29 November 2006

The retreat from politics – Part III

The last piece finished with a contradiction. At one, the implication of both pieces so far written is that the David Cameron and his Conservative Party want to win the next general election. But, in that second piece, I concluded that, for the Boy and his acolytes, winning the next general election was not their game. "They have bigger fish to fry," I wrote, "the total destruction of the Conservative Party."

This contradiction comes with the territory that is politics. In any major party and even (or especially) in the small ones, there are major differences of opinion, mixed motivations and variations in tactics. There is no single view or orthodoxy that will prevail for all time or any length of time. "Shifting sands" hardly does justice to the way sentiment changes within a political party – you can be "in" – flavour of the moment – and seconds later you can be "out", as fashion changes. Nothing is quite so brutal as politics.

Back to the main point then… the Boy does want to win and the Party desperately, desperately yearns to win. It hates being in opposition, has no talent for it and no understanding of the street-fighting needed to claw the party back into power. But the Boy and the Party are not at one.

The Boy wants power, but he believes the only way he will get it is to change the Conservative Party beyond all recognition. He believes that only then will the electorate (the bit left of it that is still prepared to vote) come round to voting for him. At some point though, the Party will have been so changed that it will have ceased to be the Conservative Party in anything else but name – it will have been destroyed. And since that is a precondition of victory - in the mind of the Boy and many of his tight circle of acolytes – the destruction of the Party is their first priority. Only then will it be fit to win and if that means losing the election, in order to win the next, so be it.

But there are darker forces within the Boy's circle – some people (and the cognoscenti know who they are) who want to destroy the Conservative Party as an entity – by which they mean the "right wing" which is naturally liberal, free-thinking and, crucially, Atlanticist and anti-EU. A failure – the fourth in a row – to win could be put down to the Party being dragged down by its right wing, providing the legitimisation for a "night of the long knives", followed perhaps by a re-alignment with the Lib-Dems to create a centre left, anti-American, pro-EU party.

In that scenario, the great battles are yet to come and will be fought out, for the soul of the Party, only after the next election has been lost – an outcome actively desired by many within the senior ranks of the Party.

In politics as elsewhere, however, it is possible to hold two contradictory ideas simultaneously. The Boy, therefore, might actually want to lose the election – but he also wants to win it. At the very least, he must be seen to be making a good fist of a campaign, not least so that any failure can be blamed on the "right-wing".

However, he and his inner circle believe they can run a campaign centrally, relying on heavy money from sponsors and the money men. The key strategy is to build the Cameron persona into an A-list celebrity that will pull in the voters in a latter-day "Big Brother" style contest, where personalities rather than policies - and therefore politics - become the key issue.

Hence the latest party political broadcast, where we are invited to "check out David's new video…". Yuk and double-Yuk! This, from the leader of the Conservative Party? It is an invitation so puerile as to be calculated to engender nausea. In effect, the Boy wants you to vote Brown out of the House, to leave him with the prize.

It is that facile, policy-lite approach which inspired the title to these pieces - "the retreat from politics". The Boy is not interested in politics. He is simply interested in power and, to obtain it, he is seeking to turn the election into a beauty contest.

As for the rest – current MPs and the candidates – these fall into one of two groups. The first is those who are motivated by a sense of outrage, people who get into politics because they think the system needs controlling and changing - who think that peole should come first. The other group comprises those who enjoy the use of power – and the trappings that go with it – for its own sake. Sadly, the latter are more numerous and, as the power drains away to the EU and elsewhere, the trappings assume greater and greater importance to them.

The trouble with these power-mongers in opposition is that they are not prepared to work for power. They assume it is theirs by right and harbour not a little resentment that they are in opposition. There is neither humility nor modesty in the mid-ranking hierarchy.

Furthermore, it is their arrogance of office that will be their undoing. It was there in the dying days of the Major government, coupled with a smug condescension that made them impervious to any new ideas or information. Simply, you could not tell them anything, as they already knew it all and would reward you with a pitying smile if you had the temerity to suggest that there was something that they might not know or understand.

If there is a personal edge to this bit of analysis, it stems in part from dealing with the last Conservative government's attempts to mount a deregulation campaign. It was doomed from the very start as ministers were relying on civil servants to tell them where and how to cut back regulation – the very civil servants who were largely responsible for the mess. But you could tell them nothing.

The experience, however, is shared by others. Talking to a very senior general, now retired, he recalled how he had offered his services freely to the Party to help them construct an effective defence policy. All they had to do was 'phone me, he said. But, after the first meeting, the call never came. He was never asked – and to this day has not been asked – for any help or information.

Thus, we have the upper levels of the Party, the inner circle around the Boy, who believe the election can be run as a policy-free beauty contest. In the middle ranks, we have a huge tranche of unreconstructed careerists, "Tory Boys" of all ages, who display an infuriating arrogance that alienates most of those who seek to help them into office.

At the lower echelons, we have party members who are so anxious to win that they will believe anything – even, and especially, that the Boy is a winner. For that, they will suspend judgement and put their local electoral machines into action. But many will not. They can see though the Boy, his posturing and pretensions. Some – a few – are resigning with a great flourish, but many more are simply walking away, disgusted and ashamed to see how a once great party has declined. They are the activists, the core voters – and they are not going to support the Boy.

If ever there was a losing recipe, that is it.

So, towards the end of a long piece, some readers might consider this analysis an intrusion on private grief – the affairs of an opposition party in a small country anchored just off mainland Europe, a party that has not seen power for over nine years and is unlikely to see it for many more.

But we are a country that is the staunchest ally to the US in the war of terror. Its current prime minister, Tony Blair - for all his ambitions to be at the heart of Europe - has managed to keep the UK alongside the US and has committed troops (but not properly supported them) in important theatres, alongside US troops.

But the Blair reign is about to end. Replacing him, almost certainly, will be Gordon Brown. And for all his familiarity, no one actually knows his politics, what he stands for and where he will take us on a whole range of issues, from the war on terror to EU membership. And, if he fails to perform, it becomes even more vital that we have a strong, credible opposition with a leader who is perceived as a credible prime minister, who could take the incumbent's place.

