Tartan Tories strike back

The Conservatives hold just one seat for Scotland in Westminster, but starting with the help of a 26

Outside the office of Peter Lyburn, Conservative candidate for Perth and North Perthshire, is a tiny private aircraft, visible from his desk in the Scottish spring sunshine. Given the geography of this vast, rural constituency - which stretches from the town of Perth, 40 miles north of Edinburgh, across swaths of agricultural land and up to the Highlands - an aeroplane might not be a bad way to get to some voters. But when Lyburn appears outside the office - a couple of rooms in the control tower of Perth's small, non-commercial airport - it is in something less ostentatious.

His saloon car parked outside, the 26-year-old candidate for the Tories' most winnable seat in Scotland bounds into the room, eating an ice cream. He is confident of his chances of winning the seat, which the SNP holds by a margin of just 1,521 votes. He and his team started their campaign early - 18 months ago, he explains - and these busy final days are being run "almost like a military operation". Today's schedule includes a visit to a Perth care home to meet Andrew Lansley, who is in Scotland for the day. "We don't want to keep the shadow health secretary waiting," Lyburn says as we head for the car. But once we arrive in town, without a map, we can't find the right street. We decide to walk, but the elderly couple we ask for directions don't know either. When, with the help of an iPhone and Google Maps, we finally work out where to go, it's so far away that we have to return to the car and drive.

Unusually young and competing for a pro­minent marginal seat, Lyburn has attracted more attention than the average candidate. But then in most Scottish constituencies, Conservative candidates don't come in for scrutiny at all: what would be the point? At Westminster, Labour has by far the most Scottish seats; the popularity of both the party and its Fife-born leader is holding up. The SNP leads Scotland's minority government at Holyrood, and presents its Westminster candidates as a necessary buffer to protect Scottish interests from "the London parties". This argument has kept it in second place in the opinion polls, though lagging far behind Labour, to which the Nationalists tend to lose support in Westminster elections. As a result, the battles being fought in SNP-Labour marginals, such as the seat bordering Lyburn's, Ochil and South Perth­shire, have become even tougher.

The Conservatives have only one Scottish MP, David Mundell in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale; David Cameron has conceded that most Tories north of the border have little or no chance of being elected. In some seats, they are fourth, or even fifth, in line. But as polling day draws nearer, and the widely predicted Conservative majority starts to look less and less inevitable, every marginal is becoming more important to the Tories, even in Scotland. The area that now comprises the Perth and North Perthshire seat has a long history of supporting the Conservatives: it has been SNP-held since 1995, but for almost all of the 20th century, it returned a Tory MP.

The half-decade Cameron has spent deodorising the Conservatives has had little impact in Scotland: the proportion of Scots willing to vote Tory has stuck resolutely at between 15 and 20 per cent since 2005. "Partly, it's because [the Conservatives] no longer have a strong hold in Scottish politics," explains Nicola McEwen, co-director of Edinburgh University's Institute of Governance. "If there is apathy towards Labour, ordisappointment, it's not going to benefit the Conservatives - it's going to go elsewhere, mainly. But also, one of the issues that is quite important for Scottish voters is which party can best represent them in the UK. And the Conservatives seem not to be able to do that."

Check mate

However, at this general election, for the first time since 1992, it looks as if the Tories might return more than one Scottish seat. That's not to say there has been a significant shift in Scottish politics. Nobody expects the party to win the 11 seats it has set its sights on; Peter Kellner, of the polling organisation YouGov, is more generous than most in suggesting that the Tories might feasibly add seven seats to their existing one, but points out that "gains of one or two are more likely".

Cameron himself is yet to make headway with most Scots, McEwen says. "I don't think he gets the same reaction as Margaret Thatcher, for instance, but there's no sign that he is especially popular, or turning things around for Scotland."

There is one significant change. In Scotland before 2005, not even Conservatives liked the Conservatives: the Scottish party worked hard under its leader David McLetchie to develop a moderate, "One Nation" identity at Holyrood that was distinct from Michael Howard's British Conservatives. With Cameron in charge, that divide has disappeared. "They're much more comfortable with the 'compassionate Conservative' identity being nurtured just now," McEwen says.

