Tuesday, February 09, 2016 

Even after acquittal, even after release, national security trumps all.

The continuing official secrecy surrounding the trial of Erol Incedal, as reaffirmed today by the Court of Appeal, truly boggles the mind.  Incedal, lest anyone has forgot, was charged with possessing a manual on bomb-making and planning to commit a terrorist act, only for some of the evidence to be judged by the intelligence agencies as so potentially damaging to national security that around 90% of the trial(s) had to be held in secret, or in camera.

Indeed, initially the government not only argued for the trial to be held entirely behind closed doors, it also wanted Incedal and his co-defendant Mounir Rarmoul-Bouhadjar to not so much as be identified, instead known only by initials.  This only failed after a challenge from the media, who in the same ruling were also granted access to most of the closed sessions, with "accredited journalists" invited to observe proceedings.  They are not allowed however to disclose what they heard in those sessions on pain of contempt of court, while their notebooks, taken at the end of each session, are apparently being kept at MI5's headquarters, Thames House, lest anyone less respectful of national security decides they should be placed into the public domain.

The utter absurdity of the situation is best expressed by how the Guardian reports that Incedal has since been released from prison, presumably under licence, from his 42 month sentence for possessing the 5 page manual on explosives.  Whether Incedal is under the same restrictions as both the journalists and members of the jury is not clear, or whether they might only apply until his sentence has been served in full we don't know.  Either way, the man himself is now free.  If he so wishes, he can tell anyone he feels like exactly how and why he was found not guilty of planning a terrorist attack despite the apparently incriminating evidence against him, while the journalists who sat there in the expectation of at some point being able to explain to the public why still cannot.

Almost everything about the case reeks.  The argument for why it had to be heard in secret, at least initially, was that otherwise justice would not have been able to be done.  This would at the very least imply that the case against the accused was fairly airtight, and that having to abandon it would have damaged the public interest more than denying the principles of open justice in this one instance.  Instead, as it turned out, one jury couldn't decide on the planning an attack charge while at the retrial the jury acquitted the accused.  It has not been explained whether a bug was placed in Incedal's car after he was pulled over and arrested for speeding, Incedal having made "demands" the police couldn't accommodate, as well as producing a statement they needed time to "digest", or whether he was already someone of interest to the security services.  We are none the wiser over whether Tony Blair really was a target, as an address to his home in London was found hidden in a glasses case, or if that was something else explained to the apparent satisfaction of the second jury.  The accredited journalists themselves feel used and tainted by the experience, almost to the point of being complicit in the secrecy demanded, unable to speak of anything they heard unless they fancy a spell behind bars themselves.

What is the possible danger in knowing why someone accused of terrorism was found not guilty when that person is no longer so much as in jail?  We aren't allowed to know, so we can't know.  All we are allowed to know is that the Lord Chief Justice remains "quite satisfied ... for reasons which we can only provide in a closed annex to this judgment that a departure from the principles of open justice was strictly necessary if justice was to be done".  Albeit, in this instance, justice meant the accused being acquitted.

Not that the ruling is overly deferential to the executive and others who demanded the secrecy in the first place.  It would seem the security services were not pleased with even the merest glimpses of daylight the Court of Appeal allowed to seep in, as "in the light of some of the material provided to the court" the justices feel the need to make clear that "no part of the Executive can refuse to provide the evidence required by the DPP on the basis that it perceives that it is not in the interests of national security to provide it". "Thus," they continue, "when the decision is made by the court, subject to any appeal, they must abide by that decision even if they disagree with it. If a decision is made by the prosecutor to proceed, then the Security Services and the police must provide to the prosecutor all the assistance the prosecutor requires."  You might have thought that the security services, especially ones that the court says in its experience "are conspicuous in their adherence to this principle and these duties" wouldn't need to be reminded of things like the rule of law, but so it would seem.

The court also makes clear that while public accountability cannot currently be provided by the media, it is open to the Intelligence and Security Committee to consider "any issues it considers need to be examined and for any public accountability to be achieved in that way". While this would previously have not had the government or the securocrats shaking in their shoes, the highly critical report into the draft Investigatory Powers act by the ISC under its new chairman Dominic Grieve would suggest it might finally turn into more of a watchdog than a lapdog.  Likewise, that as a coda the justices observe that previous closed judgments were apparently not available to them as reference and "this is not satisfactory", not least as "it must always be a possibility, that at a future date, disclosure will be sought at a time when it is said that there could no longer be any reason to keep the information from the public", it's as crystal as it could be that while the courts are currently persuaded by cries of "national security", they might not always be.

When there is so little to go on it's almost pointless to speculate on precisely how national security could be damaged by the public knowing why Incedal was not in this instance guilty.  You do have to suspect though that the contact Incedal had with a British man called Ahmed, apparently based in Syria, is key, not least because MI5 and MI6 rather than just one or the other were involved in the push for secrets to remain secret.  Just as it was only remembered days before Moazzam Begg was due to go on trial for terrorism charges linked to Syria that MI5 had apparently OKed his journey, so too you have to wonder if Incedal himself had links to the intelligence agencies that are not being disclosed and which he used as his justification for not being guilty.  Then again, in a case this absurd, where the rule of law has always been a secondary thought, and where only politicians, judges and spooks can be trusted with the reality, who's to say it's not something correspondingly bizarre?

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Tuesday, January 19, 2016 

The Hotel Cameronia.

Deja-vu pervades the headlines on a dead, ice cold January day.  Reasons for failures thought to have long since been established are repeated, as if for emphasis, as if to drum in how crap we are, you are, we all are.  The polls were wrong because the samples were wrong; the wrong young people were recruited; the right older people weren't recruited; and no one has the slightest idea if it's fixable, except online polling is the solution, not the problem.  Online is always the solution, not the problem.

Labour lost because it was just that little bit crapper than the Conservatives.  David Cameron's crap, but Ed Miliband would have been worse.  He didn't convince, the public didn't trust the party on the economy because it had been too busy obsessing over itself to fight back against the coalition's everything's Labour's fault line, and they also didn't believe the party would be nasty enough on welfare or to immigrants.  Considering voters preferred the Tories on that particular issue, David Cameron having presided over the highest ever net migration figure after promising to get the numbers down to the tens of thousands, that's quite the achievement.  Yes, it's true the public no longer trust any politician to get immigration down and the monster is completely out of the bag, but that doesn't alter the humiliation.

Janan Ganesh in the FT expands on the crap motif, only he mistakes it for apathy.  David Cameron is the apathy prime minister.  He's like Tony Blair, only not messianic.  He's a plausible prime minister, just like he's plausible as a human being.  He looks like one, talks like one, but never truly convinces on any level whatsoever.  And yet it's enough.  He goes to summits, gives a soundbite, walks off, manages to sound engaged for a couple of hours in the Commons, then it's on to the next thing.  He's pushed through and will still be pushing through brutal cuts to public services and benefits, but all the hard work, strategising and thinking is done by other people or behind the scenes, as evidenced by his blithe or ignorant letter to his own council.  He faces scrutiny, or seems to, and yet he doesn't.  On occasion he gives the most fatuous, embarrassing, even downright stupid answers to questions imaginable, like last week when he said with a straight face that he couldn't tell us who any of those 70,000 moderately extreme Islamists we're backing in Syria are as he didn't want Assad or Islamic State to know who to target.  Or yesterday when he insisted that our help to the Saudis in Yemen is to make sure they don't carry on bombing eye hospitals, rather than to help them carry on bombing eye hospitals.

He does it though on things that don't matter, that no one is truly interested in or which don't decide votes.  When you think about it, despite being prime minister for nigh on 6 years, not once has Dave faced a real, full-on crisis.  Some of it is luck, some of it judgement, but not once has he truly, properly come unstuck, with the exception, possibly, of the Syria vote.  Yes, he went through the riots, Milly Dowler/Leveson, floods, the Scottish independence referendum, at times seeming to react to events rather than leading them, and yet each time he pulled through without being damaged.  The Syria vote more than anything was an example of misreading his own party, something he has done repeatedly, but that hasn't as yet come back to truly bite him.  It could yet on his biggest gamble, the EU referendum, only it doesn't seem to bother him as still the casual, laid-back, apathy man approach is continuing, as the Graun laments.

