Wednesday, May 18, 2016 

The cupboard is bare on purpose.

We are but a year into a whole 5 of Tory majority rule, and yet to judge by the thinness of the Queen's speech, it would seem the government is already running out of things to do.  This is admittedly somewhat down to how the Tories have succeeding in piloting some of the worst of their policies through the Commons already, with the Psychoactive Substances Act shortly to come into effect for just one.  Conversely, the list of bills is also slighter as a result of opposition from the backbenches: suitably watered down is the schools bill, from forcing all schools to become academies to merely pushing them in the general direction.

The real reasons for why the cupboard is bare are obvious.  First though, this wouldn't be a Queen's speech post on this blog if I didn't have a moan about the increasingly deranged nature of the spectacle itself.  The Queen is now 90 years old, and regardless of your views on the monarchy, the requirement that she carry on getting dolled up to read out the inane bumpf of her latest government surely can't be allowed to go on much longer.  Should the Tories ever get round to sorting out their bill of rights, making the head of state read out nonsense about improving the life chances of all will have to be designated cruel and unusual punishment.  Dennis Skinner's yearly jokes have already regressed to the point where they are statements rather than attempts at humour; why not square the circle and get the Beast of Bolsover to read the damn thing out?

No, the real reason the speech has so relatively little to raise ire is that parliamentary politics is effectively suspended until June the 24th, by which point it'll almost be time for the summer recess in any case.  Anything that might further incense either the Tory backbenchers or for that matter the opposition, never mind the public, has been postponed until after the referendum.  Sure, a few on the right will hardly be pleased by the proposed prison reforms, especially the idea of some only being locked up at weekends, but they're overwhelmingly likely to be for Leave anyway.

Far more instructive than the contents of the speech itself is the way its been spun.  The BBC News at 10 has led each night this week on prisons, part of an obvious softening up process for what was coming today.  Peter Clarke, former head of anti-terrorism at the Met, author of the main report into the hoax Trojan Horse takeover of schools in Birmingham, apparent friend of the Tories and new independent inspector of prisons was given the kind of platform never previously afforded to Nick Hardwick, in the main to comment on "legal highs" finding their way inside.  High profile reporting into the chaos prisons have been descending into is of course welcome, but is hardly telling the full story unless it makes clear the problems have been exacerbated massively by overcrowding and cuts in funding.  The bill outlined today, aimed at putting into law the proposals previously announced by Michael Gove and David Cameron won't make things worse, but nor will they begin to solve them when Cameron continues to argue against the "idea that reform always needs extra spending".

Whereas just plain laughable is the idea today's attempts at improving "life chances" could ever add up to a legacy for David Cameron.  Quite simply, there's nothing there: no one could disagree with the changes to adoption or the "help to save" plans, they're just overwhelmed by the Tories' on-going contradictions.  The party can hardly be the great friend of diversity David Cameron claims he wants it to be, forcing universities to be open about their admissions while at the same time encouraging landlords and hospitals to be suspicious of anyone with the wrong skin colour or a foreign sounding name.  The party that depicts Sadiq Khan as an extremist, refusing to say London can be safe in his hands cannot be taken seriously on either discrimination or "life chances".

But then Cameron has no intention of his legacy being such things.  The other reason why the Queen's speech has so little for the Tories to shout about is he still doesn't know if he's going to be around beyond June 24th.  If he isn't, he will go down in history for austerity and being the prime minister who through the most abject weakness took Britain out of Europe.  If he is, then he most probably has another year in which to further shape how he will be remembered.  Chancing leaving Osborne, or worse yet, Boris with his legacy legislation was never an option.  Still, should the Leave campaign manage to turn around a seemingly unassailable lead for Remain, then Boris will forever be known as the man who made all porn sites verify their users are 18.

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Monday, March 21, 2016 

A sight for sore eyes (and minds).