In what may turn out to be a modern tragedy though, the opposition is the "not-the-Conservative-Party". The man who would be prime minister is David Cameron, a man who never really looked like a credible candidate and looks less so with each passing day. He has made the retreat from politics his guiding principle and it now looks as if politics is going to retreat from him and (what is left of) his party. The price we will all pay for that is Gordon Brown as prime minister for the foreseeable future.

Where that will take us, in an age of uncertainty, no-one knows - but better the devil you don't know than the one you do.


28 November 2006

Taking the Michael

The Boy should be on his way home from Basra (at the time of writing). But there is still a curious lack of photographs of him coming out – one of them shown here, with the Boy inspecting (one presumes) captured weapons and ordnance.

Given that, like it not, the leader of the opposition visiting troops in Basra is a news event, one might have expected some mention on the MoD website. But you will search in vain.

Amusingly, until very recently it had been showing a photograph of the almost unknown Des Browne, defence secretary. Only when you look at the small print do you see that the picture was taken last May. Thus we see no reference to Cameron at all on the site, but an old photo of Browne. The MoD is definitely "taking the Michael" - a rather coy alternative term for removing the product of micturition.

Looking at the MoD photo archive also fails to yield a Cameron photograph, although there are plenty of the prime minister surrounded by smiling troops, And, with the picture agencies still showing photos of chancellor Brown in Basra last week, it looks like the Bs have it – three Bs together. I have posted a composite above.

Browne's presence on the MoD website is to mark his speech to Chatham House on Monday when he confirmed what foreign secretary Beckett had said the previous week in Parliament. It is odd how much attention the media have given to Browne when, what he was saying is not really news. However, for the record, the key part of his speech talked about a definite reduction of troops next year. He went on to say:

...I can tell you that by the end of next year I expect numbers of British forces in Iraq to be significantly lower - by a matter of thousands. The planning for this has been going on for some months, and I have been pressing our planners to look at all the options, to make sure we do not ask a single extra soldier to remain in Iraq longer than is necessary. In the end, of course, it must depend on conditions on the ground - including the level of threat and the capacity of the Iraqis to deal with it - and the final decision will be down to our commanders.
So there it is - we are not "cutting and running", we are just "withdrawing", first back to our bases and then out of the country altogether. One hopes that the Iraqis are able to tell the difference, although they too might have an Arabic phrase for "taking the Michael".

But someone else is taking the Michael - actually, a group. The picture here shows followers of radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr marching over the British, American and the Israeli flags in broad daylight in downtown Basra. They are members of the Shiite Mahdi Army and they are celebrating the anniversary of the death of Mohammad Mohammad Baqr al Sadar, the father of cleric Moqtada al Sadr.

This, of course, is happening just as Cameron is visiting Basra - except that he isn't. Ensconsed in the safety of Basra Air Station, he will see no more than you or me and will have to see scenes like this (and the one shown left) the same way we do, through agency pictures.

And the story they tell is stark - and makes a mockery of any idea that we will be handing Basra over to a civil authority that in any way represents the central government in Baghdad. This is the "army" that is going make happen Browne's prediction that, when British troops started to "draw down", the number of insurgent attacks may rise. There is no "may" about it and we are going to see some more flag-draped coffins before this charade is over.

Still, the Boy Cameron will be back tomorrow and he can tell us all about it - if there is anyone listening. Me, as befits my lowly station... I will be taking the Michael.


27 November 2006

Another costly and wasteful exercise?

According to The Times, the MoD is poised to award BAE Systems a £200 million contract to create the UK's first unmanned fighter jet.

This is a development arising from last December's Defence Industry Strategy, which has profound political implications. As always though, opposition parties and the MSM seem to be unaware of their importance.

The new contract is also important for British industry as, sneaked into the strategy – also largely ignored by the MSM - it emerged that the government had abandoned any plans to build a next-generation manned fighter aircraft. For a heritage which included Camel, Spitfire and Lightning, it was the end of the line.

However, that left open the possibility that the UK was to focus on the producing unmanned aircraft (UAVs), with the government arguing that maintaining a capability in this area is a vital part of our defence sovereignty.

To this blog, this issue has been something of a litmus test. The UK had been heavily involved in UAV development with the United States through the £10 billion FOAS programme, which it had abandoned suddenly in June 2005.

We were then suspicious that the MoD would then join in the French-led Neuron programme (right) to create a pan-European programme, which seemed to be powering ahead.

Our suspicions were strengthened when France and the UK announced they were to co-operate in certain aspects of the technology.

Even then, however, BAE Systems were working on their own UAVs, one known as the Corax, the other the Raven. Then, in June of this year the company unveiled a new machine called the "Herti" standing for: "High Endurance Rapid Technology Insertion" (illustrated, below left).

Now, it would appear that this endeavour is about to be rewarded with the award of the unmanned fighter contract, enabling BAE to develop a "technical demonstrator" version of the aircraft. This will be a full working model with weapons and targeting systems, which will then form the base design for a future generation of fighters.

The Times tells us that the £200 million contract is thought to be the largest experimental project financed by the MoD since it funded the development of the Eurofighter – which this points to one of four important political issues.

First, it should be an issue that the contract has been awarded to BAE Systems, a company with a more than chequered history in keeping defence contracts under control. To give the company yet another £200 million for a project which – if FOAS is any guide – could eventually be worth more than £10 billion, without the most searching of debates, seems unwise.

Secondly, we really need to be asking whether unmanned fighters are the right route to follow, and whether alternatives have been properly considered. Operational experience with UAVs have shown that they chew up bandwidth, which imposes considerable limitations on the number that can be deployed in any given area.

While BAE Systems have been successfully working on autonomous capabilities (enabling the machine to fly itself and make basic mission decisions), thus reducing bandwith requirements, any machine which is to be used to kill a human must have another human in the command loop. We cannot permit automated killing robots. Effective command, however, will require considerable data transmission to ensure that informed decisions are made, in which case there will still be high bandwidth demands and thus limits on the number of machines that can be operated.