Lyburn is the perfect example of a Scot "energised in the party by David Cameron". He is such a textbook Cameroon, he could have been generated in a lab somewhere deep inside CCHQ. "We need to focus on the bottom 10 per cent of society," he tells me. "David Cameron calls it progressive ends by conservative means, and I agree with him 110 per cent."

He's a local candidate, having grown up on a farm outside nearby Coupar Angus, and has the requisite green credentials, after three years working for a recycling firm owned by the Scottish multimillionaire entrepreneur Angus MacDonald. Indeed, on his first foray into politics as the Scottish parliamentary candidate for Dunfermline West in 2007, Tatler magazine tipped him as a future environment secretary - as well as "top Tory totty". "He looks like a Conservative candidate," remarks the Scottish political commentator David Torrance. "He's got this mass of very Tory hair."

Lyburn is trying to sell the notion of a refreshed Conservative Party, with new candidates like himself. "What we're trying to get across to people is -look at our list of 11 seats. If you're in one of them, don't think you're the only person in your street who thinks the way you do," he says. Yet he denies there is any stigma attached to voting Tory in Scotland.

Lyburn tells me that his previous political campaign in Dunfermline shook the "stereotypical Tory boy" out of him. But at a public meeting that evening in the village of Scone, he tells a polite and attentive gathering of 25 or so that "there is a real and present danger of young people growing up without a 'get out and work' attitude". He relates his own experiences: if his dad hadn't got him up in the mornings to help out around the farm, he would have stayed in bed. Apparently this is the sort of discipline broken Britain needs.

Lyburn is hoping that Scots will respect the "grown-up politics" of Budget rebalancing - including significant cuts to the public sector, which employs a quarter of Scotland's workforce. He may be right, in a sense: despite Alistair Darling's Budget announcement that spending in Scotland is to fall by £400m, 60 per cent of the country's voters still back a Labour government. But the SNP is targeting both the Tories and Labour with one line: "More Nats means less cuts."

Perth's SNP MP, Pete Wishart, is presenting an even less complicated message on the doorstep. Dressed in a coat with a faint check - Black Watch, the regiment founded in the area and reduced to battalion status by Labour, with Conservative support - he tells people repeatedly: "It's us or the Tories in this constituency." Several respond: "Anybody but the Tories."

In this part of the town, there is support for just about everyone else. A few say they're SNP voters; about as many seem unlikely to vote at all. A middle-aged Labour supporter, recently made redundant by Network Rail, agrees to think about the SNP as a tactical anti-Tory vote, while another of about the same age, a builder, is agitated about Perth's Polish population. But it is the BNP's world-view, not the Conservatives' promised cap on immigration, that has caught his eye. "They aren't right on everything, but they've got the right idea on some things. Haven't they?"

Wishart may be working to keep the Conservatives out of his constituency, but he says the SNP's ultimate goal, independence for Scotland, would be served well by a Tory government in Westminster. "It would be an absolute disaster for Scotland," he says, but "this provides other opportunities and contexts. There is a big constitutional question for David Cameron if he is returned as prime minister with only a few MPs for Scotland. [But] I'm not bothered if Brown or Cameron wins. I want Perthshire to win, that's my agenda."

Like the Liberal Democrats, the SNP argues that the two main parties are the same: "They're both committed to cutting Scotland's budget."

Officially, the SNP could hardly be seen to support a Conservative government at Westminster. During general elections, independence takes a back seat, and it would be perverse for the Nationalists to campaign as Scotland's "local champions" while backing a party with so little Scottish support, especially now that Cameron has ruled out the possibility of negotiating with the SNP in return for support in a hung parliament. But a Labour win - or even a good return - may have grave consequences for the SNP. There will be a Scottish parliamentary election next year, and a positive general election for Labour, which has just one seat fewer than the SNP in the Scottish Parliament, should lead to a boost at Holyrood.

Dodging left and right

A hung parliament, meanwhile, would allow the SNP to "Scotland-proof any piece of legislation", as Wishart puts it. But while the SNP is popular - more so than it was in 2005 - it looks unlikely to add many, if any, seats to its present haul of seven. Appealing to the anti-Tory vote is the more obvious route to popularity.