Is there a finer sight for sore eyes than the Conservative party in full on civil war mode?  Forget Jodorowosky's Holy Mountain, witnessing the Tories scratching away at retinas, tearing out throats, calling each other idiots and screaming about sanctimony, especially after months of Labour's massively inferior equivalent has been like waking up from a coma, wiping away the built up sleep and seeing the world anew.  It's not just that seeing the party of government fall apart within the space of a couple of days, and over the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith of all people has been so wickedly delicious, it's that it's also demolished media constructs regarded as unassailable fact until they suddenly crumbled into dust.  Like how George Osborne is a tactical genius when it's been apparent for a very long time that he's all politics and no awareness.  And how the Tories will rule in perpetuity, despite their being just as divided as Labour, with only power holding them together.

You can to an extent understand just how discombobulated the likes of Matthew d'Anconservative have been by IDS flouncing out at this stage in proceedings.  If we are to accept IDS's sudden, almost Damascene realisation that he's in a government which is doing over the poorest and most vulnerable in order to keep the upper middle and above in the style to which they have become accustomed, then you have to first presume that IDS was possessed between 2010 and last year.  Who was this man who otherwise looked liked IDS, who as the Graun has it, was one of the most gross incompetents to ever hold the position of work and pensions secretary?  If it was him, he certainly kept his feelings about how the very policies he was instituting were affecting those who would never vote Tory but need protecting regardless.  Did he not read his own party's manifesto, which was explicit on how if returned to government they would raise the 40p tax threshold, increase the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million and carry on with corporation tax cuts while slashing £12bn from the welfare budget?  Sure, perhaps he like the rest of us didn't think his party would win a majority and so introduce those policies, but then again, was he still under possession when he cheered Osborne's living wage as those cuts were announced in last year's budget?  In his Marr interview IDS insisted he had considered going last year over very similar concerns then, only to back down.

IDS claimed to be motivated only by social justice, ensuring everyone gets a fair start in life.  You can quibble about whether IDS's chosen motives would in practice achieve this, but let's take him at his word.  The fact is that universal credit has been and is a disaster, made worse without doubt by how Osborne has repeatedly raided it, and yet it's IDS's baby, his policy.  You can't achieve the goals you want to if the system itself is a failure, as UC is.  Rather than take seriously the many criticisms made, IDS has acted with spite throughout, as he has when challenged on workfare, the bedroom tax, and all the rest.  To judge by the defence given by other ministers in the DWP, with the exception of the laughable Ros Altmann, independent pensions "expert" turned gatekeeper, he ran a tight team.  It only reinforces the belief that IDS had managed to convince both himself and his underlings that he was achieving great things while doing the exact opposite.

Who then was the one dragging his work down, who was undermining everything he thought he was working towards?  George Osborne, aided by Cameron at every step.  Last week's budget, with Cameron letting Osborne make the academies announcement, the sexing up of the OBR's remarks on the EU, the giveaways to the middle classes and above meant to keep them sweet, all was designed to speed Osborne on to the leadership.  IDS it's true doesn't have any leadership ambitions himself, but few assassins are after the top job themselves.  When you then have David Davis repeating the lines established by IDS, that this isn't a government dedicated to fairness, a claim echoed by right-wingers and overwhelmingly pro-Brexit MPs who two weeks ago delighted in supporting the changes to ESA, then you'd have to be a fool to see there isn't something else going on.

And yet many journalists spent yesterday telling the world just how convinced they were by IDS claiming this was purely about his no longer being able to put up with balancing the books on the backs of the poorest.  The Graun, after nailing IDS in a likely hastily written Friday night leader today pompously intones that "impugning motives is no way of dealing with arguments".  While it has obviously been novel to a hear a resigned cabinet minister contradict the Tory spin on how they are one nation party devoted to providing security to all regardless of background, you get the impression that hacks themselves had fallen into believing the lie.  Or if they hadn't personally, they imagine the public have.  That those who did vote for the Tories might have done so not because they were promising to provide security for all at the same time as walloping scroungers, but because they were promising to wallop scroungers doesn't seem to have registered.

Little wonder Cameron apparently called IDS a "shit" in their tete-a-tete on Friday.  He and Osborne came up with this winning formula, soaking those most likely to vote while doing little to nothing to help those who don't, and here's this incompetent attacking them for doing what they said they would!  When you have right-wingers attacking social liberals for being too economically right-wing, something is up.  That IDS and others lining up behind him are right on this occasion, pointing out Osborne has become a liability who shouldn't be getting the help he is doesn't make them right on anything else.  Their aim is to damage Osborne fatally, while also undermining Cameron on the EU vote by making clear his authority is waning.  Staying in doesn't look as secure an option when the man making the argument is no longer looking as solid himself.