Other options include the development of high performance, long-range air-to-air missiles which are so capable that they can be launched from any airborne platform, such as a transport aircraft (like the C-130) an air tanker, or even from an AWACS, dispensing with the need for a high performance fighter. Such developments would make UAVs irrelevant, except that they, themselves could become missile platforms.

This then relates to the fourth and final issue, one we have discussed before in the context of the chequered history of British UAV projects, with disasters like the Phoenix (illustrated). Despite massive expenditure, British manufacturers have yet to deliver a worthwhile machine so should we be committing any expenditure to British ventures?

This is probably the most political of all the issues as we have a choice of potential partners, the Europeans and the Americans, and choice of either would have considerable political implications.

Already, despite this government's commitment to European defence integration, it has recently incurred the wrath of French by refusing to endorse a three-year spending plan for the European Defence Agency, with Michele Alliot-Marie accusing Britain of undermining efforts to build a common EU defence policy. A go-it-alone policy on UAVs is hardly likely to endear us to our European "partners". And any British Europhiles might be very angry.

On the other hand, we are already co-operating closely with the IS on the operation of the Predator UAV and are purchasing some machines for Afghanistan.

And, while the MoD is paying the French-owned Thales company upwards of £700 million to develop an Israeli design as the Watchkeeper UAV, in one of those convoluted deals that defy comprehension, British-owned BAE Systems – the very one getting £200 million of British money for UAV development – is developing the tactical UAV, called the Skylynx (illustrated) for the US Marine Corps, a system that is, according to BAE Systems, "capable of satisfying current and future Marine Corps requirements".

Of course, all the decisions made, and about to be made, could be perfectly sensible, well-founded and above board, as are so many in defence procurement circles. But then, it is just possible that the UK is about to embark on another costly and wasteful exercise.

Either way, though, one would have thought that a switched-on opposition would want to be sure.


The retreat from politics – Part II

David Cameron's unannounced visit to Basra yesterday and today – with his shadow foreign secretary William Hague – is another piece of evidence that tends to confirm our own impression of the electoral importance of the military adventure in Iraq.

That he was prepared to abandon a long-standing appointment to speak at the CBI annual conference, further confirms the importance, as does his comment before departure that: "The situation in Iraq is one of the most critical issues facing the British government and our country."

Characteristically though, Cameron - the man who came to listen - is seen in one of the few photographs published in today's newspapers (this one in the Yorkshire Post) talking to Lieutenant General Richard Shirreff. And why the general should be wearing his helmet in a location described as "Basra Air Station" - one of the safest areas in the whole of southern Iraq - is not immediately clear.

This notwithstanding, Cameron's presence in Basra does underline the politicians' concern that, contrary to conventional wisdom, headline domestic issues will not necessarily predominate at the next election. The indications are that security, defence and foreign policy issues could be far more central than they have been in other elections.

This is not entirely because of the convergence between the main parties on the "social" issues. The campaigning in the next election will be done against the backdrop of troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and rarely has the terrorist threat been so grave. The effects of "globalisation" will have reached down to the lower levels and most voters will understand that there is a direct connection between what happens overseas and their own prosperity and safety.

Thus, assuming that the Tories can position themselves on the "soft" issues – not so much to win the argument as to neutralise them as election winners for Brown - the emphasis must then be on foreign affairs and defence. The Tories must dominate these issues in a way they have so far failed to do. It will require of "team Cameron" a major change in direction, moving away from the "social agenda" in order to give equal (or certainly more) time and prominence to the hard-edge.

That makes the most important men in the Cameron team his shadow foreign secretary, William Hague (pictured), and his defence shadow, Liam Fox. Also, because of the huge importance of military equipment and the fact that there is – with Labour's failings – a huge open goal, the shadow minister responsible for defence procurement is a key man. He is, currently, Gerald Howarth.

The calibre of the team, however, simply reinforces the view that the Conservatives will lose the next election. Hague, for all his early promise and his performance as Tory leader, is simply not cutting the ice.

Even recently in The Sunday Telegraph, he argues for strengthening the international institutions, writing:

Unless we have a more representative Security Council, a more dynamic EU, a more cohesive Nato and a strengthened international effort against nuclear proliferation, the crises of coming years might well be impossible to resolve. Such goals should be at the top of the list of the objectives of British ministers. Otherwise, there is a grave danger that international institutions will not be able to find solutions to 21st-century challenges.
From Rwanda to "oil-for-food" and Darfur, the UN has proved a dismal failure, corrupt, self-serving and incapable of reform. The pages of this blog have constantly recorded the failures of the EU, not least the negotiations on Iran, a failure also matched by the IAEA. And Hague wants a more dynamic EU and a strengthened international effort against nuclear proliferation?

Nato, struggling for a role, has not performed well over Afghanistan and is being constantly subverted by the EU. Its survival, much less greater cohesion, is not certain and it remains to be seen whether there is the political will to keep the organisation alive.

What we see here, therefore, is a total lack of new thinking, a failure to recognise that the post-war settlement is breaking down and, probably, the day of these colossal international dinosaurs is over. We need new paradigms, but we will not them from Hague.

As for Liam Fox, as a Tory defence spokesman, he has proved to be a major disappointment. At one, going for the cheap soundbite while consistently missing the bigger picture, his interviews seem to lack coherence and he seems to have no idea of where the defence debate should lie. Furthermore, of the few semi-original ideas he has offered, he has shown no sign of understanding the complexities of what he is saying, or given us any idea that he would be in a position to deliver.

Perhaps, though, the Conservatives do not yet need a detailed defence policy. With more than two years to go (one assumes) before a general election, Liam Fox can happily wait until Cameron's policy commission has reported before he starts to deal with the detail.

That, however, is to ignore the opportunities presented by Labour activities. For instance, the MoD is fully committed to introducing the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES), a £14 billion re-equipment programme that requires a fundamental re-structuring of the Army and which is the main reason why so many of the traditional Country regiments have been abolished.

Few if any in the media are going to notice if Fox does not mention FRES but, so fragile are Labour's plans – and so uncertain is the system – that it represents an open goal, a huge target of opportunity that, if attacked, could score multiple brownie points for fox and his Party. Yet, on this issue, we get nothing but silence.