The same tactic is in use in neighbouring Ochil and South Perthshire, another large, rural constituency. But here - a seat that Labour holds by a mere 688 votes, and that the SNP considers to be its top target - it's not the Nationalists who are using it but the incumbents, who are fighting their campaign on a UK platform.

However, the SNP's Annabelle Ewing is out fighting her own negative campaign. In the streets of central Alloa, which have been thrown into chaos by a major redevelopment project, her focus is the failures of the local Labour council, which has fallen £9m into debt. Swaddled in an enormous yellow overcoat, Ewing is a consummate politician - perhaps unsurprisingly: she is the daughter of the former SNP president Winnie Ewing, and her brother is an MSP.

As we stroll through the Continental food market in the town high street, Ewing stops to speak only to shoppers, not stallholders, most of whom are from outside the constituency, so "they're not voters".

What she has to say plays, mostly, very well. Closures of public toilets and local halls have angered residents, and many of them are quite prepared to leave the blame where Ewing lays it, at Labour's door, although one elderly lady interjects "and the SNP at Holyrood". A passer-by in a baseball cap with a Scottish flag on it tells Ewing that he doesn't believe in independence: it's not the English he's worried about, it's "the Arabs and the Yanks". But he speaks warmly about George Reid, a former SNP MP and MSP for the area, and as he walks off he tells her: "Aye, I'll vote for you. That's not a problem."

Ewing emphasises the SNP's support for business and its rejection of Labour's planned National Insurance increase - "another burden that small business, in particular, does not need". The SNP has long stressed it is the party of Scottish enterprise, although its leader Alex Salmond, once an economist at the Royal Bank of Scotland, has had to abandon his vision of Scotland as part of an "arc of prosperity" stretching from Ireland to Iceland. In this constituency particularly, it may be a canny card to play. Like Perth and North Perthshire, Ochil includes a large pocket of Tory voters, who may choose to vote tactically for the SNP to keep the Labour incumbent, Gordon Banks, from holding on to the seat. Asked about the party's ideological positioning, Ewing dodges the question of left or right: she is concerned only with "protecting Scotland's interests".

Promises, promises

Meanwhile, Banks is taking an approach oddly reminiscent of Pete Wishart's. "I don't care what the SNP do, I don't care what the Tories do," the MP says. "What concerns me is my tactics." And those are ultra-local. In keeping with most of Labour's national pledges, he is offering his constituents more of what he has given them so far: he promises to be "as open and available as I have been over the last five years", pointing out that he maintains two constituency offices - one in Alloa, one in Crieff - to make things easy for them.

An unscientific sample of voters in nearby Clackmannan, a historically Labour-supporting area of the seat, suggests it may not be enough. Surrounded by a team of canvassers in bright red Scottish Labour cagoules, Banks makes an argument that is the same as the SNP's in Perth: can you stand to see the Tories win?

A woman on her way out into the evening sunshine tells him that "Labour have let me down so far" - on housing, on immigration - and adds, "I've written to yourself." Banks talks to her at length about her worries, then reminds her that a vote for the SNP is an open back door for the Tories. "I didn't like what they did under Maggie," she concedes.

As we walk on, Banks explains that this argument is not what it was. A woman in a football shirt takes one look at Banks and tells him she won't be voting - she is "not very impressed generally" by politicians. One campaigner approaches to say that they've just met a Tory. "Not a very nice one," he adds glumly, shifting the shoulder bag of leaflets resting against his hip. Tory voters, Banks remarks with resignation, "are no longer reluctant to tell you so".

But perhaps there is a positive side to this for Labour. With the peculiarities of Scottish politics, it is possible - just - that the tiny uptick in the Tories' Scottish reputation could work in Banks's favour. The Conservatives are now claiming to have the backing of 50 Scottish companies and business leaders over National Insurance - including that of Lyburn's former boss Angus MacDonald. If the Scottish Tories recast themselves as the party of Scottish business, the Conservative candidate for Ochil and South Perthshire may drain away a few of Ewing's votes. And if that happens, Gordon Brown may just find himself with one seat to thank David Cameron for.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Danger

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Tearing down the "caliphate": on the frontline against Islamic State in Mosul

Truck bombs and drone warfare in the fight to take back Iraq’s second city from Islamic State.