Osborne certainly has come out of this looking once again the knave.  From the moment it was briefed in advance that cuts to PIP would be made in order to fund giveaways to the well-off it was apparent how this would turn out.  Not even Labour in its current state could fail to score presented with such an open goal.  What possibly made the Treasury think, having u-turned previously on tax credits, that the same wouldn't end up being the case when they were specifically targeting the disabled?  This wasn't a budget where it took a day or two to unravel; it was already an obvious dog as he sat down having delivered it.  Nor having spent the first part of his speech blaming foreigners and Labour for what he was having to announce can he do so without being laughed at.  The mess he's in is down to the fiscal charter, meant to trap Labour but now traps him, and the welfare cap, for which ditto.  He can't cut tax credits, so going after the disabled was the only other option that would have brought in the needed money to get his surplus.

He did nonetheless make the right choice in deciding not to go to the Commons to answer the urgent question on the unravelling of the budget.  He looks a coward, but considering he only has one apparent mode of communication, which is smarm, smirk and wind up, sending David Gauke was the likely better option.  Cameron then came along and did his best to calm everyone down, which has likely temporarily put a lid on things.  Make no mistake though: the past couple of days are only the first rumblings of what we can expect to transpire as the referendum approaches, and once Cameron announces the date for his stepping down.  There is no obvious successor, let alone an idea of what a post-austerity Conservative party will be for.  Nothing is written, nothing is set in stone, all is still to play for.  Plus, how glorious it is to be reminded of the enjoyment there is to be had when a party other than your own spontaneously combusts.

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Saturday, March 19, 2016 

Never underestimate the cowardice of a quiet man.

Let's give Iain Duncan Smith the benefit of the doubtPerhaps he really did regard the demands of the Treasury to cut PIP to be a compromise too far.  Perhaps he really was angered by how a policy he signed up to only reluctantly was "junked" within a couple of days after a number of influential backbenchers spoke against it.  Perhaps he had been wrestling with his conscience over how the "fiscal self imposed restraints that I believe are more and more perceived as distinctly political" would affect the disabled.  And it is true that he and George Osborne have long disliked each other, the DWP and Treasury clashing repeatedly over Osborne demanding cuts to welfare, universal credit especially.

Yeah, we could do that.  Or we could drop the idea this has practically anything to do with PIP and instead focus on how this has everything to do with the EU referendum and internal Tory party politics, couldn't we?  God, how instantly a ministerial resignation, no matter how absurd excites the political class.  How even the most milquetoast of criticisms of what everyone knows is about politics and nothing whatsoever to do with economics is toasted as somehow being a rapier like stab into the heart of the government.

Here's IDS's heavily caveated, unutterably weak, and yet still "blistering" attack on the government's continued raison d'etre in full:

I am unable to watch passively while certain policies are enacted in order to meet the fiscal self imposed restraints that I believe are more and more perceived as distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest.

Even at his most potentially damaging moment, Quiet Man is a coward. Certain policies?  That I believe are more and more perceived?  Distinctly?  Tell us what you think Iain!  Don't hold back!

Of course, IDS flouncing out with a slap at Osborne is damaging to the government, without doubt.  Despite IDS's refusal to call a spade a spade, his criticism of Osborne acting out of political rather than economic motives gives opponents a line and will further make ministers squirm when questioned.  More than anything though, this is a pre-emptive strike from the Tory right at Osborne for believing he can waltz into the top job.  If IDS had really wanted to damage Cameron, rather than just the chancellor, he could have walked out either before the budget or in the immediate aftermath, not once the government had already made clear it was going to think again.  The backtracking is what gave him the opportunity to resign, rather than the policy itself being the last straw.