Similarly, there are huge opportunities open to Fox in attacking the government's record on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and especially its forward plans, which may lead to the expenditure of as much as £10 billion. Yet, despite seriously poor performance and some questionable decisions in the offing, once again, we get nothing but silence.

Fox has an agenda but, clearly, that does not include behaving like an opposition spokesman and attacking the government.

While he covers the big issues, though (or fails to do so), the failures at a lower level are just as important. Small issues may be crucial in the greater scheme of things but, in politics, it is very often those small things that can make or break a government (and opposition) – who can forget the War of Jennifer's Ear?

In charge of the defence procurement portfolio, however, is Gerald Howarth and he typifies the total ineptness of the Cameron experiment. For instance, whatever else could be said about the "Snatch" Land Rover issue, it was highly political, representing an egregious failure of Labour properly to equip our troops.

With Booker in the Sunday Telegraph, we went live with the story on 17 June and The Sunday Times picked it up a week later. But nowhere in these stories was there a mention of Gerald Howarth, which meant that the Tories were given no "credit" for pushing the issue. And the reason was quite simple. Although he had been given the details weeks earlier, including photographs of destroyed Land Rovers and the now famous RG-31 picture (above right), from him there had been no comment – no reaction at all.

When it then emerged that Lord Drayson was to supply troops with the dangerously fragile Pinzgauer Vector, full details were sent to Howarth who had thus a powerful story with which to approach the media.

But although in July he posted a robust piece on his website, his action was entirely negated by his visit to the Pinzgauer factory. There, he allowed himself to be photographed at the wheel of a truck (pictured here) for a corporate advertisement, praising the superb Pinzgauer.

When it emerged that four soldiers had been killed in a "water taxi" as they used the Shatt-al-Arab waterway for want of suitably protected vehicles, Howarth was informed. Response there was none.

When it emerged that the British Consulate was being evacuated and that British troops in their own headquarters were being subject to constant mortar attacks, yet no attempt was being made to procure counter-measures, Howarth was more than informed. He was invited to supply this blog with a 1000 word piece setting out the Conservative policy on this and allied issues – with a promise that it would gain a reference in the Booker column. Promise there was but response there was none.

When the ghastly story of the government's failure to supply adequate UAV surveillance emerged, Gerald Howarth was informed. Response there was none. And when it emerged that troops were at risk in Afghanistan through lack of thermal imagers, Howarth was informed. Response there was none.

Now, in a piece billed as an exposition of my view of what the (Conservative) Party must do to win the next election, I have been a long time coming to the point (or points). One thing which would now seem obvious as to what they must do – this is to fire Gerald Howarth.

As a shadow minister dealing with procurement, he is worse than useless. He has allowed one of the most dangerously useless procurement ministers in recent times, the Lord Drayson (pictured), to escape without tarnish, and even to enjoy pieces in the likes of The Independent, which today runs a long, highly laudatory "puff", about the minister, with the headline: Lord Drayson: Britain's top gun.

With the defence procurement goal wide open for innumerable "scores", if the shadow minister for procurement cannot even lay a glove on his opponent then it is time for him to go.

But, to focus on Howarth alone would be unfair. There is a broader issue at stake here: the Conservatives have forgotten how to campaign as an opposition. They have never really had to do so seriously and, over the eighteen years that they were in power, any skills they had have been long forgotten.

Going back to pre-Thatcher days, most knowledgeable political commentators will be aware that the rise of the Tories then owed much to the efforts of the Conservative party's research department but even more to the efforts of the Institute of Economic Affairs think-tank.

The core of that effect was, essentially, research – and the dissemination of the fruits of that research – of a calibre which, currently is no longer available. The research department has been broken up and there is no think-tank of any stature informing or guiding "team Cameron".

In opposition, however, research is also used to fuel attacks on the government and here, the Conservative effort is dire. The information which Howarth could have used – had he been able – was not supplied within the party machine. Unlike the US, where there are senior political researchers of some stature, that research function is treated as a job to be carried out by juniors, passing through to better posts – and paid accordingly.

The crucial issue here, though, is that research-driven information is best used indirectly, in servicing the media.

Bear with me on this one – I know what I am talking about. For a part of my career, I was responsible for doing the PR for an egg industry trade association, just after the start of the salmonella scare when producers were being branded killers of grannies and babies.

To get through to a hostile and uninterested media (uninterested in what we had to say, that is), we found the most effective way was to supply them with what they needed most – good, reliable information.

Then, there was a "market" for weekly information on food poisoning, which was difficult to get as the authorities had stopped releasing the figures. I was able to get it and ran a weekly service, collating and analysing the data and sending out a fact sheet to media operations. The information was not about eggs per se but it established our reputation as a trustworthy source and soon reporters were coming to us for comment and more information.

And that is how the Conservative Party needs to operate in order to win. The "big hits" by the leaders are all very well but what we need is the constant drip-drip approach with there never being a period when the Conservatives are not actually in the media, attacking the government. By contrast though, many shadow ministers produce nothing for ages and then churn out dire press releases about their agenda and expect the media to drop everything and publish it – bitching like mad when they do not.

To produce such research-based information though is actually beyond the capability of this party, dominated as it is by "team Cameron" who are only concerned with their own headlines. But then, that is of no concern to Boy and his acolytes. Winning the election is not their game. They have bigger fish to fry – the total destruction of the Conservative Party.

And that is the subject for the third and final piece.


26 November 2006

The retreat from politics

Just over a week ago (although it seems longer), we had the Queen's speech - that ancient ritual in which the monarch reads out the government's programme for the next parliament.

Few now can remember the contents and even fewer know the MPs' guilty secret – that most of them stayed away for the event and for the subsequent debate, treating the week as an extension of their holidays or using it for some quick grandstanding.