Then again, we are apathy nation, or if you prefer, mild Britain.  Arguments and denunciations might fly across the internet, seething rage might be broiling underneath the surface, inequality might be worse than ever, we could be at the dawn of the era where the bottom is pulled from underneath middle earners just as it has been from the low, and yet nothing seems to change.  We are not being buffeted by a refugee crisis, as mainland Europe is.  We don't have a Bundy Bunch taking over government buildings and waving firearms in the face of the state.  We are not at war with terrorists, as France's president insists his is.  Even our alleged equivalent seems quaint in comparison to the Paris attackers; shooting a soldier, a police officer or a civilian, as the prosecution/the accused are confused over which it was, from a scooter with a silenced pistol?  It doesn't seem worth dignifying by describing it as terrorism.

The truth is, there isn't an alternative being articulated.  You can tell there isn't when the Times' opinion pages are taken up by columns on variously, students banning things, the police over Operation Midland, "Putin-loving Corbynistas", and anti-consumerism.  Polls being useless taken as point, Labour has not made the slightest in-roads into the Tories since the election.  More are exercised over Labour itself than the government, while elsewhere pompous arses make twats of themselves, act as martyrs for "saying the unsayable" and get rewarded for it.  Margaret Beckett in the Labour report might say the future isn't bleak, there are reasons to be positive, and there are in the sense apathy man doesn't have a replacement, the EU vote will divide the Tories like nothing else, and their majority remains tiny, but in which sense exactly does Corbyn look like an answer when Miliband wasn't?

Welcome to the Hotel Cameronia.  You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2015 

Droning on about targeted assassination.

In all the excitement over the decision to bomb Islamic State in Syria, you'd be forgiven for it slipping your mind that we err, already had been.  Not only were British pilots embedded with the Americans without parliament needing to be informed, a British citizen no less was also judged to be such an immediate danger to us back here that he needed to be evaporated via drone.  Rather than let the Americans do it, as they did our good pal Mohammed Emwazi, on this occasion we did so ourselves.  Why?  The answer seems to remain along the lines of "because we could" and "fuck you, we'll bomb what we want".

For the decision behind the drone strike on Reyaad Khan (for it was he), Ruhul Amin, the other British jihadi killed in the strike, and an unknown Belgian, remains completely opaque, as evidenced by today's appearance by defence secretary Michael Fallon before the Joint Committee on Human Rights' inquiry into the apparent change in policy.  Integral to the government's case that it is entirely legal to kill whoever it feels like so long as they are judged to pose a significant enough threat is Article 51 of the UN Charter.  This talks of "armed attacks", and how nothing in the rest of the charter should impair the right of individual or collective self-defence if one occurs.

If you find it dubious that the authors of the UN Charter were thinking of armed attacks by jihadists using improvised explosive devices, or quite possibly even knives when they wrote it, rather than say the actions of another state's military, then you're probably not on the attorney general's Christmas card list.  Individual terrorist attacks, the memorandum submitted to the JCHR by the government goes on (PDF), may rise to the level of an "armed attack" if they are of sufficient gravity, as the 9/11 attacks clearly were.  In any case, the "scale and effect's of ISIL's campaign" as a whole are judged to reach the level of an armed attack against the UK.  Islamic State, you'll note, has not directly attacked the UK, even if it has threatened to do so.  Force can also be used where an "armed attack" is "imminent".  It's not clear if imminent is the same thing as "highly likely", as in a terrorist attack is highly likely, as judged by the current and all but perpetual overall threat level, but we can take a wild guess and hazard that yes, it is.  Fallon for his part told the committee "I don’t think it’s possible to have a hard and fast rule about how you define imminent".

In other words, the government considers it lawful to kill Islamic State cadres full stop.  This seemingly applies outside of Iraq and Syria also, or at least that was the impression Fallon gave, as he said there was no overall policy on targeted killing at all.  Considering David Cameron had already hinted at the potential for future drone strikes in Libya this isn't surprising, and yet it would all but confirm the wholesale adoption of the US policy on drone strikes, with Fallon refusing to address questions about any substantial difference.  This would be the same US policy that has come in for heavy criticism of late, including from no less a figure than the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.  Quite why we would decide to emulate it at this point isn't clear.

If indeed we have, as it remains an open question of why Khan was targeted, as the memo certainly doesn't explain any further than the government did at the time.  Khan the memo argues could have launched an attack at any time, such was the danger he posed; it's extremely odd then that not a single one of the plots it is claimed he directed would it seemed have reached the point of being launched.  The memo interestingly notes that "some were foiled", presumably the ones newspapers splashed on, including the one the Sun itself claimed to have averted.  What then was the result of the others? Did they just fall apart?  Were they abandoned?  Did those recruited to carry them out get cold feet?  Or were these "plots" of the type like the one the Sun saved us from, of the inspiring and telling sympathisers how to make pressure cooker bombs variety?  As there still doesn't seem to have been a single person arrested for terrorism offences linked to Khan, it's worth asking the question.  The memo goes on to argue that there was no other way of stopping Khan as he had no intention of leaving Syria, and yet his plots seem to have petered out all by themselves.  Of course, there is no guarantee he would have continued to fail, but this rather undermines the claim he could have ordered an attack at any time.  Certainly, there has been no evidence presented to substantiate that, or that he had risen to that sort of position in IS.

It's almost as though the fact the newspapers were reporting on these apparent threats to events and people, however lacking in reality they were, was enough on its own for Khan to be put on the "kill list".  This might seem all but moot now that we're fully joined up members of the death to IS club, but how can it not be troubling when politicians take the decision to kill one of their own citizens on evidence they refuse to expand upon, beyond vague declarations of the righteousness of doing so?  Khan was not Emwazi; his guilt was not and is not obvious.  Fallon might have bristled about how the others killed along with Khan were not innocent civilians, which is true; did they deserve to die, however?  If the policy is expanded to countries like Libya as suggested, why should we have any confidence based on what we've been told about Khan that others won't be killed alongside the target?  At the very, very least there ought to be a genuinely independent investigation and review after the fact, as the JCHR suggested. 

The smart use of drones could be the least worst option when a real, genuine threat cannot be countered in any other way.  The government has not even begun to prove that is the policy it has decided on.

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Thursday, November 26, 2015 

Everything repeats. Everything changes. Everything stays the same.

The problem when it comes to writing about the government's case for war against Islamic State in Syria is it's difficult to get properly angry about or diametrically oppose something that will in truth, be so marginal if the Commons votes for it.  All the government is asking for when it comes down to it is to be able to chuck a few more bombs into a country that is already awash with weapons, explosives, death, hunger, the whole four horsemen bit.  Technically, that ought to make it absolutely enraging; why on earth make a bad situation potentially even worse?

Except support it or not, Syria will get worse before, or rather if it gets better.  From as soon as the rebellion turned almost fully Islamist/jihadist, our plan has been for the two sides to fight down to the very last Syrian.  We obviously didn't imagine it would get so bad that hundreds of thousands of Syrians would come to the realisation there was nothing left for them in the Middle East at all and so make the perilous journey to Europe, but in actuality it hasn't altered our thinking all that much.

Indeed, if we're to believe David Cameron's response to the Foreign Affairs committee report (which its chair, Crispin Blunt, has pretty much disowned in any case) then we are still clinging to the especially fetching fantasy that "moderates" will eventually win the day.  Yep, according to Dave and the security services, there are around 70,000 moderates on the ground who we can work with, and they'll be the ones taking back territory from Islamic State in conjunction with our main allies, the Kurds/Syrian Defence Forces.