Wrong as it is to view the potential Osborne rise to the Tory leadership as analogous to Brown's taking over from Blair, the comparison is still valid to an extent.  Except for Osborne's followers, the chancellor is not universally liked, let alone loved: sure, they'll cheer him when he does something they do applaud, as IDS did when Osborne announced the "living wage"; when he pulls out a dud, as happened this week, those same faces are suddenly nowhere to be found.  No one is really looking forward to Cameron going, for the reason that all of the candidates are divisive in one way or the other.  Osborne is too socially liberal, not to forget punchable; Boris is Boris; May is colder than liquid nitrogen, etc.

Then we have the EU vote, and how it's apparent there will be a reckoning against those in the cabinet who've decided to support leave.  It's handy for Cameron that the majority of them are either dunces or just plain useless at their jobs: Chris Grayling is a complete liability, Michael Gove is a traitor harbouring leadership ambitions, Priti Patel is a joke, John Whittingdale is little more than a Thatcherite totem, and then we have IDS.  As the Graun's acerbic and accurate leader has it, IDS has managed to be both hopeless and destructive as work and pensions secretary.  More than anything, the only reason he wasn't moved is thanks to how IDS has been a good shield for everything that's both gone "right" and wrong in his department, allowing Cameron to somewhat be above the fray of workfare, food banks, the bedroom tax and all the rest.  He was unsackable because of how crap he was.

Resigning now allows IDS to portray himself as still having a heart, gives him the opportunity to dedicate himself to the leave campaign, and means he avoids getting the inevitable sack that was coming either after the referendum or Osborne becoming leader.  The damage is also far slighter to the government than it initially looks.  Yes, it looks bad that a senior cabinet minister has accused the chancellor of balancing the books on the backs of the disabled for political reasons, but the majority paying attention will conclude this wasn't primarily about that for the reason that it wasn't.  Cameron has also struck the right tone in his response: IDS's resignation is "puzzling", and raises more questions than it answers.

What it does highlight is the only real thing holding the Tories together, so fractured has the party become by Europe and between its left and right, is power.  We saw this irregularly during the coalition years: the EU vote itself is a product of it.  The first sign of trouble and the backbenchers become restless.  Getting the majority and seeing Labour in such dire straits brought a wave of euphoria that is only now descending into a comedown, thanks to the referendum and the spectre of Cameron's departure.  If, and this a huge if, Labour can at least keep its own infighting to a minimum, then the cracks in the Tories are again becoming visible.  It won't take much for them to turn into chasms.

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Thursday, March 17, 2016 

Your idols speak so much of the abyss...

Usually it's a mistake to bring morality into politics.  We're all as The Thick of It had it, in the same plague pit.  None of us have clean hands.  We all also have different notions of morality; take the weirdo that runs The Entertainer chain of toy shops.  He refuses to stock anything related to Harry Potter due to his Christianity, despite how the entire series is about the battle between good and evil.  Each to their own.  So long as politicians don't try to impose their own warped version of morality on everyone else, something that continues to be a problem in Northern Ireland if not so much for us in the rUK, then we can just about live and let live.

Normally then, John McDonnell describing the cuts to personal independence payments as "morally reprehensible" wouldn't be a good idea, especially when McDonnell has said things in that past that plenty of others would regard as similarly reprehensible.  As Robert Peston for one noted however, the £1.2bn set to be cut from PIP makes up for the loss in revenue from reducing capital gains tax and raising the 40p income tax threshold.  George Osborne has decided that the disabled, those recognised as needing help with going to the toilet and getting dressed should loss some of their benefits so the most well off get a tax cut.  Nor is it just the disabled.  While the spare room subsidy was brought in some time ago, the claimed rationale was to incentivise those affected to downsize.  A few years on, and now those in the private sector lucky enough to have a spare room to let out on sites like Airbnb are to get a tax break.  The word obscene comes to mind.

When Seema Malhotra was asked on Newsnight if she would go along with McDonnell's description, she demurred.  A bit too much of a low blow, especially when governments at the best of times involve themselves in morally dubious acts.  Malhotra would like to imagine she still might one day be at the Treasury herself, faced with making difficult decisions that will affect the poor and disabled.  Sajid Javid for his part denied furiously that he would involve himself in something as despicable as taking money from the disabled, as the money being spent overall is going up.  Which as the IFS today stated is true, with spending having increased four-fold over the past 20 years.  That doesn't make much odds to those set to lose on average £3,500 a year, nor will it those in the Work group part of ESA, down by up to £30 a week thanks to the recent vote.