But, the same week the Boy was cuddling his black baby in front of the cameras (resulting in a photograph even the MSM seems to have found too contrived to use), there was another queen's speech, of a sort. This was the EU commission's work programme, which – unlike Blair's programme – runs to 38 closely-typed pages. And while it certainly shares the same high-flown rhetoric…

This Commission set out its strategic objectives at the start of its mandate: putting Europe back on the track of prosperity; reinforcing our commitment towards solidarity; strengthening citizens' security and, finally, projecting and promoting these priorities outside our borders with a stronger voice in the world. These remain the core direction for the Commission's work, and the foundation for the partnership approach essential to realising ambitious policies in a complex world.
… it also had something else in common. When the commission presented it to the EU parliament in Strasbourg, by the end of the debate the commissioners present outnumbered the MEPs, with the fragrant Margot Wallström complaining that the discussion went in all directions.

The communications commission then tells us that we can read the conclusions of the debate on the EU parliament site, for which she give us a convenient link. Hilariously, however, the link takes us not to the promised site, but to a press release headed: "Communication between the EU and its citizens should be improved". And, apart from the obvious gaffe, we see in the very first paragraph why it will not happen:

Parliament says that the communication between the EU and its citizens should be improved. It, therefore, calls on the European Commission to support the creation of a European public space dedicating sufficient coverage to European affairs throughout national, local and regional media. Member States should encourage the national public audiovisual channels adequately to inform the citizens about the policies conducted at European level.
They simply do not have the first idea about how to communicate with people and, other than devising ways of spending more and more money on their endeavours, they are going nowhere.

But, if the EU establishment is having difficulty dealing with communication so too is our own, especially the Conservative opposition. Cameron may think he pulled up a major publicity coup, flying off in his luxury business jet to Darfur but, even amongst his own faithful, the reception was hardly ecstatic.

And out in the "real world" – if it actually exists – things are not looking good for the Boy. As he approaches his first anniversary as leader of the Tories next month, a Mori poll for the Observer shows that his satisfaction ratings amongst British voters have plummeted lower than Tony Blair's. As for his party, the Conservatives are only two points ahead of Labour, on 35 to 33 percent of the vote amongst those saying they definitely intend to vote.

Furthermore, the soft cuddly Cameron does not appear to have appealed particularly to women and young people, with his minuscule two percent head coming, perversely, mostly from men and the middle-aged (possibly because they believe that the Boy is appealing to women and the young and, therefore, can win them the election).

But, most damning of all, only 25 percent of the electorate consider themselves "satisfied" with Cameron's performance as leader of the opposition - rising only to 45 percent among Tory voters, down from 60 percent in February.

And it was back in February that we recorded the findings of another Mori poll on the issues of most concern to voters. As we saw then, the combined category of "defence/foreign affairs/terrorism" scored highest, attracting 34 percent of the respondents questioned, compared with the 33 percent who thought NHS/Hospitals was most important and the pathetically small eight percent who rated "pollution/environment".

Even with Tory Diary clutching at straws, ignoring Mori and going for a GfK NOP poll which gives the Boy a ten percent lead over Gordon Brown, as preferred prime minister, there is a hard edge to that poll as well. In terms of who is best placed to protect the UK from terrorism, Brown leads the Boy by a factor of 22-21 percent.

Now, in the three or so years (or less) to a general election, anything can happen but my guess is that the "climate change" issue has already peaked and is a wasting asset when it comes to garnering votes.

Green issues have only gained so much momentum through the confluence of support from metropolitan clever-dicks, the media and opportunistic politicos. The "real world" has never been convinced by the hype, especially on climate change, and considerable hostility followed the publication of the Stern Report, not least because the politicians' sudden concern for the issue has been quickly interpreted as simply another excuse for more taxation.

If Cameron is relying on his "green" credentials to carry the election for him, therefore, he has also certainly missed the boat. And, while some of the perceived reluctance of voters to weigh in with support is put down to the current lack of policies, as my colleague argues, Cameron's "not-the-Conservative-Party" does actually have a lot of policies – it's just that we may not like them.

My next guess is that when we see the Boy's policy commissions report, and team-Cameron begin formally to articulate their policies, we will like them even less. But, more to the point, we as a nation face difficult military decisions in the next few years and, if we are to believe what we are told, the next few years are unlikely to pass without another terrorist outrage. And it is highly unlikely that the softy, greenie, baby-hugging Cameron will be seen to be up to the task of protecting the nation.

The carefully cultivated "man from Venus" image, to contrast with the more war-like "men from Mars" – Blair and Brown – will almost certainly rebound, in favour of Brown and his Labour Party. For sure, Cameron may pick up some votes on his heavily-worked pitch on the NHS, but the price will be the loss of his core support.

Worse still – and what he and his strategists do not seem to have appreciated – is that convergence on issues such as the NHS neutralises them electorally. Voters looking for "clear blue water" will no longer find it in the "soft" issues such schools 'n' hospitals. they will have to look elsewhere and the most obvious place for them to look is in the hard-edged policy areas of defence and security. Traditionally the strong suit of the Tories, these will be the battleground – one which has been abandoned by "team-Cameron".

Making it even more difficult for Cameron is what we have called the march of the minnows, the small party phenomenon which is going to rip poll predictions apart, not least because the polling model is based on a national two-party contest.

Thus, while political parties like the BNP are moving into the space vacated by the Tories, those self-same Tories - bolstered by inaccurate polls - are in complete denial. They refuse even to consider that minority parties might affect their chances of election and believe that, as the unpopularity of NuLab mounts, voters have nowhere else to go for a government, but to them. Little do they know the English, Kipling's Saxons:

When he stands like an ox in the furrow with his sullen set eyes on your own, And grumbles, "This isn't fair dealings", my son, leave the Saxon alone.
Something that will never show up in the polls are those "sullen set eyes", a deep and building resentment at the posturing and presumptions of the politicians that will frustrate attempts to coral everyone into the established parties who have treated them so badly. Enough – and growing numbers – are ready to abandon tribal loyalties and make the break.

Thus, early days it may be but it is safe to make one key prediction – Cameron's "not-the-Conservative-Party" will not win power at the next general election. The party called the Conservatives will lose.



25 November 2006

Taliban planning new tactics

The Financial Times is reporting that Taliban minelaying tactics are worrying Nato. Forces are equipping themselves with more mine detectors amid fears that the Taliban are laying mines as a tactic to demoralise troops.