All but needless to say, there are a few fairly major flaws in this argument.  First, that there really are 70,000 moderates among the rebels.  Cameron has provided absolutely no breakdown of who these revolutionaries are, nor of where they are currently based.  The response talks airily of how moderate rebels have defended territory north of Aleppo, and also how in southern Syria moderates have kept out both IS and the al-Qaida affiliate the al-Nusra Front.  Raqqa, Islamic State's capital of its self-declared caliphate, is over 200km from Aleppo itself, just to begin with.  No one seems to have any real idea of where this 70,000 figure comes from, but the best guess is it's probably the near entirety of the non al-Nusra rebels, as the FCO has been talking about previously.  It likely includes groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, whom with the very best gloss put on them are nationalist Islamists who want an Islamic state rather than democracy.  They routinely in any case ally with the outright jihadists; Ahrar al-Sham is part of the Army of Conquest, aka Jaish al-Fatah, which until very recently included al-Nusra (if they truly have exited the coalition, that is).

This strategy, such as it is, is predicated on two things that have not happened yet.  That the Vienna talks will succeed in negotiating a ceasefire between Assad and these "moderate" rebels; and that these rebels will then turn their attention entirely to IS.  Even if Vienna does somehow lead to a ceasefire, why on earth would these moderates leave territory they've captured undefended to go and fight a group they share far more with than they do Assad?  The answer is they won't, and the best that can be hoped for is that ceasefire, which will instead allow Assad's forces to turn their guns wholly on IS.

For this is the strategy, again such as it is, that lies beneath the rhetoric.  Cameron gave the game away when asked by Tim Farron about safe zones.  Safe zones you have to enforce, he replied, and that could lead to ground forces becoming involved.  If we had fundamental trust in these 70,000 moderates, a fraction of them could clearly do the job, and we could probably come to a deal with the Russians as to where these safe zones would be.  Fact is that we don't trust them as far as we can throw them, so the idea's a non-starter.  Not that we trust the Syrian Arab Army either, but they can be relied upon to follow orders.


The truth is for all the clowning, hyperbole and bluster against the Russians, the attack on the Metrojet plane and then Paris has concentrated minds.  We can't be seen to be helping Assad, but now the Russians have intervened they can do that for us.  The fighting currently going on in the west of Syria seems to be the SAA trying its best to carve out as much territory as it can for itself, helped by Russian airstrikes before the Vienna talks somehow manage to reach the goal of a ceasefire.  The Russians will then keep overwatch to make sure the rebels don't try and take back territory the SAA might have vacated in the west to concentrate on IS in the east.  


Whether this eventually leads to the partitioning of Syria or the creation of autonomous zones, with a Sunni enclave in the west, an Alawite/Druze/Christian enclave including Damascus and extending to Raqqa, with a Kurdish enclave in the north or not remains to be seen.  Alternatively, the Kurds could probably take Raqqa themselves if given sufficient backing and time, but they've made it pretty clear that whatever territory they take they're keeping, and why shouldn't they?  The Turks are already pissed off enough as it is with their advances, so that seems off the table.

In short, the only strategy we have is not the one being presented by the government, and the one we do have is reliant on an almost unimaginable ceasefire between two sides prepared to fight each other to the death.

The rest of Cameron's case isn't much stronger.  The difference our military can make in Syria amounts to the Brimstone missile, a camera that can see the goosebumps on a terrorist's neck from 150 miles away, and that the Americans and French think we'll be helpful.  The French defence minister has set out his case for why they desperately need us by their side, and it's all reasonable enough until you get to the part about how we achieved so much together protecting innocent civilians in Libya and you realise it's time to stop reading.  The Brimstone missile is apparently more accurate than other similar guided high explosives, only as Brendan O'Hara unhelpfully pointed out the Saudis have them too.  Sadly they're too busy taking part in the other proxy war in the region in Yemen to start bombing Syria again, so clearly the coalition needs our supply.

Only as Ewen MacAskill points out, the Americans and others have already fired so many Hellfires in Syria that they're running out of targets as it is.  Jeremy Corbyn's first question, as to whether or not joining in would increase the threat from IS brought the response that the threat could not be any more severe.  Cameron and the intelligence agencies may be right, but they're asking us to accept as coincidence that both Russia and France were targeted within weeks of their specifically targeting IS in Syria.  Of the 7 plots claimed to have been foiled so far this year linked to IS, 2 of those were the ones "exposed" in the media that resulted in no arrests and no explosives or weapons being found.  


Potential threats should not of course stop us from acting, but politicians should be honest with the public if the threat will be increased, especially when the action will hardly be integral to the wider cause.  Solidarity, helping our allies is not enough of a justification when there is no real plan, when there is no exit strategy beyond Islamic State being degraded and defeated at some point, when we have no idea of what Syria will look like after both IS and Assad have gone, other than there won't be a Swiss-style democracy and we won't make the mistakes of either Iraq or Libya in the aftermath.  The state will not be dismantled we are told, and yet how likely is that when all involved have a completely different image of how Syria will look once or rather if and when the fighting ends?

Cameron himself was at something near his best today.  He was respectful, didn't resort to cheap point scoring and kept any references to evil death cults to a minimum.  He didn't want to overstate the case he said, and yet he couldn't at times help himself.  He repeated the argument that we shouldn't be leaving our security in the hands of our allies, and yet that was the exact same case made by Michael Fallon the week before the Paris attacks.  Our security will either be improved, unaffected or damaged by our involvement.  It can't be all three.  


Nor is it reasonable as the prime minister put it to suggest he will only bring a vote when he is certain to win as doing otherwise would risk a propaganda coup for Islamic State.  This is exactly how the Tories behaved after losing the previous Syria vote, denouncing Labour and Miliband for giving succour to Assad.  Nor is it anything close to accurate to claim, as Cameron did, that "doing nothing is a counsel of despair".  We will not be doing nothing if parliament declines to authorise strikes in Syria.  This idea we have been doing nothing is utterly bogus; we have been doing everything other than nothing, and will go on doing so.  Our "doing nothing" is part of why we are here now.

As Jeremy Corbyn has written tonight to Labour MPs, in a letter I can't disagree with a word of, a convincing case is yet to be made.  There is a basis of sorts to the government's arguments, but it falls down first and foremost because it isn't honest or open enough about the reality on the ground in Syria.  If there is anything worth getting properly angry about, it's what's led us to this point, as while the government and Cameron tell lies about how big of an impact our involvement could have, I can't gather the enthusiasm to do much other than sigh.  We've been here before.  We'll be here again.  If there now is an IS attack in this country, it won't be anything to do with our bombing, but down solely to the wickedness of an evil death cult.  Everything repeats.  Everything changes.

And yet it stays the same.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2015 

The lucky chancellor, and the hopeless opposition.

Some say you make your own luck.  Football managers often claim that any refereeing decisions that wrongly go in their favour average out over a season.  Others still will claim that when you're on a downward trajectory anyway, fate tends to intervene all the more.

Then there are those who are just plain lucky.  George Osborne is such a person.  Whenever he's found himself in a hole, someone or something has always heard his pleas and prayers for help and came along to pull him out.  It would be remiss to not admit that some of his luck is of his own making, as whenever he has done something stupid he's recognised his mistake, whether it was the litany of errors in the omnishambles budget, or today with tax credits.  As the autumn statement and spending review demonstrates, the usual wisdom that making a full 180 always damages a politician is wrong, so long as the reversal is made early enough and is a total one.

Had the Office for Budget Responsibility not of course discovered there was £27bn down the back of the Treasury settee, Osborne would have been in complete stuck.  As well as upping its forecasts as to what income and corporation tax will bring in, a mammoth 2/3rds of the £27bn "windfall" comes from the OBR altering its tax modelling.  While there is nothing to suggest this wasn't solely the doing of the OBR, it does bear mentioning that the OBR figures are based on government finances up till the end of September, and not the ones from October that showed a large year-on-year rise in borrowing.  Whether they would have changed the OBR's working substantially or not is less important than how it demonstrates once again Osborne's good fortune.  He is the lucky chancellor.