Our views on who is and who isn't deserving are equally idiosyncratic.  The chancellor who complained of hard-working folk getting up early in the morning, seeing their neighbours' curtains drawn, returning home late in the evening to the same scene has no problem with handing out £1,000 in cash to those able to save £4,000 a year.  It doesn't matter whether the money put in is down to graft or given by a wealthy parent, it will get the same reward.  The IFS says this could prove extraordinarily costly, and once these sweeteners are in place the shrieks if you abolish them can prove deafening.  The obvious point is if the government has grands to splash about and growth is forecast to be tepid at best, why not give the money instead to those who will spend it rather than save it, those set to lose rather than gain from the budget?  We have an aversion to handouts, except when they go to us and those like us.  We fret about moral hazard, encouraging unethical or irresponsible behaviour when we have institutions that are too big to fail, and yet the absurdities of rewarding some to motivate them and penalising others to do the same goes on.

Not that the mixed response to the budget or such criticisms will bother George Osborne in the slightest.  The Mail applauded the giveaways to "Middle England", Middle England in the Mail's world meaning the top 7% of earners.  That's all that will matter when Osborne's sights are set purely on the prize of the top job.  Tom Clark in the Graun reckons Osborne's otherwise laughable plan for turning a £21bn deficit one year into a £10bn surplus the next is down to how he intends to call an early election once ensconced as Tory leader, with only the fixed terms parliament act standing in his way.  If so, Osborne's slow transformation into Gordon Brown is all but complete.  We can but hope he meets the same fate.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2016 

Everything's coming up, George's.

What the Office for Budget Responsibility giveth, the Office for Budget Responsibility taketh away.  Last November the OBR's forecasts gave George Osborne a £27bn windfall, more than enough for him to backtrack (somewhat) on the highly unpopular cuts he had previously announced to tax credits.  Fast forward 4 months, and the OBR has done an dramatic reverse ferret: they've now taken £52bn away from the chancellor, as well as lowering their forecasts across the board, with growth and productivity hit the hardest.

And yet, somehow, despite this significant deterioration in the public finances, one that will see an increase in borrowing between now and 2020/21 of £38bn, Osborne still claims he'll hit his fiscal mandate of reaching a budget surplus by the time of the next election.  This is even more eyebrow raising when the OBR forecasts there will still be a budget deficit of £21bn in 2018/19.  Somehow, in the space of only 12 months, this will turn into a surplus of £10bn.  This is meant to be achieved by further cuts that year, a raid on public sector pensions, bringing forward infrastructure spending that was pencilled in for then to now, and deferring changes to corporation tax.  It won't be.  I can say with near certainty that the cretinous plan for a surplus will be abandoned almost as soon as Osborne moves on, whether to Number 10 or to the backbenches.

For this was a budget that made clear George is now only in it for the short-term.  The usual idea with budgets is you make the unpopular decisions as soon after winning an election as you can, then time the giveaways as the next round of voting approaches.  Osborne instead has produced a giveaway budget only a year into a five year parliament.  Everyone apart from the disabled and poorest are getting soaked.  Another rise in the personal allowance?  Why not?  A significant increase in the 40p income tax threshold, to £45,000?  Sure, go on.  Free money if you're under 40 and you're lucky enough to have a parent that can give you £4,000 a year to save?  The man from HMRC he say yes!  Yet another cut in corporation tax?  Cheers, say all those multinationals who do their utmost not to pay it anyway.  Small business rate threshold to rise by £9,000 just as the power to spend the revenue it brings in is devolved to local authorities?  Fuck knows how councils are going to pay for services, but that's to worry about another day.  A massive cut in the capital gains tax rate to 20% from 28%, excluding properties?  What better way for a chancellor to thank the hedge fund managers and masters of the universe who funded the Tories to a majority?