The battle to retake west Mosul began, for me, rattling around in an armoured Humvee with two Abaases. “I’m Abaas One. He’s Abaas Two,” the driver, Abaas Almsebawy, said in English with a broad smile, pointing to the gunner on top.

“I have killed two Da’esh,” Abaas Two said, using an Arabic acronym for the so-called Islamic State (IS). “Well, one for sure. The other one crawled away but he was bleeding badly. I was told he died.”

Abaas One was jealous of his gunner’s luck. He was shot twice by IS in the city of Ramadi, in central Iraq; he still had a bullet lodged in his back. “The doctor said it is my gift from Da’esh,” he told me and laughed.

Over the sound of gunfire and mortars, the two Abaases called out to each other, giving directions, spotting targets. The cry of “Abaaaaas!” was constantly in the air. One from Babylon, the other from Baghdad, they stretched out on a felt blanket inside the armoured vehicle during lulls in the fighting and fell asleep, oblivious to its discomforts and the IS mortars landing outside.

They had been involved in the fighting in the east of the city, which it had taken 100 days to recapture, in hard, street-by-street clashes and through an onslaught of IS car and truck bombs. Yet the battle to retake the west, which began on Sunday 19 February and is being led by Iraq’s Emergency Response Division (ERD) and counterterrorism forces, has proved different – and faster.

Abaas One, the driver, was exhilarated. As Iraqi army helicopters flew overhead and the air force strafed villages with machine-gun fire and rockets, he rolled on, part of an armoured assault on a front that stretched for miles. His Humvee was built for this kind of terrain, moving at speed across the desert towards villages, the airport and eventually the city of Mosul.

Something else was different about this battle, too. These men were not technically soldiers: they were policemen. Abaas One went into battle in a hooded top and a leather jacket. Stuck outside manning his gun, Abaas Two, like a fighter from another age, wore a greatcoat, small, circular spectacles and a woolly hat. One lean and broad-shouldered, the other bulky and round-faced, they were a contrast but a good fit.

The Abaases were part of Iraq’s elite ERD, which has led the charge into the west of the city, just as the country’s heralded “Golden Division”, the counterterrorism unit, had pushed into the east. The ERD, part of the ministry of interior, is the less experienced junior brother of the battle-hardened Golden Division but it was determined that west Mosul would be its prize. It made swift progress and, as it took back village after village from IS, troops posed for selfies with enemy corpses on the roadside.

The closer to Mosul you were, the more charred bodies you would see, lying along the route. Two in a ditch, killed by a mortar, and two on the road, the motorcycle they were travelling on cut in half by an air strike.

In command of the 1st Brigade was Colonel Falah al-Wabdan. In Ramadi in 2015, he and his men had been cut off and surrounded by IS forces and had escaped only when more troops came to their rescue.

As he stood on the ruins of a former palace that had belonged to one of Saddam Hussein’s brothers, he had a view of all of Mosul. “I will be very glad when I see my forces move forward,” he said. “Also [when I see that] my soldiers are all safe. And I will be even happier when we have killed IS. These people [IS] are like a disease in the body, and we are now removing it, day after day.”

From there, the Iraqi forces took the town of Abu Saif, and then, in a six-hour battle, what was left of Mosul’s airport. Its runways were in ruins and its terminal buildings reduced to rubble. Yet that was the last open ground before they reached the city. By the end of the week, Colonel Falah’s forces had breached the IS defences. Now they were heading into the dense and narrow streets of the city’s old town. Meanwhile, the elite Golden Division was the secondary force, having earlier been bogged down in heavy fighting.

The competition between the two rival divisions had helped to accelerate the advance. The ERD, however, had a secret weapon. “We need to ask your men to hold off, sir. We have helicopters in the air,” the US special forces officer told an Iraqi lieutenant colonel on the rooftop as the assault on Abu Saif was in full force.