The MoD has placed orders in recent weeks with SDS Group, a UK company specialising in security training and equipment, while British officers warn that the Taliban are planning a variety of tactics aimed at maximising casualties to put new pressure on the UK-led Nato forces.

Mines stockpiled in the civil war and the Taliban era are being laid to target British troops operating in Helmand province and against Canadian forces deployed in the Taliban hotbeds of Panjwai, Zhare and Maiwand west of Kandahar city.

Of course, in addition to mine detection kit, the Canadians also have their RG-31 mine protected vehicles, while the Dutch and the Australians have their Bushmasters – pictured above. The composite shows the "V-shaped" hull during the manufacturing stage, the assembly being tested with explosives and a surviving hull after a mine test.

And, in order to meet this threat, our own soldiers are also to be provided with an armoured vehicle – the Pinzgauer Vector. Alan Stanley, the managing director of Guildford-based Pizgauer Ltd, is confident that the new vehicle "will provide greater protection, mobility and payload than those currently offered by other in-service patrol vehicles" - despite its flat base and driver position over the wheel.

Oddly enough though, we cannot find any photographs of a Pinzgauer having been tested against a mine threat, and Mr Stanley is somewhat reticent about revealing the precise level of protection afforded by his vehicles.

However, we did find one picture of a British Army Pinzgauer having just completed its service in Iraq (above). We suspect that after the Vector is introduced early next year, it will not be long before we will be seeing similar scenes.

It is so nice to see the British prepared.


24 November 2006

Muppets' half hour

There seems to be something of a bandwagon effect running as more newspapers and the BBC join what is becoming a growing chorus of condemnation of British military equipment.

Some more issues were raised yesterday in The Daily Express, by reporter Padraic Flanagan, writing from Afghanistan. They were picked up, uncritically by the BBC and also by Matthew Hickley of the Evening Standard.

However, such is the ignorance of the journalists, their evident lack of research and their superficial approach to what is - as our readers will readily acknowledge - a complex technical subject, that the media activities have not taken us any further forward.

The reports in question feature Sergeant Stephen Brown of 45 Commando, second in command of the unit to which Marine Gary Wright belonged when he was killed by a suicide bomber last month, while riding in a "Snatch" Land Rover. From such a source, therefore, one might think that we could get some really pointed and searching criticism. But not a bit of it.

All we actually get is Brown saying that he doubted whether Wright's death could have been prevented. To the entirely unquestioning hacks he simply says that a better-protected vehicle could have stopped others in the vehicle becoming casualties, adding that the "Snatch" Land Rovers left troops exposed. "They are slow and offer no protection from improvised explosive devices," he says.

Now, Sergeant Brown is undoubtedly a good NCO, but one wonders whether he has seen the effects of a suicide bomb on the RG-31 (illustrated) – or indeed whether he even knows what an RG-31 is. Then, as our readers know, the Germans have the Dingo and the Dutch have the Bushmaster, both of which demonstrably offer considerable protection against mines and IEDs. Did Sergeant Brown know about these before making his observations?

More to the point, did any of the hacks know about them or, as always, are we just seeing them write down, totally uncritically, what they are told, with not a brain-cell's worth of questioning or analysis?

But, if they sell the pass here, it actually gets worse. According to the Express report, Brown then complains that a shortage of "Viper" (sic) and "Sophie" thermal-imaging equipment was hindering his troops in halting further attacks. The units, we are told, designed to work over different distances, work by showing the user a "heat map" of the body, and can reveal a suicide bomber by the tell-tale "cold spot" around the midriff shielded by a belt of deadly explosives.

Sergeant Brown is quoted as saying that the men in Lashkar Gah had barely a tenth of the imaging units they needed. "These units will save people's lives," he says. "They allow you to look at the potential threat and see him coming, but having to pass them around by hand and pick up your weapon – by that time he's on top of you."

Such is the fact-checking skill of the hacks, however, that none of them realise that the so-called "Viper" is in fact a Vipir. This is a small detail but another crucial piece of information which is missing is that the Vipir is a compact thermal imaging sight for the SA 80 rifle. It is a very nice piece of kit and it can be hand-held, but it is primarily designed as a rifle sight.

The relevance of this missing information will become evident in a moment but let us first deal with "Sophie". The complaint is so easily dropped in by Flanagan but "Sophie" is, in fact, a much larger piece of equipment than "Vipir". It is also fragile and expensive and, according the Army website, deployed at company level only. It would be entirely unrealistic for Wright to expect personal issue - and nor would it do his men any good. As you can see from the illustration, it is not possible to use "Sophie" and a weapon at the same time. For him to appear to ask for them gives the MoD a possible comeback and an opportunity to belittle the Sergeant.

But what is particularly interesting here - if the hacks were switched on - is that the equipment is obsolescent, scheduled for replacement (in the US Marines, at any rate) with a much better unit. If there is a complaint, it is that the British Army is not getting the up-to-date kit.

Ironically, though, the issue of thermal imagers was taken up during the lunch-time news on the BBC Radio 4 World at One programme. And it is here that the biggest mess was made of the issue. On the programme, the self-important Shaun Ley tells us that Brown's platoon is issued with three Vipir sights, when it needs 25. He then interviews the defence procurement minister, Lord Drayson and challenges him about the shortage.

Amazingly, the dreadful Drayson comes back saying that, "we've sent over 1400 sets of night vision goggles to Afghanistan…". These, of course, are totally different bits of kit – they are image intensifiers. They do not pick up infra-red radiation but simply intensify the available light in the visible spectrum. They cannot even be used in daylight, and would be useless for detecting suicide bombers.

The idiot Ley, however, clearly doesn't know the difference. "So as far as you're concerned," he says, "there's no issue of shortage either from the manufacturers or delay in issue at this end". "No there isn't," says Drayson, completely off the hook.

Something really, really does need to be done about these amateurs. The newspapers are bad enough but the BBC is in a league of its own. Yet, they are so full of themselves, they do not even begin to realise quite how full of crap they really are.