Except of course there are a couple of votes on the horizon.  First there's the EU referendum, and so any small chance there was of a rise in fuel duty was spiked lest it vex further any Tory backbenchers yet to make up their minds on remaining or leaving.  Far more important to George though is the Tory leadership contest, likely to happen fairly swiftly once the referendum is over, whatever the result.  Today's budget was effectively his swansong: sucking up to every core constituency he believes he needs to, and doing so before it's too late.  Should he still be chancellor for the autumn statement or next year's budget, he'll tinker around the edges a bit, knowing his work proper has been done already.  Hence why Cameron handed over to him the announcement that schools still under local authority control will be forced to become academies, backed up by the rabbit of the sugar tax on soft drinks, helping to fund an additional hour of the school day and more sports.

Ah yes, the sugar tax.  Not a tax on sugary food all told, just sugary drinks.  Those people you know who stick four sugars in their tea, they'll be fine, but anyone who prefers cold drinks or just the occasional burst of sugar is about to get their wallet felt.  It's impossible not to see this as a judgement tax, however many doctors claim that it'll massively reduce obesity; who are always pouring energy drinks and cans of Coke down their throats?  Those people, and they're costing us a bomb.  The estimate that it will raise £520m, a more than considerable sum, gives the lie to the idea drinks companies will change their formulations or that people will switch to sugar free brands as a result.  How else would it directly fund that extra school hour?  Anti-nanny state Tories be damned, Osborne couldn't let childhood obesity be on his conscience.  Child poverty, taking money from disabled people who need help to go to the toilet or dress themselves, they don't trouble him anywhere near as much.

All this was designed to mask how once again Osborne has failed by the standards he's set himself, as Jeremy Corbyn in his fairly strong response to the budget outlined.  That supposed welfare trap he set for Labour?  Osborne is set to wander into it every year.  Debt coming down as a proportion of GDP?  Nope, that's not happening either.  Keeping to the fiscal mandate?  In theory yes; in practice, knowing full well as he does that all these freebies are not going to be made up by further cracking down on tax avoidance and other stealthy tax grabs, there isn't a cat in hell's chance of a surplus come 2019/20.  All this, while at the same time still going on with the cuts to frontline spending, not to forget borrowing more, the jibe thrown at Labour every time they say they would borrow to invest as bond yields are historically low.  Osborne is the epitome of a chancer, making it up as he goes along.  He and Boris are remarkably alike in the regard, only Boris at least can tell a joke.

Osborne's hope seems to be this: he's perfectly aware that his surplus will turn out to be fictional, and yet he also knows that Labour is hardly going to make a song and dance about it.  His real difficulty is going to be in paying for all the lucre he's thrown around today, only that will be the responsibility of the poor sod who takes over from him.  Unlike with Gordon Brown, his belief is that none of it will stick to him, and why would it?  He's breached every target he's put down, and no one's called him on it.  Sure, it's going to look really bad if his successor has to raise taxes just before an election, but who else are you going to vote for?  Labour, under the stewardship of Corbo 'n' McDonnell?  The right-wing press might tear him a new one for it, but again, where else are they going to go?  To quote Joylon Maugham, Osborne is "giving the most to those who need it least and the least to those who need it most", which is exactly what he came into politics to do.  Everything's coming up, George's.

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Tuesday, March 01, 2016 

Envy, America and civil liberties.

They do things differently in America.  There, various gullible fools and paid shills (surely highly principled and privacy conscious individuals? Ed.) have been protesting outside the FBI building against the demand that Apple break the encryption on the recovered iPhone of one of the San Bernardinho attackers.  Both sides, it's fair to say, are chancing their arm: the FBI hasn't provided the slightest of evidence that Syed Rizwan Farook's phone contains anything they won't have already accessed or found from all the other material they've seized, much less a link to possibly imagined accomplices. Their real aim seems to be to strike a blow against the movement towards encryption post-Snowden, and they've done so by biding their time, waiting for a highly unrepresentative hard case where they've figured the public will (mostly) be on their side.

Apple for their part, far from making a principled stand, have decided this is yet another issue on which they can draw a line between themselves and the "opposition", despite sharing all the rest of their values. Masters of marketing as they are, continuing to succeed in presenting their products as highly aspirational and exclusive despite every other person having one, this time they figure they can occupy the moral high ground and further ingratiate themselves with the tech-obsessive, civil libertarian crowd. They're doing this through an astroturf campaign that presents a tax avoiding, cheap Chinese labour using corporation as far superior to a government, but still, right?