Eventually though your luck must run out.  Whether that happens before Cameron exits Number 10, or it happens once Osborne moves next door, as is increasingly odds on, it will happen.  You can't go on acting with as such arrogance as Osborne did on tax credits, believing that no one would cotton on to how he was shafting the very people the Tories claimed to help and keep getting away with it.  You can't keep insisting on cuts to unprotected government departments that in the case of the Department of Transport will amount to 75% by the end of the decade, or an even more eye-watering 77% in the case of local government, without something breaking, and breaking irrevocably.  You can't have such luck as to get a £27bn windfall, and then still preach of the absolute necessity of running a surplus of £10bn by the time of the next election.

For now at least Osborne can sit back and enjoy for the umpteenth time paeans not just from the Tory press but the majority of the media.  How does he keep doing it they wonder?  Much of the answer is in how, as Aditya Chakrabortty points out, we've fallen for the same trick each time.  The Tories brief of how drastic and severe their cuts are, how tough it's going to be, then turns up George to tell us it's not going to be so bad after all.  Since the autumn statement last year each time Osborne has stood at the dispatch box, the Commons listening rapt, he's reduced the amount needing to be cut.  He's done it in different ways, whether through today's mixture of windfall and tax rises, to go with the tax rises he'd already announced back in July, but achieved it he has.  The amount of departmental cuts has now been reduced overall to a "mere" £10bn, and with the police also now protected, from fewer sources.

The usual budget day/autumn statement smoke and mirrors have naturally been turned to also.  The tax credit U-turn isn't a true one as Osborne has not abandoned his £12bn of welfare cuts; instead universal credit has been raided again before it properly rolls out, if it ever does such have been the problems associated with it.  Hidden within the wider good news is that the OBR revised downwards its forecast for both household disposable income and average earnings, making clear that the tepid growth of the last few years is here to stay.  The increases in the money for social care and for the police are also dependent on councils introducing precepts on both through council tax, which as Jo Maugham points out is highly regressive.

Once that mist has cleared, the Tories' priorities will be as clear as ever.  There was money showered on housing, but only on housing to buy; as for those who want to rent or won't ever be able to afford to buy, their options will dwindle further with the extension of right to buy to housing associations.  The 3% surcharge on stamp duty for second homes or those buying to let is welcome in the case of the former, but will almost certainly lead only to further increases in rent on the latter.  Post-2012 students will find the threshold at which they start paying back their loans has been frozen in spite of a consultation.  With the state pension increasing by £3.35 a week while other benefits will be frozen in line with inflation, it will once again be those most likely to vote who gain most.  As government spending heads south to 36.5% of GDP by 2020, 42% of that spending will be on either health or older people.  Of all the spending described as unsustainable in the past few years, surely that level on one department and one part of the population will prove to be so before much longer.

Osborne's plans at heart remain a huge gamble.  If it turns out the OBR has got its revenue forecasts wrong (again) then he has little room for manoeuvre, unless he makes the ultimate U-turn and cuts back on his dream surplus.  He could ask for further departmental cuts, but from where?  He could make further welfare cuts, but it's not even clear where the £12bn is going to come from now that tax credits are protected.  He's raised taxes on every area possible other than on income, national insurance and VAT, which the government plans to make illegal, it's worth remembering.  He could put corporation tax back up, but that would be a further U-turn and would anger business, already quietly seething both about the "national living wage" and now the new apprentice levy, or as the Tories would describe it were they in opposition, a jobs tax.

Sad as it is to say, a proper opposition would be pointing all of this out.  A proper opposition would have made as much as it could, not just out of the tax credits U-turn, but also how it means Osborne has fallen into the very welfare trap he laid for Labour, breaching the cap he foolishly legislated for.  A proper opposition would be asking where the £12bn in cuts to welfare will now be coming from, as the answer can only be through taking an axe to housing benefits, cutting employment and support allowance or hacking even further at JSA.  A proper opposition would while emphasising Osborne's miserable failure to clear the deficit in a single parliament also be setting out what it would be doing differently.  


What the opposition cannot keep doing is providing gifts to the government like John McDonnell quoting from Chairman Mao's Little Red Book, regardless of his point or it being a joke.  No wonder the Labour benches looked so grim as he threw it across the Commons; no wonder George Osborne looked as though all his Christmases had come at once.  You can point the finger at the media and the anti-Corbyn majority in the PLP all you like, as I have and will keep doing; there's no getting away from how the real joke at the moment is the Labour (non)-leadership and its failure to do so much as the bare minimum.

Osborne will finish up laughing on the other side of his face.  When that will be when the opposition is so hopeless and the wider media so in awe of an opportunistic and lucky but otherwise mediocre chancellor remains to be seen.

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Wednesday, November 04, 2015 

The securocrats win again! The securocrats win again!

Last week, you won't have missed the release of the latest James Bond film, Spectre.  By most accounts it's quite good, although there's always the lingering suspicion that as Bond is pretty much the only distinctly British franchise still going that pulls in any money, the critics tend to go rather soft on it.

Last week, as you might have missed and in what was either an example of serendipity, good fortune, or grotesque cynicism, also saw the intelligence agencies come out from the shadows as never before.  The Times was given unprecedented access to GCHQ's "doughnut" home in Cheltenham, hacks apparently free to poke around, ask questions and see how there's absolutely nothing to be suspicious about when it comes to our friends intercepting and sifting through bulk data.  Not quite as unprecedented but still relatively novel was a further speech by head of MI5 Andrew Parker, again making clear just how we have nothing to fear from his organisation's request for the laws governing his operation to be updated, sentiments reminiscent of his live interview on the Today programme a month previous.  This charm offensive, very different to the previous attempt at one which rather fell at the first hurdle when the new head of GCHQ essentially said that the major internet firms were just as bad as the terrorists, has continued up to and including today.  Despite GCHQ coming round and smashing up the Guardian's hard drive with the Snowden files on it, the paper has found space for a senior GCHQ officer called "Peter" to correct some unfortunate "myths" that have arisen.  He concludes, obligatorily, with a reference to Bletchley Park.

The publication today of the draft Investigatory Powers Bill would never had occurred had it not been for Snowden's revelations, something that Theresa May and the government would rather chew glass than recognise.  Then again, it's almost as if Snowden didn't happen anyway.  Despite today's bill outlining precisely what GCHQ especially and the security services as a whole were getting up to, as it had to thanks to the government recognising that RIPA was no longer fit for purpose, the change is now everything will be totally above board rather than hidden behind layers of secrecy and obfuscation.  The bulk interception via Tempora, the hacking and breaking into of servers and the computers of targets, the gathering, both overt and covert of "bulk personal datasets", it all remains, despite any cautious remarks made by David Anderson in his report.  The other innovations are those to oversight, with the creation of a single commissioner to act as reviewer of terrorism legislation and effective spook watchdog, and the "double lock", whereby ministers will need to also have the OK of a "judicial commissioner" to authorise an interception warrant.

Considering the major spin operation that went before the publication of this bill, with myriad leaks and hacks invited in for high-level briefings, just how quickly the new "double lock" has unravelled is something to behold.  David Davis and others have realised that rather than it being a case of the "judicial commissioners" reviewing the evidence, as the minister will have before granting permission, all they'll essentially be doing is examining whether the correct protocol has been followed.  Barring an alteration, they will be little more than a rubber stamp.  This is in line with the Intelligence and Security Committee report and sort of follows the compromise outlined in the RUSI report, but is in contradiction of Anderson who advised full judicial oversight.  Now that the bill has finally been published, beyond outlining his role Anderson seems to be taking a step back, leaving parliament to make its decision.

Whether that's entirely wise when Andy Burnham before even seeing the full bill declared that it wasn't a return of the snoopers' charter, wasn't an act authorising mass surveillance is very much open to question.  Nick Clegg, who blocked the attempt back in 2012 to ram through this bill's predecessor was also apparently mollified.  And indeed, it would be churlish to deny that the government hasn't been forced by the work of Anderson and others to justify exactly what powers it wants and set out its case: the documents published alongside the bill are voluminous, to the point where anyone trying to make sense of them has been all but crushed under the digital weight of all the PDFs.