A start would be for their "flagship" news programme, the World at One, to be renamed Muppets' half hour.


Why should we care?

Another soldier has been killed in Basra today, announced by the MoD with the usual "deep regret". What else can they say?

The soldier, unnamed as yet, was a member of the Parachute Regiment, shot while taking part in a planned search and detention operation in Basra City earlier today. He was evacuated to a nearby military hospital and died from his injuries.

It is a horrible thing to have to admit, but there is a hierarchy in our concern about death – there always has been. Not all deaths are equal. Hence there is greater concern over one soldier in action than the one killed, apparently by accident, on a firing range in England yesterday.

And, on this blog, it takes precedence over the 202 people killed yesterday in Baghdad as suicide bombers ripped through a Shi'ite market in northern Iraq on Friday and mortars crashed on rival Baghdad neighbourhoods, ramping up sectarian tension a day after the bloodiest bombing of the conflict killed

Two more bombers killed 22 people at Tal Afar near the Syrian border today and the country looks more like it is approaching civil war than ever before, as the Iraq government imposed a curfew in the capital and also closed the international airport. The transport ministry then took the highly unusual step of closing the airport and docks in the southern city of Basra, the country's main outlet to the vital shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the pre-eminent Shiite religious figure in Iraq, has condemned the bombings and issued condolences to family members of those who were killed. He called for self-control among his followers, but there is no telling whether his writ will hold firm and the Shi'ites will or even can stop their hard men going all out of the Sunnis.

You would not be human if you did not recoil from this with horror and, unable as we seem to affect the course of this violence, it is entirely natural to want no part of it, and from there to pull out our troops. The death of another soldier today can only strengthen that feeling.

What is most troubling though is the lack of resolve either way. There is no politician of any stature saying, unequivocally, that we must quit and be done with it. Nor is anyone saying that we must get stuck in there and do whatever it takes to bring peace and stability to Iraq, taking the losses and paying the price.

Instead, there is the government's attempt to build a fictional scenario that things are somehow getting so much better in Basra that we will soon be able to pull back our troops into their bases, prior to their departure.

All you have to do, though, is look at the pictures - troops in helmets, on the alert, weapons at the ready, patrolling in heavily armoured Warriors. Everyone who has a brain, however, and all the political hacks, know full well that this is simply NuLab spin, allowing, as the Evening Standard put it yesterday, Blair to bow out "on a wave of good news". If the handover of control in Basra to the Iraqis is timed for April, just prior to Blair's retirement, it would give him precisely the personal boost he is looking for.

But, if it is really that cynical, the real question is, what is the opposition – by which one means the "not-the-Conservative-party" - doing about it? What is its policy on Iraq? Should be stay or should we go, and if we stay, what do we need to do the job – whatever that might be.

Certainly, we are getting a very clear lead from Australian prime minister John Howard, who has openly declared that an early withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq would have disastrous consequences and give victory to "terrorists". His country's troops were active today the southern city of Samawa (illustrated) and Howard has no intention of pulling them out of Iraq.

But, one of our readers, without a return address, has e-mailed us to suggest that it was probably time to tone down the rhetoric on Dave Cameron. He did not, we were told, "merit such constant withering scorn". "I'm afraid," wrote our correspondent, "it does EU Referendum little credit. More balance and reason would not go amiss."

OK. Would somebodyanybody, like to tell us what the Boy's policy is on Iraq, and what we should make of it? And, while they are about it, could they tell us why we should care?


23 November 2006


Most people have heard of the phrase supposedly said by Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring: “When I hear the word culture I reach for my revolver.” In fact, he may not have said it and, even if he did, so did other Nazi leaders, such as Rudolf Hess. The real phrase came from a Nazi propaganda play by Hans Johst, whose artistic and theatrical ideas seem to be an uncanny mirror of those enunciated by such luminaries of Communist literary agitprop as Bertolt Brecht.

Somewhere in what sounds to be a mind-numbingly boring play, “Schlageter” about the man who was executed by the French in 1923 for resisting their occupation of the Ruhr through sabotage (you learn a lot on this blog), one of the other characters says: “Wenn ich Kultur höre ... entsichere ich meinen Browning”. “When I hear of culture … I release the safety catch on my Browning.” Much neater, I think.

What would any of this folk or, for that matter, their opponents like Karl Radek, the German Communist subsequently one of the accused in the Second Moscow Trial of 1937, sentenced to a prison sentence and killed by another prisoner, and Brecht, who prudently escaped to the West, say about a press release from the European Commission that is peppered with the word “culture”. Oh I don’t know. Brecht may be quite happy, as long as he could be in charge as he was in East Germany.

It seems that Our Nellie (Kroes) has approved of tax incentives for the British film industry as long as there are "cultural" British films are produced.
The total annual budget for the UK film tax incentive amounts to £120 million (€ 177 million). To be eligible for support under the scheme, films other than European co-productions will have to pass the revised UK Cultural Test. To pass this points-based test, a film must obtain at least 16 of the available maximum of 31 points for different criteria. There are four categories of criteria, including Cultural Content and Cultural Contribution for which up to 20 points are available, ensuring that the aid is directed towards a cultural product. The UK authorities will bring forward legislation to apply the revised Cultural Test and make the scheme operational.
I am rather looking forward to that legislation and the possibility of briefing members of the House of Lords on it (no point in briefing the other lot, they have never heard of films, culture or revolvers).

Think of the definitions one could have for “Cultural Content and Cultural Contribution” and the points to be awarded. Would one, for instance, award points to films that used English classical music and musicians? I think not though, I imagine, rock bands who will disappear within a couple of years from sight may well get the much needed points.

Hugh Grant, now. He has become a national treasure. How many points would a film get if it fielded Hugh Grant and, let us say, Michael Caine? Not that Caine has evinced any desire to act with Hugh Grant but you never know. Then again, Caine is also a Hollywood star, though he lives in England. How many points is that?

Since the kultukampf of the modern film-making industry does not include ordinary middle class families and their lives (unless it is to show what a sham it all is, though even that is now left to the Americans), no film of the kind Sir Carol Reed or Sir David Lean used to make would pass muster. I mean, would anyone award points to something like "Brief Encounter" or "Waterloo Bridge", not to mention "In Which We Serve" or "Went the Day Well?" or "The Ladykillers"? Surely not.