Had say the FBI been more set on keeping tabs on actual extremists than entrapping innocents, they might have had more chance of preventing San Bernardinho.  Likewise, it seems a bit rich of Apple to pretend to care about privacy and the implications of the FBI's order considering just how easy they made it to "hack" into iClouds, even if Apple is nowhere near hypocritical on such matters as Facebook and Google are, making their money almost solely through the monetisation of the data we share with them.

This said, the FBI vs Apple battle has a glamour and definable quality to it that the opponents of the Investigatory Powers Bill would kill for.  In a fight where the opposition is arguing about something intangible, and when a majority of the British public have long been prepared to give up a little privacy/liberty in return for the promise of more security, the Home Office knows the odds are stacked in its favour.  That confidence can be seen in the changes made to the now published bill since the draft was made available in November: advised by an unusually assertive Intelligence and Security Committee to make more clear the privacy protections, the Home Office has done so by inserting "privacy" into a single heading.  The actual wording underneath is identical.

The news release sent out last night was clear about how seriously the various reviews by the ISC, David Anderson and the bill's own joint committee had been taken, as well as all the other submissions from interested parties, and how changes had been made accordingly.  Strangely then, the bill seems barely distinguishable from the draft version.  What is new is that since November the police seem to have realised they weren't being allowed to join the data intercepting party, and so now they too will be allowed to hack in certain circumstances, as well as access internet connection records (ICRs) across the board, rather than just those relating to "illegal websites" and communication services.

According to the Home Office, that this power wasn't included in the draft was merely an oversight, as the police are already getting their hack on.  Regardless, it helps with the example of how retained ICRs could be used, like in the case of "Amy" detailed in the operational case (PDF).  Amy is 15, and impressionable.  One morning she disappears: her parents ring her mobile but it is switched off.  Luckily, the police via an ICR request discover the use of a particular messaging app, along with social media.  They contact those providers, and discover she contacted a particular individual, who less fortunately was using a false name.  But wait!  He did register an account with a genuine mobile phone number, which the police make communications data requests for, and discover he had contacted a hotel chain on.  A live booking is found, the police descend, and Amy is saved from a slavering 40-year-old with previous child exploitation convictions!

If this seems more than a little fatuous, then it and the other examples of how the new powers could be used similarly don't explain why ICRs need to be retained for 12 months, as all relate to immediate, live investigations.  The majority of the examples cited involve child sexual exploitation, or how more suspected paedophiles could be identified if only ICRs with their additional detail were retained.  It's fine to argue this would be the case, but it simply doesn't follow that prosecutions would be the result: that would require further police resources, which are not being provided, and also that additional evidence would be discovered as a result, as an IP address accessing a website at a particular time isn't enough on its own.

Where the government has deigned to provide more substantial evidence to back its arguments is on bulk interception (PDF), which is odd as it isn't quite as controversial as the retention of ICRs.  This raises just as many questions as it answers, however: bulk interception we're informed has "played a significant part in every major counter terrorism investigation of the last decade, including in each of the seven terrorist attack plots disrupted since November 2014".  Indeed, the case studies provided claim that bulk interception found the liquid bomb plotters; the 2007 beheading plot group; and played a key role in the disruption of the plot to attack the London Stock Exchange among other targets in 2010.  These are fairly remarkable admissions, if that is they're accurate.  One wonders if there aren't some police officers or informers who'd be more than a little miffed if they were aware of just how much emphasis is being put on bulk interception when previously no such claims have been made.  Is this a sudden burst of openness, an attempt to at least try to meet the requests of the reviewers or something more sinister?

While some of the privacy protections have then been ever so slightly tightened, and the government has also published the codes of practice, the fundamentally objectionable intention of retaining data on every single one of us, accessible without a warrant to the police and other state bodies excluding local authorities remains.  These are powers not deemed necessary anywhere else in the world, with little in the way of safeguards to ensure they are not abused, or indeed any true reassurance that the bulk interception powers obtained and operated without debate until the Snowden revelations have not been misused.  Having rushed through the draft process, with the reviewing bodies working overtime to get their recommendations heard, the government now wants to rush through the parliamentary stage in similar fashion.  They are doing so against the drumbeat of the EU referendum, knowing little other than the Budget is going to garner attention between now and June the 23rd.  They at the same time smartly made clear today that freedom of information will not be getting restricted, delighting journalists, while also claiming to have strengthened hacks' protections from cops snooping on their sources.  Wish that both sides could lose as I do in America, you can't been help envy how at the very least the casual loss of privacy and rise of surveillance prompts debate and protest.  Here?  Nothing except whimpers from the usual suspects.

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Thursday, February 25, 2016 

Get down with the sickness.

Seeing as we're on a bit of a 90s bent, some of you might just recall Stewart Lee and Richard Herring's ever more incongruous looking back on it Sunday lunchtime show This Morning With Richard Not Judy.  Herring's habitual response to being called "sick" by Stew after revealing that week's attraction to whatever it was ("I love all flies.  Houseflies.  Tsetse flies.  Of course, they're all testes flies when I've finished with them") was to say "Am I Stew?  Or is it the businessman, with his suit and tie?"

Which brings us in fantastically tenuous style to yesterday's completely absurd PMQs set to.  Cameron's mother we learnt, as well as being opposed to her son's austerity, is not really very British at all.  Few of us are rude or direct enough to give advice of the kind Dave's dear old mum would to Jeremy Corbyn.  No, instead we'd criticise Corbyn's dress sense and his implicit lack of patriotism once he was out of earshot.  Dave's old cheese by contrast would say it right to the bearded lunatic leftie's face: put on a proper suit, do up your tie and for God's sake tug your forelock when it's demanded of you!  Where do you think you are, the beach?  You're leader of the opposition man, letting yourself and your side down!  Do you think Clement Attlee would have turned up with his shirt hanging out and refused to get down on his knees when ordered to by George IV?  Of course not!

Credit has been to given to Dave's PMQs preparation team, as it was clearly another came up with in advance line meant to look like an ad-lib, just in case Corbyn cited the Cameron family's concerns over the actions of the prodigal.  Instead he took the opportunity given by Angela Eagle's heckle (hence why she looks so embarrassed), as clearly you can't let a good insult go to waste.

And it was a good insult, carefully calibrated: Dave wasn't the one saying his opponent resembles a tramp and doesn't love his country, it's what his mother would, in the same way as politicians down the ages have hid behind the opinions of anonymous letter writers and concerned citizens.  It was designed to appeal to that small but vocal group of judgemental souls that believe a shirt and tie are more important than every other personal quality.  Think Telegraph writers, the people behind the proposal in UKIP's 2010 manifesto that taxi drivers should have a dress code, Basil Fawlty-alikes, assorted other eccentrics.  Some also simply admire bullies, as long as the bully is on "their" side, for which see the rise of Trump.  A few will have been turned off by Flashman making another appearance, for sure, but others will have yucked up Dave telling it like it is.

You could if you like complain about how this seems a much greater act of snobbery than say Emily Thornberry tweeting a photo without comment of a house flying an England flag with a white van on the drive.  You could bring up how it seems especially instructive of the prejudices of our social betters coming in the same week as the country is being asked to back one of two men, both of whom went to the same elite private school, both of whom were members of the Bullingdon Club and both of whom have since their tender years believed they were born to rule.  You could remark on the contrast it highlights in the treatment of one of those men, who is in part popular because of his upper class "eccentricities", who has been caught deliberately messing up his hair prior to giving interviews, who was heckled himself in the Commons on Monday and told to tuck his shirt in.

You could, but you'd just sound bitter and it doesn't get you anywhere.  For all the brown nosing, sycophancy and sneering going on, whether it be Cleaning for the Queen, or renaming the Crossrail project the Elizabeth Line, it's worth remembering that we've reached the point where the only people we really make wear uniforms and tell to stand up straight are kids.  Sure, you get the odd headteacher who decides that's not enough by itself and demands the parents don't wear pyjamas when bringing their little darlings in, but in general the etiquette following, looking down nose, know your place types are on the way out altogether.  Before long the sickos truly will be the suits.  And then we'll complain and moan about the death of class, as is our wont.

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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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