The Iraqi mortar team in the orchard and olive grove below held fire. Then the mighty thud of coalition air strikes could be heard and, just two miles away, a huge, grey cloud rose above the town.

 

***

It is Iraqis who are doing most of the fighting and the dying in the battle against IS, but since the Pentagon relaxed its rules of engagement late last year more Americans are at or near the front lines. They are calling in air strikes and laying down fire from their MRAP (“mine-resistant ambush-protected”) vehicles. They are not in uniform but, despite being a covert force, they are conspicuous and still wear the Stars and Stripes on their helmets. When journalists, especially cameramen, approach, they turn their backs.

In and around Mosul, it is more common now to get stuck in a traffic jam of US vehicles: either artillery or route-clearance teams. The Pentagon will soon respond to President Donald Trump’s call for a new plan – an intensification of US efforts against IS – but on the ground around this city, the Americans are already much more engaged in the fight against the militants.

British special forces were also in the area, in small numbers. Unlike their American counterparts, they went unseen.

Also seemingly absent in the early part of the offensive were civilians. It was three days before I met one: a shepherd, Ali Sultan Ali, who told me that he had only stayed behind because he could not get his flock to safety, as a nearby bridge had been destroyed.

As his sheep grazed, Ali explained: “They continued to attack this area, and now we are three days sitting in our homes, unable to go out because of attack and mortars . . . All the people, they have left this area one after another. They went to the east of the city of Mosul and they rented houses there because there are too many attacks here.”

Almost 60,000 people have fled west Mosul. In this area, with its population of three-quarters of a million, the battle has the potential to become a humanitarian crisis. Camps for internally displaced people still have capacity, but they are filling up.

IS, with anywhere between 500 and a few thousand fighters inside Mosul, is again using the local population as cover. But coalition air strikes may be taking a heavy toll on civilians, too. Officially, the US-led force claims that 21 civilians have died as a result of its bombs since November, but an independent monitoring group, Airwars, suggests that as many as 370 have been killed by Western aircraft since the start of March.

After the airport was recaptured, the columns of desperate people heading south began to thicken. The children among them usually held a white flag – perhaps a clever distraction thought up by terrified parents for their long walk to safety. Near the airport, I met a man who was too distraught to give his name. He told me that his brother’s family – six people – had been killed in an air strike. With his eyes red from crying and a blanket over his shoulders, he stood by the roadside, pleading. “For God’s sake,” he said. “We need you to help us. We need a shovel to get the dead bodies out of the building, because there are still two bodies under that building.”

But the battle was reaching a new pitch around him, so he left for a camp to look for his brother, the only remaining member of his family, he told me.

When the ERD finally made it inside the city, the first thing I noticed was the fresh laundry hanging in the yard of a family house. Then I heard a huge explosion as an IS truck bomb slammed into one of the Iraqi Abrams tanks.

The tank trundled on regardless and, by nightfall, the ERD had a tiny foothold inside the city: the al-Josak neighbourhood.

 

***

 

Islamic State is steadily losing Mosul and in Iraq, at least, the end of the so-called caliphate is in sight. In Abu Saif, state forces found the corpses of foreign fighters and, hiding, an IS operative who was still alive.

“He’s Russian,” one officer told me, but the man might have been from one of the central Asian republics. There were dead Syrians on the battlefield, too, men from Deir az-Zour; and for the tens of thousands of foreign fighters who joined IS, Syria will likely be a last refuge.

There may be another reason for the faster pace of the assault in west Mosul. The Iraqi forces, having fought IS in Ramadi, Fallujah and east Mosul, are getting better at dealing with the militant group’s tactics.

Truck bombs took a huge toll on their men in eastern Mosul. It is hard to describe the force unleashed when one of these detonates near you. In an early assault on one village, IS sent out four truck bombs and one of them exploded a few hundred metres from where I was standing. The shock wave ripped around the building and shards of engine went flying over our heads. My mouth was full of dirt. The debris was scattered for what seemed like miles around – yet no one died.

The suicide attack driver may have been taken out by an Iraqi soldier firing a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). Whenever they advance now, men stand ready with RPGs, specifically to tackle the threat of car bombs. And they are becoming better at “hasty defence”. An armoured bulldozer is always in the lead. When a new street is taken, defensive berms made of mud or rubble are built to halt any speeding car bombs.