No Shakespeare play would get the go-ahead unless it showed parallels with the Iraqi war (there not having been any wars ever before in this country’s history); no play by Oscar Wilde would be turned into a film unless it can be updated to make it "relevant" (hint: means nudity); no play that involves any foreign immigrant or asylum seeker would be made unless the latter, usually female and attractive, is to be played by a French film star; above all, nothing English would be shown without winsome charm.

Accountants who deal with the film industry must think they have died and woken up in heaven.

The aid takes the form of an "enhanced tax deduction" and a "payable film tax credit". The "enhanced tax deduction" allows a film production company to benefit from a higher deduction for certain production costs than the normal UK tax rules would allow. The "payable film tax credit2 allows the film production company to receive a cash payment of up to 25% of any tax loss (after applying the enhanced tax deduction). The pre-production, principal photography and post-production expenditure borne by the beneficiary on goods or services that are used or consumed in the UK can be considered under this aid scheme.
Accountancy Age is on the case with Fiona Hotston Moore of MRI Moores Rowland explaining:
If a film was filmed and produced in the UK and the dialogue was in English it would be eligible for tax relief. The new cultural test means that the producer and director will have to be British to claim the reliefs.
Right. So that leaves out all the US companies who brought money into the country by making films here, which is a pity since a number of them, including the makers of the Bond films have been making noises about Britain being a tad too expensive.

It sounds all a bit like those quota quickies of the pre-war period and absolutely terrible they were, too. The idea, enshrined in the 1927 Cinematograph Film Act, was that cinemas must show British made films. Thus a plethora of cheap B-movies was produced in order to accompany the main feature, which was all too often American. Even the British ones made in the mid-twenties were often Anglo-German productions.

Was it a success? Not according to the distributors who insisted that important changes had to be made in the legislation when it was renewed in the mid-thirties. Would the better British films have been made without the quota? Probably, but one must not say that as that would imply that there is a qualitative difference between various films and this does not depend on where they are made or what nationality the director or the producer might be.

The trouble with all this tax incentive is that the cinemas will continue to show films they think might bring in money and the culturally impeccable, EU-approved, British director made unwatchable rubbish will continue to be left out of everybody’s calculations.

Incidentally, would the enormously successful Carry On films have passed the test?


22 November 2006

Moving to the end game

Foreign secretary (in name only) Margaret Beckett has announced in Parliament today that Britain could hand over control of Basra to the Iraq government in spring next year. That would be the next and penultimate stage in the retreat started in August, when al Amarah was abandoned to the militias - with entirely predictable results.

"The progress of our current operation in Basra gives us confidence that we may be able to achieve transition in that province ...at some point next spring," says Beckett, building on the claims at the end of October that the Army was close to reaching the "tipping point" in defeating the "insurgents".

At the time, we asked, "do we really look that stupid?" – and now we have an answer. More than stupidity though, it is perhaps that people don't care any more, one way or the other – and just want our troops out. And if it takes a little fiction - like we are winning the battle against the insurgents - to disguise our retreat… well, the government will do what it takes.

In the spring, then, we can see the Army pull back into Basra Air Station and Shaiba logistics base, abandoning its three main bases in the city: Basra Palace, the Shatt al-Arab Hotel and the Old State Building. These will be handed over to the Iraqi security services and then, most likely, ransacked by the militias. At that point, up to 3,000 of the 7,200 contingent will be returned home, some to be available for redeployment to Afghanistan.

The main function of the remainder will be to provide security for the road between Kuwait and the US zones, and the dock facilities at Umm Qasr, protecting the supply lines (and the escape route).

This will leave Basra and the rest of Shia-dominated southern Iraq to the tender mercies of the Iranian-backed militias and their fundamentalist rule, precipitating either civil war or further flight of secular Iraqis. Already, we are told, the meddling of agents of the Iranian Intelligence Ministry is so obvious that in Basra, when the residents want to give an address, "they use the office of the Iranian Intelligence ministry as a landmark."

It also explains why, despite continued and continuing attacks, on the back of the most recent violence, the British government is doing nothing about the humiliating situation where civilians have to be evacuated from Basra Palace.

Despite the availability of defence measures and counter-measures, it has no intention of investing in the equipment necessary to protect its bases, when it intends shortly to abandon them.

Like Lieutenant Colonel David Labouchere, who abandoned the Abu Naji base at al Amarah as a means of stopping the attacks, the British generally seem to have adopted a strategy of retreat as a means of preventing attack.

But it is not their presence, per se that seems to be the problem. According to Hakim al-Meyarhe, president of the Security Council in the elected Basra Governing Council, it is their behaviour. "British forces in Basra have made a lot of mistakes," he says, "and they continue to do so. They're arresting people inappropriately, storming into houses at night; raiding homes and families... They randomly arrest people without any permission from the government. These mistakes make people reactive (sic) negatively and violently."

"That's the reason for the mortar attacks we have here," al-Meyarhe says. "They are specifically directed against the British army interests, they're not attacks on the people of Basra."

With the British sending out such strong signals of its intentions, however, it is hardly surprising that the militias are already jockeying for position and, as we have seen, are launching a murderous campaign against those who are helping the occupiers, making it more difficult to control the region.

Most recently, the target has been the interpreters. At least 21 have been kidnapped and shot in head over the last month, their bodies dumped in different parts of the city. Another three are still missing. In a single mass killing, 17 interpreters were slain.

None of the Iraqis, be they police or army, want to share the fate of the Harkis, giving their loyalty to the occupiers, only to be slaughtered once they leave. Why should any Iraqi trust their lives to the British, who cannot even protect their own?

And so, inexorably, do we move to the end game, a sordid, tawdry example of failure and betrayal, our government abandoning its task unfinished, leaving the Iraqis to a fate unknown. But the worst of it is the spin, the attempt to disguise that unalterable fact, that we are running away. And, in so doing, what – as Charles Moore so eloquently put it – will we have gained?