Key to the most controversial new measure, the requirement for ISPs to retain 12 months worth of data on which sites and services every one of us use, accessible without a warrant to the police, security services and everyone except your local councillor Tom Cobley, is the operational case (PDF).  Provided within are examples of just what the authorities are currently unable to do due to their current powers; there is not a single case study provided relating to terrorism.  Instead it focuses on the other standard justification, preventing or investigating child sexual exploitation, with a couple of other examples concerning organised crime and fraud tacked on at the end.  As the police cannot simply ask Facebook, Google or Twitter on the off chance if the person they are investigating on the basis of the communications data they have obtained under the current laws also used their services, as this would not be "proportional" or meet the current necessity tests, the only alternative seemingly is to get ISPs to retain the IP addresses visited instead.

If it doesn't immediately follow how if the former is not proportional wholesale retention is, the answer fairly obviously is that going through the same hoops is rather tiresome for the police and others.  That, and since the Snowden revelations cooperation with overseas based service operators have been grudging at best, it's the obvious recourse: go after the organ grinders, not the monkeys.  If it still doesn't make sense that this data will be available to the police without a warrant given the potential for abuse, nor that a whole year's worth of data will be expected to be retained, data that ISPs currently do not retain, then sadly the answer seems to be the point is this is all about the potential for fishing expeditions.  Related in the operational case is that of 6025 referrals to the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, 14% or 862 could have been taken forward if ICR data had been retained.  More pertinent however is that 3470 referrals contained both fixed and dynamic IP data.  As it is not clear whether these referrals would also contain the specific time one of these IPs accessed the indecent images in the referral, the government appears to be proposing the police have the capability to go through the whole log for that IP.  The potential is there for the police not just to act on that specific referral, but also on any other "illegal" or questionable websites that have been visited.  There are plenty of examples of individuals being arrested for one offence, only for that to be dropped and then charges to be brought over "extreme pornography" following searches of seized devices, including in cases where the evidence has been highly questionable or where they were extenuating circumstances.

And then, of course, there's the potential for this cache of data to be misused, abused or hacked.  Despite Theresa May claiming the police would not be able to make a request to find out if someone visited a specific website, Adam Banks points out the bill and fact sheets suggest the powers are far broader than that.  The analogy made to an itemised phone bill is a nonsense: phone numbers are just that, numbers.  We share things with our ISPs that we would have never have done previously with our mere phone provider: the URLs up to the first slash we visit might not reveal entirely our darkest secrets, desires, fears, but they most certainly give more than an inkling.  This is the data that the government thinks should be made accessible to state bodies, excluding local authorities, without a warrant.  If this isn't a mass surveillance programme, then what on earth would amount to one?

Except, typically, today's new power won't affect the terrorists and the more teched up crims.  They'll already be using Tor or other darknets, sat behind proxies or VPNs.  That the operational case doesn't mention terrorism is the giveaway: those who really do have something to hide know that the authorities are out to get them and act accordingly.  Those caught up will be the curious, the idiots, those who previously would have been detected anyway, if slightly further down the line.  Anyone who wasn't aware of what's on the cards now will be, further reducing the efficacy of the new law.

Ministers seem to be relying on how as a nation we have always been far less concerned about privacy and the actions of our intelligence agencies than either the Americans, aware of the scandals involving the FBI and CIA, or the Germans, living with the legacy of the Nazis and then the Stasi.  It is Bletchley Park, Alan Turing, Enigma, Bond, rather than Peter Wright, the infiltration of groups on the left, the remaining questions over collusion in Northern Ireland, the refusal until very recently to operate in so much as half light, let alone be as open as the security services can be.  As David Allan Green has identified, the strategy has been to try and buy off those most likely to make a fuss.  The Wilson doctrine might have been declared illegal, but a judge and the prime minister will have to sign off before any MP can have their communications intercepted.  The media meanwhile can be reassured that their sources have been given more protection than has been the case, not that the press other than the usual coalition of Guardian, Independent and FT was likely to say anything in opposition anyway.  When it comes to ordinary folk, those with the most to lose from these plans, only the traditional voices, those derided and ignored before, are speaking up.  Judicial oversight of warrants might yet be tightened, but the securocrats have played a blinder on everything else.  Once again, they've won. 

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Tuesday, November 03, 2015 

Is anything not the fault of Labour and Corbyn?

The reports in both the Guardian and Times this morning that the government will not attempt to bring a motion before the Commons authorising military action against Islamic State in Syria add up to a humiliating defeat for David Cameron, albeit one clouded by the very nature of a vote not taking place.  It allows Downing Street to claim that in fact no decision has been taken, and that at any moment we might find it back on the agenda.  The truth though is surely that the Conservative whips have done the maths, and found that however many Labour MPs they think will support the government, especially if as promised Labour allows a free vote, it won't be enough to overcome the number of Tory rebels.

It's worth remembering that what was or is proposed is so slight as to be all but pointless.  Essentially all the government wants is permission for the military to bomb Islamic State in Syria as well as Iraq, where it has permission to do so courtesy of the Iraqis.  Regardless of any other considerations, this does have a certain logic to it: IS's supply lines and main base are both in Syria, where they moved into space either vacated by the Assad regime or deemed dispensable when the emphasis was on protecting the area surrounding the capital Damascus.  Moreover, despite both sides maintaining plausible deniability, it's been obvious for a long time that the Americans/rest of anti IS coalition and the Syrians have been cooperating when it comes to fighting Islamic State, at least on air strikes.

For any government, especially any recent British government to not be able to get so slight a military initiative through parliament is a remarkable showing of weakness.  Not of the military variety, but of the political.  Two other things are already in the government's favour: that British troops embedded with the American military have carried out air strikes in Syria; and that under the legal justification of HE'S COMING RIGHT FOR US, Cameron authorised the extrajudicial killing of a British citizen via drone strike in the country.  On that very legal basis, it's arguable that the government could claim Islamic State poses a similar threat to this country by its mere presence in Syria, and so dispense with a Commons vote altogether.

Except it's apparent Cameron's standing remains so low with some of his backbenchers, despite his success in winning a small majority, that to act in such a way would be to stretch his capital way too thin.  All Cameron wants really is to say to the rest of the anti-IS coalition, principally the Americans, that we're with you.  This will amount to little more than a very slight further sharing of the military burden, with reports suggesting that of 5,000 air strikes carried out thus far in Iraq, the UK was responsible for 300, or less than 10%.  That he cannot apparently persuade enough of his backbenchers of the importance of such a move vis-a-vis our relationship with the Americans will be all the more alarming to the party's Atlanticist wing.

Cameron's cause would not be so desperate if the campaign against Islamic State looked like being a success.  As today's report by the Foreign Affairs Committee sets out, any advances have been either inconsequential or negated by losses elsewhere.  Islamic State cannot be defeated from the air, and as the possible partners on the ground are either sectarian or unreliable, there is little cause for optimism that any major victories are in the offing.  Ministers know full well they cannot argue that our taking part in raids into Syria will have anything like a dramatic effect, and so are left with appealing to the logic of doing so and making the inconclusive at best arguments about legality.  They aren't so crass as to say out loud how principally it's about making up the numbers in the coalition, knowing that any previous attachment there was to always being alongside the Americans disappeared with Iraq the second time round.  They have almost nowhere to go.

Not that that's prevented our getting our war on in the past.  Cameron's failure is one of authority, of party management, and only then do the actual arguments about chucking a few more bombs at IS come into play.  What is utterly absurd is that just as when the Conservatives and their acolytes pinned all the blame on Ed Miliband for the failure to act against Assad after the Ghouta attacks in 2013, so now they want to blame Labour again without accepting the slightest responsibility themselves.  Apparently there is "not the certainty of support from Labour", as though the opposition should blithely accept the government is acting in good faith and has made a decent case for yet another intervention, when the former is arguable and the latter just simply hasn't happened.   In the Times Roger Boyes (fnarr fnarr) describes Russia's intervention and "Corbyn's non-interventionist legions" as acting as a pincer movement, while even in the Graun mention is made of how a difference of opinion with the leadership, on a free vote no less, could apparently influence reselection after the constituency boundaries have been redrawn.  Such is the paranoia within the PLP at the moment.  It doesn't seem to matter that those who are disposed towards military action have tried their best to help out the government, urging them in the words of John Woodcock to "decide on a strategy that makes a difference" and then set out the case fully.  The government has ignored them, both because said strategy tends to involve no fly zones and safe areas, both now definitively off the table after Russian intervention, and because the government has never been interested in doing anything other than picking up some of the slack from the rest of the coalition.

Which is where the arguments in favour of intervention always fall down.  Our proposed military involvement in Syria has never been about protecting civilians, either in 2013 or today.  There are both good and bad reasons for why this has been the case, but to pretend that either would have a dramatic effect on the humanitarian situation just doesn't follow.  Essentially what were billed as revenge attacks on Assad for using chemical weapons may have morphed into something else, just as the responsibility to protect was invoked in Libya only then to be used to justify regime change, but the case being made was little more than we had to act as President Obama's red line had been breached.  On the contrary, the continued attempts at reaching some sort of settlement, however bleak the chances of negotiations succeeding and then being accepted by everyone other than Islamic State seem, at least offer a smidgen of hope.

This is why it rankles when the likes of Rafael Behr continue to claim that Miliband stopping Cameron getting the hellfire missiles out must then be evaluated by how Assad continues to butcher his people.  Hatred of or hostility to Corbyn outweighs everything else, including capitalising on such Tory weakness, as proved by Labour Uncut claiming the party has outsourced foreign policy to Stop the War, making its foreign policy a "debased joke".  Behr meanwhile writes of how Miliband "indulged" and "deferred" to the left, and how Obama and Cameron are also not wanton warmongers, despite their continuing with the failed ones of their predecessors and making such a success of Libya.  Some might in fact reason that makes them worse - that rather than learn from past mistakes they have carried on with conflicts they never truly believed in.  Where the foreign affairs committee sets out the complexity of the conflict in Syria, and identifies 7 separate points the government should explain in making its case for intervention, many are still insistent on viewing everything as either black or white.

P.S. Worth bringing slightly more attention to is this non-fact sheet from the FCO on just who the moderate opposition are in Syria.  Basically, if they're not Islamic State or al-Nusra, then they're moderate.  To be fair, if we really did limit our engagement with rebels in Syria to all those criteria, we'd be working with about 10 people and a dog, so you can see the FCO's predicament.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2015 

Appeasing the Saudis.

In a way, you can almost understand the apparent consternation of our good friends the Saudis at what they see as the sudden downgrading of our "strong alliance".  Following the decision to cancel a memorandum of understanding on the supply of training to Saudi prison officers, as well as adverse coverage about floggings and beheadings, they just can't be sure where it is they stand.  What's more, as voiced by the Saudi ambassador Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz (crazy name, crazy guy?!), this "alarming change" has come at the same time as the red carpet has been rolled out for our new best pals the Chinese.

This must be all the more confusing because China and the Saudi Arabia, while very different nations, have often shared the same diplomatic strategy.  They affect to be incredibly thin-skinned, to the point where mentioning human rights within 10 miles of their embassies is the equivalent of suggesting their collective mother wasn't just a woman of ill morals, but also inclined towards the farmyard.  David Cameron merely meeting the Dalai Lama, a man deemed a terrorist by Beijing, was enough for relations to be downgraded at a stroke.  When the Commons foreign affairs committee declared it was to hold an inquiry into a couple of Gulf states, including Saudi, the government had to an order a report into the Muslim Brotherhood and its involvement in the UK to placate them.

Xi Jinping being invited round to hobnob with Queenie, Kate and all the rest must then have been all the more bewildering.  China might not be quite as repressive as Saudi, especially for women, nor do the Chinese go in for flogging, but both are liberal when it comes to the use of capital punishment.  If there was any discussion of human rights with Xi, then precisely in what way it was it was addressed and how it was responded to we simply don't know.  Despite the BBC putting the best possible gloss on Xi's answer to the only allowed question from Laura Kuenssberg, his point was fairly clear: everyone had lessons they could learn on human rights.  From China, presumably.

There are nonetheless subtler ways of making clear your displeasure than the way bin Abdulaziz chose.  Rare is it that a supposed diplomat decides to directly channel the Krays, rarer still that a newspaper like the Telegraph would choose to publish the resulting column and present it as though it was anything other an outright attempt to intimidate.  Abdulaziz's message is, as David Allen Green has pointed out, nice country you've got here, would be a shame if anything was to happen to it.  It really is that crass, that tone deaf.  Flogging, public executions, treating women as chattel, all these things are mere local traditions and customs, and just as the Saudis respect our traditions and customs, they expect us to respect theirs.  If our extensive trade links are to be subject to "certain political ideologies", i,e. Jeremy Corbyn daring to suggest we shouldn't be training torturers or the jailers of human rights dissidents, then everything is on the table, including intelligence cooperation.  Why, David Cameron says Saudi intelligence has saved hundreds of lives, or rather according to the ambassador, "thousands".

This is hardly the first time the Saudis have threatened to withdraw intelligence cooperation.  Indeed, it's their rhetorical weapon of choice: just when the Serious Fraud Office was about to break open their probe into corruption in the Al-Yamamah weapon deal, the Saudis informed the British ambassador if the inquiry was not stopped that "British lives on British streets" would be at risk.  The message was that blunt.  To make such a threat over the potential uncovering of precisely what the Saudi royals are so often accused of is one thing; to do the same over a paltry £6m memorandum of understanding, which had not yet so much as been committed to is something else.

Such are the deep links within various government departments to the Saudis, not to mention inside the arms firms which the British state often acts as salesman extraordinaire for, it's all but impossible to know precisely where direct Saudi influence ends and the curious devotion to some of the most unpleasant people on the planet begins.  There is however clearly more than meets the eye to foreign secretary Philip Hammond's unannounced visit to Saudi Arabia than merely to announce that Karl Andree, imprisoned for over a year for the heinous offence of having homemade wine, will be released shortly.  That ever reliable conduit for the intelligence agencies, Frank Gardner, says the visit was meant to "smooth ruffled feathers", and yet it also looks remarkably like being part of an agreed stick and then carrot PR exercise, with the ambassador wielding the stick and Hammond then coming away with a prize regardless.

Perhaps the true reason for the trip is to soothe Saudi nerves over the possibility that we won't be able to carry on supplying planes, bombs and spare parts to their airforce, currently involved in reducing Yemen to rubble as part of the second on-going proxy war between the Sauds and Iran in the region.  Perhaps it was also to reassure them that Iran being invited to the talks over Syria is not about anything other than a extremely belated attempt to reach a peace settlement.  It still though highlights just how deep in the Saudi pocket government ministers are.  Very few other nations could get away with making such blatant threats, in our very own media no less, and not as a result be told where to go.

The truth is we are scared of the Saudis, just as it seems the Americans are also.  Not because they can turn off the oil taps as they once did and could, but at what potentially they could do if we finally called their bluff on their wider role in the region and in the spreading of the Wahhabi creed worldwide.  British lives on British streets, or American lives on American streets, and not merely as a result of stopping the sharing of intelligence.  The threat seems far more implicit than that, a message backed up by how regardless of their protests, it's a fact that the Saudis have been funding jihadist groups in Syria, if not necessarily either Islamic State or the al-Nusra Front.  As David Allan Green again writes, there's a name for our response to this open intimidation: appeasement.  Just don't expect those usually first in line to decry Western "weakness" to be in the vanguard on this occasion.

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Monday, October 26, 2015 

Hubris, but not yet nemesis.

It wasn't meant to be this way.  Despite the slightness of their majority, the Conservatives were euphoric at their victory in May.  They had triumphed in spite of themselves, in spite of 5 years of austerity, in spite of the opinion polls.  To add to their delight, the opposition went into full on meltdown: the main leadership contenders and many others in the party seemed to be accepting almost completely they had lost because they weren't the Conservatives.  Interim leader Harriet Harman whipped her party to abstain on the welfare changes the new government pushed through at the first opportunity, as to oppose them would to be disagree with the electorate's verdict at the ballot box.  George Osborne was feted as a strategic genius, taking any opportunity given to lead his opponents into political traps from which there was no escape.  With the utmost chutzpah, the Tories declared themselves the true workers' party, the only party able to deliver true equality.

Hubris almost always leads to nemesis.  The government's defeat in the Lords tonight on tax credits is without doubt a result of the Tories' hubris, but nemesis has not arrived yet.  One defeat does not a crisis make.  It does however show that beneath the façade, the Tories' ability to get their legislation through parliament is slight.  The claims from the Tories that the Lords voting to block the cuts until the government sets out how it intends to alleviate the losses working families will suffer is a constitutional outrage is nothing more than a distraction technique.  This is mess of their own making, and they know it.  Osborne, the master manipulator, has stumbled right into one of his own traps.

Opinions vary on whether or not the intention always was to cut tax credits.  Certainly, as Rick has pointed out, cutting tax credits by £3bn (others are saying the cuts amount to £4.4bn) is the only way Osborne can eliminate the deficit by 2019-20 without cutting public services further or raising taxes.  The refusal to set out exactly how welfare would be cut by £12bn during the election campaign may have been just another part of the grand negotiation strategy they believed they would have to enter into with the Liberal Democrats for a second coalition.  Given a surprise majority mandate, rather than back off from the extremes promised in their manifesto, they've for the most part steamed ahead.

Except of course tax credits weren't in the manifesto.  While David Cameron didn't specifically say tax credits would not be cut, he did say that child tax credits would not be.  This nonetheless created the impression that tax credits themselves would be spared.  Come the budget, while still announcing the now expected cuts, Osborne pulled from his hat the new "national living wage".  It soon became obvious this higher minimum but not true living wage wouldn't come close to making up for the cuts to tax credits, but praise was lavished on Osborne for this stealing of Labour's clothes regardless.

Rather than put the cuts through the main finance bill following the budget, the government instead opted to implement the changes through what's known as a statutory instrument, in this case using the initial legislation that brought in tax credits, through which it can delegate changes to the rates and thresholds.  It's rare for the Lords to vote down a statutory instrument, but not unprecedented by any stretch of the imagination, despite what the Tories are now claiming.  In any case, the "fatal" motion in the Lords failed, with the two "regret" motions, which essentially ask the Commons to think again passed.  In any case, it's always amusing to hear ministers complain about "constitutional outrages".  Once we have a written constitution which definitively has been breached, then we'll get angry.

If the Tories had a whopping great majority then it might have more of a case.  It doesn't.  If they had set out the cuts in their manifesto the Lords would have only been able to block the plans for a year, before the parliament act could then be used to force it through.  If Osborne and Cameron hadn't been so hubristic as to claim they were now the party of working people, when one of their first major acts would be to screw those very people over to the tune of thousands of pounds, they wouldn't now be forced into such a humiliating u-turn.

How Osborne can then protect the lowest paid while still making the savings required to fill the gap in his overall economic plan isn't clear.  Unless he relents on reaching his surplus, as any sane chancellor would do, then he has to either cut further or raise taxes elsewhere.  If the Lords decides that his changes don't go far enough, they are perfectly entitled to reject them again, meaning they will have to go some way to meeting the Institute for Fiscal Studies test.  Whichever way he goes about correcting his mistake, it isn't going to be cheap.

In less than a month the Tories have gone from looking impregnable, the media for the most part lapping up Osborne and Cameron's speeches at the Conservative party conference despite the air of unreality to both, to being breached by a load of doddery old unelected peers.  It's an especial blow to Osborne, who refused to see the portents of defeat, from Michelle Dorrell on Question Time to Tory MP Heidi Allen using her maiden speech in the Commons to voice her and many other Conservative MPs fears over the cuts and the effect they would have.  Cabinet ministers claimed he was in listening mode, as though Osborne listens to anyone other than those who tell him what he wants to hear.  Just as he went ahead with all the various stupidities in the "omnishambles" budget, thinking he was the smartest guy in the room, so too he has been shown up now.

Damaging as this is the short term, it's by no means fatal.  The parliamentary Labour party had little to no role in the defeat, as it's still far too self-obsessed at the moment to offer a real challenge to the Conservatives, let alone encourage Tory MPs other than David Davis to vote with them.  Indeed, in the longer term, the cuts being defeated can only be to the Tories' advantage.  Had they passed the Lords unscathed, Labour would have had an issue they could have coalesced in opposition against, the obvious unfairness of the measure and the way it penalised those doing the "right thing" an open goal.  So long as Osborne's compensatory measure does what it's meant to, the attempt to penalise workers will soon be forgotten.

It ought also to knock some sense into the Tories: regardless of the opposition or lack of as it is currently, the idea they can stroll to 2020 and another victory is ludicrous.  The media's lovebombing lulled them into a false sense of security, when the truth is their majority could easily disappear over the course of a couple of years.  Should another worldwide economic crisis occur, as more and more commentators fear could be on the horizon, there's hardly any room for manoeuvre on policy, as Osborne must know.  Hubris can all too quickly turn to nemesis.  Or, even worse, Boris.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2015 

Aenema.

This might just be me, but there are days when such is the weight of general arsebaggery and overall cuntitude, you pray to the empty sky for a cataclysm.  Our great country has after all played host to many shows of depravity down the years, some in recent memory.  Few though have been quite as revolting or nauseating as the transformation of central London into little Beijing for the duration of Xi Jinping's state visit, the Chinese premier treated in a way usually reserved only for US presidents, and even then it feels embarrassingly over the top.  Generally, the criteria for addressing both houses of parliament if you've not been elected yourself is to be the monarch; such niceties can however be suspended if you're about to sink massive amounts of cash into nuclear plants.

It's not just that Jinping has been welcomed in a style so sycophantic that it makes our usual shows of pageantry look restrained, it's the way in which our representatives and then those reporting it have gone about doing so also.  For John Bercow and Prince Charles to be the heroes of the day, for respectively introducing Jinping while making reference to Aung San Suu Kyi, flawed as she is, and finding something else to be doing rather than attending the banquet, is something in itself.  Not his old man's mutterings for Wills however, who bravely brought to the attention of Jinping the suffering of China's wildlife.  Kate meanwhile wowed the tabloids by wearing red, clearly demonstrating her dedication to Marxist-Leninism, topped off with a tiara that the Chinese first lady, Peng Liyuan, probably thought a bit proletarian.  Queenie for her part was given two whole albums worth of Liyuan's popular folk warblings, to be filed alongside her Slayer CDs.  And while Cameron and Jinping discussed their mutual passion for keeping the workers down, being served up for their delectation was roasted loin of Balmoral venison, most likely shot by Philip himself.

This was all happening as Tata laid off workers at three of their steel plants, in part down to China dumping its own excess onto the world market at rock bottom prices.  One union representative appeared on the news to state that he and the company's representatives had calculated that even if they worked for nothing, they still wouldn't be able to compete.  Having boasted at the beginning of the year of the success of the steel industry thanks to the strength of the rest of the economy, any help beyond commiserations from the government has been solely lacking.  Sajid Javid stood up in the Commons and stated this wasn't something governments could do much about, rather than it being something that governments have made the choice to leave to the market.  In the words of Simon Crutchley, at the Scunthorpe plant collecting a delivery, "he's ruining fucking everything, Cameron".

Not that he could give a stuff.  Unfortunate as it is that the nation's steel industry is collapsing just as the leader of the country principally responsible arrives to be fawned over, and bad as it looks, Dave can rest safe in the knowledge that those workers, their families and all the other people the plants will have supported are not likely to have voted Tory.  It makes something of a mockery of George Osborne's beloved Northern Powerhouse™ also, but really, what's more important, Chinese investment in nukes or laughable claims about revitalising a whole area of the country?  We couldn't possibly borrow the money at still historically low rates rather than put something as vital as new nukes under the control of the Chinese, and besides, doesn't it make perfect sense to ask the Chinese and French states to build power plants rather than doing so ourselves?