The IS fighters are crafty. Iraqi forces took me to a house on a captured street. Its yard was covered and the front wall was gone. Parked in the front room was what looked like an ambulance. Hidden from surveillance aircraft, this was another truck bomb.

“It’s still live. I wouldn’t go any further,” a major warned me. Even the bomb disposal team said that it was too dangerous to touch. It was later destroyed from a very safe distance.

Although the group violently suppresses modernity, IS fighters are innovators. They have no air force but they can get their hands on drones, which are commercially available, and they have “weaponised” them. If the battle for east Mosul was the attack of the car bombs, the battle for the west began as a drone war.

For the men on the ground, IS drones are enormously disconcerting. During a gun battle in west Mosul, I stopped to speak to some troops taking cover behind a wall. As I asked a final question, the captain I was talking to cupped his ear and leaned forward because of a sudden eruption of gunfire. Then, just to my right, I felt a shock wave of a detonation that seemed to come from nowhere.

A member of the BBC team was hit, receiving a small blast injury to the arm. When we got back to the Humvee, the driver explained that there had been a drone above us. The gunfire was from Iraqi troops trying to bring it down. The detonation had not come from nowhere; it had come from directly overhead. As we drove out of there, I noticed that the gunner had closed the hatch. We were protected inside, but he was outside manning his weapon, looking for more drones.

“They drop MK19 40mm grenades from the drones to stop the movements forward. All the time, they will use four to five drones to attack one location,” Captain Ali Razak Nama of the federal police explained. “As you know, we can’t always see these drones with our eyes, but if we do see them we can attack the drones with our rifles. [But] when we go into the battle, we are not looking at the skies. We are looking ahead of us for car bombs, suicide attackers, IEDs or snipers.”

A unit of the Golden Division was hit 70 times in a single day by wave upon wave of IS drones. The operator managed to drop a grenade inside a Humvee from above; all four men inside, members of a bomb disposal unit, were killed. Dozens more were injured that day.

The sound of a drone, even one of their own, is enough to make the Iraqi forces hit the dirt and scramble under a vehicle. They are difficult to bring down. I once watched as snipers and heavy machine-gunners opened fire on some drones; they managed to strike one but still it flew on.

The IS fighters control them from motorcycles in an attempt to prevent the operators being tracked and killed. They switch frequencies in the hope that they will not be jammed. Yet as a coalition commander told me: “The enemy aren’t going to win by dropping grenades from the sky. So it is certainly not a game-changer.” Iraqi and coalition forces now appear to be having success in countering the threat. Just how, they will not say, but in recent days there has been a “very significant” drop in their use.

 

***

 

Mosul has been the biggest battle for Iraqi forces against Islamic State, but commander after commander said that others had been tougher. In Ramadi and in Fallujah, IS had a better grip. In Mosul, the local people have been quicker to turn away from the militants.

In the eastern part of the city, the bazaars are busy again and children have returned to school. Girls are receiving education for the first time in nearly three years, since IS captured the city. The so-called caliphate was declared on 29 June 2014 and, four days later the new “caliph” and IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his first and only filmed appearance, delivering a sermon at the city’s al-Nuri Mosque. Iraqi forces are now in sight of the mosque, with its Ottoman-era leaning minaret.

Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest city and has a cosmopolitan heritage, but Islamists had influence here for many years before IS arrived. As one Mosulawi told me, after neglect by the Iraqi capital, “There is discontent with Baghdad, not support for Isis.”

Al-Baghdadi is believed to have fled the city already. According to US and Iraqi commanders, he is hiding out in the desert. Shia militiamen and Iraqi army forces are attempting to seal off escape routes to the west, into Syria. Yet senior commanders accept that in a city Mosul’s size, it will be impossible to close all escape routes. Capturing al-Baghdadi is not a priority, they say.

There is also an acknowledgement that neither his death nor the loss of Mosul will be the end of Islamic State. But in Iraq, at least, it will destroy the caliphate.

Quentin Sommerville is the BBC’s Middle East correspondent

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain