) took more than 1,100 hostages, including 777 children, in a school siege in Beslan, Russia, in September 2004. In the event, more than 330 were massacred, including 186 children. Gunmen from the Pakistani Taliban also stormed a school in 2014, killing 148.

For terrorist actors, these are neither whimsical nor irrational acts. Contemporary jihadist movements have curated a broad and expansive intellectual ecosystem that rationalises and directs their actions. What they want is to create an asymmetry of fear by employing indiscriminate barbarism to intimidate and subdue their opponents into submission.

We have grown accustomed to a wave of terrorist attacks being carried out in the name of the self-styled Islamic State ever since the group’s official spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani began prioritising them in 2014. (He was killed in an American air strike on Aleppo province in Syria in August last year.)

The US-led coalition against Islamic State has weakened the terror group in its former strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. In response, IS has been forced to concentrate more on what it calls “external operations” – by which it means inspiring its sympathisers and operatives to carry out attacks on Western countries. Indeed, al-Adnani encouraged the group’s supporters not to migrate towards IS-held territory but rather to focus their efforts on attacks in their home countries.

“The tiniest action you do in the heart of their [Western] land is dearer to us than the biggest action by us,” he said in an audio statement released last year. “There are no innocents in the heart of the lands of the crusaders.”

Islamic State refers to its strategy as “just terror”. Its framing places culpability for attacks on Western states on these nations themselves by claiming that IS actions are a response to aggression or assault. That much has been outlined in the group’s literature. “When will the crusaders end their hostilities towards Islam and the Muslims? . . . When will they recognise that the solution to their pathetic turmoil is right before their blinded eyes?” the militants ask in the IS magazine Dabiq. “Until then, the just terror will continue to strike them to the core of their deadened hearts.”

IS offered a rationale of this sort as justification for its bombing of a Russian commercial aircraft – Metrojet Flight 9268, travelling from Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt to St Petersburg. That attack in October 2015 killed 224. Similar reasoning was offered for the attacks in Paris the following month in which 137 people were killed, in a series of co-ordinated, commando-style gun and bomb outrages across the city.

“Revenge was exacted upon those who felt safe,” IS declared in Dabiq. “Let the world know that we are living today in a new era. Whoever was heedless must now be alert. Whoever was sleeping must now awaken . . . The [caliphate] will take revenge for any aggression against its religion and people, sooner rather than later. Let the ­arrogant know that the skies and the lands are Allah’s.”


Through my academic research at King’s College London, I have ­interviewed scores of Westerners who became foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq to quiz them about their motives. Last year, one man from High Wycombe who had joined IS told me that it wanted to attack British targets in response to the vote in the House of Commons to extend British air strikes against IS targets to include sites in Syria (the British had only been targeting the group in Iraq until that point). “Do they [the British government] expect us to sit back and do nothing? ­Idiots,” he said.

In this respect, IS frames its attacks as acts of “revenge” and predicates its response on the Islamic principle of qisas, which is comparable to lex talionis or the doctrine of “an eye for an eye”. Qisas was always intended to be a tool of private redress for an individual or his/her family to seek justice in matters relating to bodily harm. Typically, it relates to cases of murder and manslaughter, or acts involving physical mutilation (say, leading to loss of limbs). The principle creates a framework for retributive justice.

The contemporary Salafi-jihadi movement has adopted a particularly innovative approach to the concept of qisas in two ways. First, groups such as IS have taken the idea and construed it in a way that justifies indiscriminate terrorism, such as the attack in Manchester. They argue that qisas has a political dimension and that it can be applied to international affairs in a way that holds civilians responsible for the perceived crimes of their governments.

Second, qisas is normally applied only in cases where the aggressor is known. IS, by contrast, holds every citizen-stranger of an enemy state responsible for the actions of his or her government. Thus, when it released its statement claiming responsibility for the Manchester attack, it said that it had struck against a “gathering of the crusaders . . . in response to their transgressions against the lands of the Muslims”.

It is this militaristic construction of qisas that allows IS to rationalise the bombing of a venue where large numbers of young girls had gathered to watch a pop concert, dismissing them as “crusaders”.

This is not new. In 1997, Osama Bin Laden told CBS News that “all Americans are our enemies, not just the ones who fight us directly, but also the ones who pay their ­taxes”. His rationale was that all Americans, by virtue of citizenship alone, are vicariously liable for the actions of their government.

Just a few years later, Bin Laden used the same idea to justify the 11 September 2001 attacks and also invoked it in reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The blood pouring out of Palestine must be equally revenged,” he wrote. “You must know that the Palestinians do not cry alone; their women are not widowed alone; their sons are not orphaned alone.”

IS used the concept most dramatically in January 2015, when it burned alive a Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot, Muath al-Kasasbeh, whose plane had crashed in its territory. A video of the killing was circulated on the internet and social media. The group claimed his bombing raids had killed civilians and that it wanted to punish him with “equal retaliation”, in keeping with qisas.

What is well known about al-Kasasbeh’s murder is that he was burned alive inside a cage – but that is not the whole story. To understand how IS tethered this to the principle of qisas, it is the end of the gruesome video that is invested with most significance. After al-Kasasbeh has died, a truck emerges and dumps rubble over the cage. It was claimed this was debris from a site he had bombed, thus completing the “equal retaliation” of returning like for like. The idea was that IS had retaliated using the two principal forms in which a missile attack kills – by fire or debris.


The Manchester attack came on the fourth anniversary of the brutal murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south London. Rigby was killed by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale in the middle of the afternoon on a street outside a military barracks. That attack was in keeping with a pattern we have become increasingly accustomed to in Europe: an unsophisticated plot that employs ordinary, everyday items – a car, say, or a knife.

The consequences of such attacks have been seen across Europe, most notably in Nice on 14 July 2016, when 86 people were killed during Bastille Day celebrations after a jihadist drove a truck into crowds on the promenade. Similar attacks followed in Berlin, Westminster and Stockholm.

The security services find that these murderous attacks are extremely hard to disrupt because they typically involve lone actors who can mobilise quickly and with discretion. The Manchester attack was different. Explosives were used, which means the plot was inherently more sophisticated, requiring careful planning and preparation.

We know that two of the 7/7 bombers had previously trained in Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions, where they honed their skills. In other plots, such as the connected attacks in London and Glasgow Airport of 2007, the explosive devices failed mainly because the bomb-makers had found it difficult to travel abroad and develop their skills in safe environments. Whatever Abedi’s connections, the long war in Syria and Iraq has once again created a permissive environment for terrorist training and attack planning.

The devastating impact of this has already been felt across Europe. Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, more than 800 Britons are believed to have travelled there to fight. From Europe as a whole, the figure is over 5,000, of which a significant number are believed to have joined IS. Of the British contingent, the security services estimate that about half have returned or become disengaged from the conflict. Of those who remained, a hundred are believed to be active, the rest having been killed.

It is improbable that Abedi acted alone in Manchester or that this plot had no international component. Indeed, he was already known to the authorities (and had returned recently from Libya). As pressure on IS intensifies across Syria and Iraq, the threat to Britain will only become more acute as the group’s sympathisers prepare for what they consider to be a fightback.

This speaks to the scale of the threat facing Britain, and Europe more generally. Our police and security services have been stretched and continuously tested in recent years. Just recently, in March, the Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Mark Rowley told Radio 4’s Today programme that 13 plots had been thwarted since Lee Rigby’s murder in 2013. Put another way, the police have disrupted terrorist plots every four months for the past four years.

Naturally, Islamic State is not the only threat. On 13 May, one of Osama Bin Laden’s sons, Hamza, released a video, titled “Advice for martyrdom-seekers in the West”, on behalf of al-Qaeda. Hamza, 27, who was his father’s favoured successor to lead the group, called on its supporters to concentrate on attacks in the West rather than migrating to conflict zones in the Middle East and beyond. Scenes of previous ­terrorist attacks in Britain played throughout the video.

The central leadership of al-Qaeda is increasingly looking for opportunities to reassert itself after being eclipsed by Islamic State and losing control of its affiliates in Syria. It needs attacks and a cause in the West with which to revive itself. Hamza therefore cited the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris as a critical example, calling for the assassination of anyone deemed to have “insulted” Islam.

The Charlie Hebdo attack was especially important for al-Qaeda because it enabled the group to transcend the fratricidal conflicts that frequently define relations between the various jihadist groups. In Syria, for instance, al-Qaeda’s affiliates (when it had better control over them) and Islamic State have been in open war with each other.

Yet, the Charlie Hebdo attack brought warm praise from the group’s Islamist rivals because none of them wanted to appear ­unsupportive of an atrocity that had, as the terrorists proclaimed, “avenged” the Prophet Muhammad’s honour.

The British man from High Wycombe who joined IS told me the group had welcomed the attack for precisely those reasons. It was something that, in his view, had confirmed the “nobility” of the attackers, even if they had not been members of IS.

Is it too late for the West to save itself, I asked him. What if the West simply accepted all of Islamic State’s demands: would that provide respite?

The answer was as emphatic as it was stark: “We primarily fight wars due to ppl [sic] being disbelievers. Their drones against us are a secondary issue.”

He went on: “Their kufr [disbelief] against Allah is sufficient of a reason for us to invade and kill them. Only if they stop their kufr will they no longer be a target.”

In other words, we are all guilty, and we are all legitimate targets.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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