Our politics has become so deranged on the fiscal front that keeping on the lights has been put in the hands of a French company majority owned by the French state which has not yet completed any of the plants of the European pressurised reactor design mooted for Hinckley Point (the Chinese plants of the same design are also yet to come online).  Moreover, once it is up and running, which will be 10 years time at the earliest, we'll be paying the Chinese and the French twice what the market rate was in 2012, not including inflation.  This could only make sense to politicians who have made a fetish out of the deficit at the expense of everything else.  The Conservatives claim to be acting in the interests of the country's economic security, and yet have concluded a deal that will see future taxpayers' money going straight into the coffers of an authoritarian state that can be trusted about as far as it can be thrown.

Like the cancelling of the contract for a training programme for guards in Saudi Arabian prisons, which led to Michael Gove being feted for his role when surely the idea ought to have been so demonstrably wrong that not helping one of the most repressive governments on the planet torture its citizens is the bare minimum we expect, so too the Chinese have promised in return for handing over vast wads of cash to not steal any British company's intellectual property.  Chinese cyber-attacks are more than likely exaggerated by those with an interest in doing so, but if we're equals why on earth is such an understanding so much as required?   As others have pointed out, there has been next to no debate about this sudden decision to place our faith and our infrastructure in the hands of a state that so many of our traditional allies are suspicious of, rightly or wrongly.  It wouldn't be as bad if this was being done because we genuinely could not do it any other way; instead, this is a choice by politicians who are determined at the same time to renegotiate our relationship with Europe.

Forgive me then if the attention paid to reaching an arbitrary date in a film and still not having a fucking hoverboard does smack a bit of well, decadence.  Just as it's a reflection on us as a people that the politicians we produce regret not their inability to stop the government of the day passing things like the bedroom tax, but instead not projecting our strength as a nation by launching a military attack that would have achieved precisely nothing.  As the Roman empire collapsed, so the distractions, the circuses, became ever more exotic.  This tends to be how these things end.

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Thursday, October 15, 2015 

Us and them.

Being away last week I missed the fun of the Conservative party conference.  Opening with the grand spectacle of the hoi polloi daring to invade the personal space of Tories and journalists, and closing with David Cameron's 5th reuse of the speech he first gave to the conference in 2010 as prime minister, it went almost exactly as expected.  Theresa May set about trying to banish memories of the days when she thought her party could use some lessons in detoxification by out nastying those she once lectured, Boris Johnson once again enthralled his audience by doing everything other than whipping his cock out and stroking it right in front of them, and George Osborne was, well, George Osborne.

It was all in all very comforting for both the delegates and media.  Getting eggs thrown at them, being spat at and denounced as "Tory scum" means they're doing something right, at least in their eyes.  The usual suspects immediately demanded that Jeremy Corbyn condemn anyone who so much as gave evils in the general direction of right-wing sixth formers in their first suits, because obviously the left, and these protesters were demonstrably of the left, are all one and the same.  It was rather strange then that the hacks couldn't seem to get their heads round why it was they were subject to the same treatment as the people they were covering; perhaps their disgust influenced their subsequent reports of the speeches, which were almost entirely positive, some even adulatory.  Perhaps they genuinely thought that Osborne and Cameron meant what they said about becoming the true party of working people, Cameron claiming that he would be spending the rest of his time as prime minister trying to force social reform.

Alternatively, they might have seen right through it, as anyone with the slightest knowledge of what the Tories have spent the last five years doing, what their manifesto promised to and what their policies currently going through parliament will do did, and just barely bothered to point it out anyway.  Cameron's address was all but a carbon copy of his past conference speeches, and yet no one felt it polite to say so.  It was all there: the faux-furious denunciation of Labour for daring to consider itself the protectors of the poor, the terrible jokes, the claims to being the true believers in equality and drivers of social mobility, just slightly updated and with the added attack on Corbyn hating his own country.

The myriad contradictions in the speech, from how in one breath Cameron lambasted continuing discrimination, especially against Muslims, then in practically the next went on about madrasas and FGM, as though the latter is in some way a religious rather than a cultural problem, were deemed unimportant.  The BBC didn't so much as bother to point out Cameron's quote of Corbyn's statement on the death of bin Laden was only part of what he said; that was left to Have I Got News for You.  Also few and far between was any reference to how Cameron didn't so much as mention tax credits, despite Boris Johnson having alluded to the controversy over the cuts the previous day.  Anyone expecting a repeat of the deservedly sniffy reaction to Corbyn's speech was to be disappointed, with any criticism mainly focusing on Theresa May's claims about immigration.

You could call it the Ian Hislop deficiency: there he was on HIGNFY, outraged that Lord Ashcroft's smear on David Cameron had been the subject of such mirth and frivolity, rather than treated as a despicable piece of score settling.  He didn't seem to understand that it was as much a reaction to how there had been months of smears and personal attacks on first Ed Miliband and then Corbyn; hypocrisy mattered less to the boot finally being on the other foot.  That it was the hated Mail that had serialised Ashcroft's book only made it all the sweeter, rather than making it less believable.

The fact is that as Ian Dunt recognises, the relationship between the media and the consumer has fundamentally shifted.  No longer are many prepared to remain passive when it's so easy to let journalists know precisely how they feel; that they tend to target not the "enemy", as it were, but hacks ostensibly on the same side, or those who are required to be impartial, is down to how they feel they aren't playing the role they should be.

This is not by any means an entirely positive development.  Demagogues can quicker than ever whip up the sort of atmosphere that leads to marches like the one seen against BBC Scotland, orchestrated by Alex Salmond.  Intimidation is still intimidation regardless of whether it's a self-styled anti-Westminster movement doing it or the government.  The effect is the same.  The rise in the number of those who are wilfully blind to "their" side's deficiencies, or alternatively spend much time rebutting that there is anything remiss at all is as worrying as it is discombobulating.  The response it invites is not one of reconsideration on the part of the target, but of doubling down.  Unless of course it's a broadcaster like the BBC, which is damned if it is and damned if it doesn't.

Nonetheless, it's easy to understand why this is happening now, particularly to members of the commentariat, when you read articles like yesterday's by Rafael Behr in the Graun.  Superciliousness, complacency and snobbery drip from every paragraph.  Behr sneers at amateurs, specifically Nigel Farage, who in Behr's view was seen off by Cameron in the same way as Miliband.  Farage failed as "enough people recognised that the limit of his capabilities was channelling anger not crafting solutions".  And it's true, in terms of actually winning his own parliamentary seat or UKIP making the same breakthrough as it did at the European elections a year earlier, Farage did fail.

Except on practically every other measure, far from being a failure Farage has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.  Behr is so set on making the point that it's professionals who play by the approved rules who win in the end that he refuses to see how Farage pulled the Tories and the political centre ground to the right.  Without Farage, the wider UKIP threat and the constant need to appease his backbenchers as a result Cameron would not have been forced into promising a referendum on our membership of the EU, a referendum it is by no means certain the remain campaign can win.  The debate on immigration has been made all the more toxic by UKIP's unanswerable point that we simply cannot control the numbers that come here from the EU, exacerbated further by the Tories' ridiculous decision not to drop their unachievable tens of thousands target.  Moreover, as though it needs stating again, UKIP won 4 million votes at the general election, a remarkable performance that only didn't result in substantial representation in parliament because of the bankruptcy of our electoral system.  Farage lost, and yet was victorious.

Rather than look at the two biggest shocks of this year, the Tories winning a majority and Jeremy Corbyn becoming Labour leader, neither of which almost any commentator predicted, and seeing if there isn't something they've missed, the response on the whole has been to carry on regardless.  We're not wrong, it's politics at the moment that it is in flux, and very shortly the equilibrium will be restored.  Perhaps it will.  Alternatively, the changes that have been threatened since the crash coupled with the retreat into personal echo chambers on social media might have altered the landscape if not permanently, then for years to come.  The best, like John Harris, at the same as noting that something new is happening are asking whether it can be sustained or if the approach taken by Corbyn and his supporters can truly work.  As for the rest, if nothing else there will always be a need for someone to cheer on our current overlords.

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