A momentous day for Labour

Update (at 1406 on 30 Nov): The Guardian reports that Jeremy Corbyn will give his MPs a free vote on the question of airstrikes over Syria. The commentary I posted below about the wider context stands, though obviously the central question has now been answered. It does give us some insight into Mr Corbyn’s leadership strategy and the extent to which he wishes to hold the party together:

Today Jeremy Corbyn and his Shadow Cabinet will wrestle with the thorny question of whether to impose a three-line whip on Labour MPs over airstrikes in Syria.

Inevitably Mr Corbyn is against military action (as he has been against wars in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere). It seems that most of the Shadow Cabinet are in favour of the proposed airstrikes, along with a significant minority of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

They could hold a free vote, allowing all Labour MPs to vote with their conscience.

Or they could whip the matter. There seems to be some confusion over whether (under Labour rules) a whipping decision lies in the hands of the Leader or the wider Shadow Cabinet.

If that authority lies with the Shadow Cabinet, and they decide to impose a whip in line with the judgement of the Shadow Cabinet (ie in favour of airstrikes), then Mr Corbyn would be placed under the absurd obligation to decide whether to fall in line (against his conscience) or resign from his own Shadow Cabinet. I think it is untenable that they would put Mr Corbyn in this position (elected as he was so recently and with with such a large mandate). Were they to do so, rather than resign, Mr Corbyn would have little option but disband his Shadow Cabinet and start again.

But Mr Corbyn is himself assuming the authority, as leader, on whether to whip his party. If he is able to do so, Shadow Cabinet members must either fall in line or resign. There is potential for multiple resignations if shadow ministers conclude they cannot back the leader who has rebelled against his own party 533 times since 1997.

Given Mr Corbyn’s own voting record, many MPs may feel they are not meaningfully bound by a three-line whip imposed by him.

The Government has a tiny parliamentary majority and there are a number of Conservative rebels – it could easily be defeated by a united opposition. But Labour is not united. There is every chance the Government could win a vote on its motion regardless of whether Labour grants a free vote or not.

Thus far, the Defence Secretary has played down the Government’s prospects of success, while he and others have been working to persuade Labour MPs one by one to support the Government motion. The Prime Minister does not want egg on his face, given fresh memories of his parliamentary knockdown on Syria in 2013.

Depending on how this plays out, this could be one of the most momentous weeks in the modern history of the Labour Party. In my view, the impact on the integrity of the party could be even greater than that of Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in September. However he proceeds, this will be a key factor in his decision.

Spectre – less than the sum of its parts

I dressed up in black tie (as I always do) and went off to see the latest Bond movie on its opening night. Unable to blag tickets to the premiere, I crammed into the Odeon on Tottenham Court Road with Vanessa and a few other friends and sat back with great hope and expectation.

Here was my preview of Spectre.

Beware – ahead there be spoilers.

I enjoyed the movie, but I didn’t love it. I felt positive after the final credits rolled, but on a little more reflection, I find myself a bit disappointed. I think it’s up there among the better third of Bond movies – while some of the action sequences are brilliant, they are let down by the way they’re pulled together. Sadly, against the consensus of many critics, I feel the final product is less than the sum of its parts.

All ready for 007

All ready for 007

I knew before I stepped into the cinema we would see the return of the gun barrel opener, back in its rightful place for the first time since Pierce Brosnan’s disappointing final outing, Die Another Day. I explained in my preview that its absence in recent movies “was excusable in Casino Royale, less so in Quantum of Solace, and a real let-down at the top of Skyfall.” There is, at least, an editorial reason why it was absent from Casino Royale, as that opens before Bond earns his 00-status.

I recently learned that Sam Mendes intended to include it at the beginning of Skyfall, but…

“…the film starts with Bond walking down a corridor towards camera and lifting a gun. And of course the gun barrel is him walking, stopping and lifting a gun. When I put the two together, it looked ridiculous!”
(Sam Mendes, speaking in 2012)

Maybe so, but if it was so ill-planned at the storyboard stage it should have been reworked.

I can’t fault the way Spectre opens. The gun barrel sequence is there and it gives way to a stunning Dia de los Muertos street party in Mexico City. It’s a five-minute apparently cut-free tracking sequence following Bond and his partner through the crowds as he makes his way towards his first kill. From the collapse of two buildings, including Bond’s comic landing on a sofa to the amazing helicopter aerial stunts and then the credit sequence scored by Sam Smith, it is spot on.

Bond is given a proper dressing down by the brilliant new M, Ralph Fiennes, who takes him off duty (ironically giving him the freedom to get on with his work). Q (Ben Whishaw) helps him ‘disappear’, and off we go!

So far, so good.

The main actors perform well. Bond, M & Q are expertly played. The appearance of Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) is all too short. Monica Belluci, Léa Seydoux, Christoph Waltz and Dave Bautista are all brilliant in their respective roles. It’s great to see a kick-ass henchman as portrayed through Mr Hinx (Bautista) that harks back to an earlier era. I’m less convinced by Max Denbigh in the role of C – too young and a little too obviously shaken when Bond throws a verbal dig.

Bond's final showdown with Mr White

Bond’s final showdown with Mr White

As the main villain, Christope Waltz is excellent, bringing all his Oscar-winning talent to bear. But his character, be it Franz Oberhauser or Ernst Stavro Blofeld, is pathetic, psychologically incapable of running a global criminal conglomeration without distracting himself by needling an unwelcome foster brother from his childhood, decades on.

I loved the Spectre boardroom scene – a great way to introduce Oberhauser, and the terrifying Mr Hinx. It neatly brings Oberhauser and Bond face to face (from a distance) for the first time on screen. The Spectre organisation is established as a force to be reckoned with.

But outside the boardroom, it would appear to fall short of its promise.

Towards the end, Oberhauser operates from a small complex of buildings in north Africa inside a meteor crater. It’s a throwback to You Only Live Twice, but a pale imitation of that Blofeld’s volcano lair. I also prefer the Piz Gloria venue in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the oil rig in Diamonds Are Forever. I certainly preferred Raoul Silva’s deserted island in Skyfall.

The journey – by luxury train and a vintage Rolls Royce – was considerably better than the destination, perhaps more so for the viewer than for Bond, given his tussle with Mr Hinx. Though there is a payoff for Bond after the fight.

At the meteor lair, Oberhauser (now revealed as Blofeld) conducts a strange torture scene with Bond as his subject. The objective is ill-explained and the method is faulty. Blofeld operates as the torture technician – can’t he instruct a minion to do this for him? Ultimately, whatever he was trying to do fails and with Bond essentially incapacitated throughout, it makes Blofeld look like a fool – not a good look. And Bond’s escape with Madeleine Swann seems remarkably straightforward.

The final showdown in central London takes place across two locations, with parallel showdowns between Blofeld and Bond at the derelict MI6 headquarters, while M & Q face C at the latter’s new office. It’s good to see M & Q at the heart of the action, as we’ve seen now and again before, most notably in Octopussy, The World is Not Enough and Skyfall. While all the elements are fairly strong, the two scenarios unfolding concurrently don’t work as well as they could. They interlock weakly and the suspense is unnecessarily diluted.

Finally escaping MI6 HQ, Bond (with Swann) bursts onto the Thames in a speedboat and chases Blofeld’s helicopter downriver, somehow shooting it down with his Walther PPK. I don’t doubt that this might be mathematically possible, but it seems improbable and a little too convenient at this stage in the narrative.

He should have been allowed to escape.

Moments later, standing over his injured nemesis, Bond predictably – and rightly – spares his life, reminding us of a line from M much earlier in the film, in which he declares that a licence to kill is also “a licence not to kill”. So instead of being killed off, Blofeld is arrested by M, while Bond walks off into the night with Dr Swann.

In his previous incarnation, Blofeld was such a key figure in the James Bond universe, it would have been a travesty to see him killed off in Spectre. In the past he was played by Donald Pleasence, Telly Savalas and Charles Gray. They brought such different portrayals to the role it was downright weird.

Spectre the film and Spectre the crime syndicate were both a letdown to me, because they fell so far short of their immense promise. But the film has some decent nostalgic value: an exploding watch, an Aston Martin with a built-in ejector seat, a deadly fight on a posh train, Blofeld’s white cat and – my favourite – the scar on his face, clearly a nod to You Only Live Twice.

Donald Pleasence sets the Blofeld standard in You Only Live Twice (1967)

Donald Pleasence set the Blofeld standard in 1967

I’m keen to see more. The wider Spectre saga can be rescued. It would be implausible for the organisation depicted in Rome to have been brought to its knees so easily, despite Blofeld’s flaws. Let us see the tentacles of a truly powerful Spectre, headed as before by Christoph Waltz as Blofeld. Perhaps the pre-credit sequence could show the super-villain’s prison escape? Or a courtroom breakout at the point of sentencing?

But if Waltz is back as Blofeld, then Craig must come back as Bond. He said he’d “rather slash my wrists” than play Bond a fifth time, but I pray that’s attention-seeking self-indulgence.

Let’s have an encore Mr Craig.

Movember 2015

Movember is upon us – that month of the year wedged between October and December, when hundreds of thousands of men across the world seek to grow a moustache in aid of men’s health.

At the time of writing, 35,812 men in the UK have registered to take part – including me for the second time.

The first time was while I was living in Geneva in 2011 – more on the story here. My Dad had been given a dire prognosis for aggressive prostate cancer earlier that year. “You’ve got four years,” said his consultant, rather bluntly and without being asked.

We were shocked and upset. My understanding is that the proffered time-frame factored in the impact of treatment. But after surgery and a course of radiotherapy, the cancer went into remission and – though it needs regular monitoring – it is not an active threat.

The end of Movember

Movember 2011

We are four years on from my first Movember and so we can now say – officially – the consultant was pessimistic (or optimistic, depending on how much he wanted to see the back of his patient.)

So far, so good.

But prostate cancer is still with us. The Movember Foundation says:

  • 1 in 8 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer at some point in their lives.
  • Every hour one man dies from prostate cancer in the UK.
  • Each year over 42,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer in the UK.

Now the Movember focus on men’s health seems to be more holistic than in the past. The foundation bemoans the fact that “on average, across the world, men die 6 years earlier than women.” In addition to the threat of prostate and testicular cancer, the World Health Organisation estimates that 510,000 men take their own lives every year. That’s more than one every minute.

There is much work to be done.

My Movember page is here. Please give generously!

“I did things when I was young that I should not have done, and that I regret”

There is a scene at the beginning of the first episode of Better Call Saul in which three young students are incarcerated for fornicating with a severed head. Their (low-rent) lawyer suggested that “they got a bit carried away.” Then the jury settled down to watch the video evidence.

There is a scene in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (2011) in which a prime minister is – essentially – forced to copulate with a pig.

Enough said about these lurid scenes.

Former Conservative Treasurer (and big donor) Lord Ashcroft and journalist Isabel Oakshott have written a book together – a biography of David Cameron – in which unrepeatable allegations are put forward about Mr Cameron’s days at Oxford University, and a dead pig.

If you want to know more, Twitter is your friend.

Do consider the core allegation with some scepticism. Truth is stranger than fiction, but (while it may indeed be true) this particular nugget, from a single source, remains unsubstantiated. There is a reasonable defence by Toby Young here:

On the face of it, it looks like a misjudgment for David Cameron to have denied Lord Ashcroft a Cabinet post in 2010, as it seems Ashcroft had expected. But in light of Ashcroft’s subsequent behaviour, whither the alternative? I’m not convinced he chose poorly. For all the personal damage, perhaps he made the better call.

For her part, Isabel Oakeshott has defended a book that delves into “the good, the bad and the ugly” of the prime minister’s character and she denies the publication is the result of a personal vendetta by her co-author. She told BBC News it was the “least damaging period to publish a book like this.”

But Oakeshott has also refused to say whether she believes the pig anecdote.

Mr Cameron will recover from this – up to a point – but he will be forever weakened. It’s not something he should resign over, and certainly not something he would resign over. Such a resignation would merit its own very special place in history.

But it will be forever awkward – imagine the snorts at Prime Minister’s Questions…

On which point, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have William Hague (or someone of his comic calibre) somehow magically back in his role as Leader of the Opposition for the next edition of PMQs, facing Mr Cameron. He would be as happy as the proverbial pig in shit. MPs across the house would love it. The public (those few who watch PMQs) certainly would.

I am reminded of David Cameron’s comments as Conservative leader many years ago when he was under pressure over drugs claims (some of which are repeated in the book):

Like many people I did things when I was young that I should not have done, and that I regret. But I do believe that politicians are entitled to a past that is private, and that remains private, so I won’t be making any commentary on what is in the newspapers today.
David Cameron, February 2007

Wise words indeed.

Alan Kurdi’s death creates an opportunity and an obligation on us all

…and so we should.

Helping refugees is the least we can do when global problems spill onto our shores. More so, if we share some responsibility for those problems. Offering a safe haven would be a poor substitute to prevention work, but it is not – and must not be – a substitute at all. We must do both.

I understand the Prime Minister has been more inclined to deal with this refugee crisis at source. I agree that is where our primary focus should lie, but our strategy has been ineffective thus far.

David Cameron would no doubt blame his Labour opponents for standing in the way of military action in Syria two years ago. He will raise the prospect again soon, and will succeed with the help of a few Labour rebels, defying their new leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Frankly it should not be too great a burden to offer refuge to a few thousand people. There are something in the order of 1200 towns in the UK, and a further 66 cities. If each town or city hosted two families (of two parents & two children) we could offer refuge to over 10,000 people.

In fairness we already host half that number – 5000 Syrian refugees have arrived since the beginning of the present conflict. And the Government seems to be considering opening the doors to a further 4000.
7 Sept 2015 update: That seems to be 4000 in the year ahead – or 20,000 in the lifetime of this parliament.

I’d like to think that – like Germany – we can do considerably better. This is a crisis like no other in recent years.

Alan Kurdi

The image of the lifeless body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi* on a Bodrum beach is haunting. Every time I look at it I seem to see my own son Caleb (aged two-and-a-half). It looks too much like him, and in another world it could have been him.

Alan drowned on Wednesday, with his brother and their mother, all Syrian refugees from Kobani on their way from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos. They are survived by their father, who was also travelling with them.

* NB The common spelling of Alan as ‘Aylan’ seems to be born of a registration error in Turkey.

This image along with its cropped version, and others like it, went viral around the world in a matter of hours. In his death, Alan is famous. Perhaps his life, cut so brutally short, has made a difference to others who follow him on their perilous journeys.

Every day in my work for BBC News I see awful images of death and destruction. Over time, the momentary personal impact on me seems to lessen. Sadly that means a little part of my humanity is being chipped away over time.

Now and again I find myself more troubled than usual. A couple of years ago – precisely two years before Alan died – I posted about Syria, in the aftermath of chemical attacks on the outskirts of Damascus. Many children suffered in those attacks and I saw far too much video of them “in agony, dying or already dead.”

The situation in the territory controlled by the so-called “Islamic State” – is probably even worse now than in 2013.

For many of us, the images of young Alan’s body were a step too far. On the front of the papers, they might be seen as salacious, illustrating a desperation to sell more papers. On people’s Twitter & Facebook feeds, it “isn’t compassionate, it’s narcissistic” – apparently. It’s a classic case of virtue signalling – ie highlighting a cause, typically on social media, to draw attention to one’s own moral credentials over and above whatever the cause was in the first place. I have no time for that.

I shared that image on Wednesday evening, and while I can’t be sure of whatever subliminal motivations drive my social media behaviour, I don’t believe I need to build a case for myself as someone whose heart bleeds for a dead three-year-old boy. If you know me are you surprised that this bothers me? I hope not.

One friend, Dan Bowring, shared the picture when he concluded that “ultimately I object to dead children more than I object to images of dead children.” His message was widely shared.

I do not think this image goes too far. Like Dan, I want to witness an emotional response. Not because Alan’s death is a tipping point in the Syrian conflict or in the wider refugee crisis, but because it can be a tipping point in our own collective reaction. This crisis is not new. It has been going on for years, though it has become even more critical in recent weeks.

The only action I called for in my Facebook post was this – in bold below:

This could be my son.


I am – relatively – pretty sympathetic to fellow Britons’ concerns about immigration. It’s a complex issue and we should never blame individual immigrants for the state of our public infrastructure, even if a population explosion can be held partly responsible.

Often the plight of economic migrants is severe. But the plight of genuine refugees is too often impossible. They face the sword or starvation in Syria, or a perilous journey to freedom. Together, we need to find a way to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Some papers went too far last week in their front page publication of images taken a fraction of a second before the Virginia TV shooting. There are times when a challenging – shocking even – image is necessary. This is one of those occasions.

On the face of it, my call to action seems a bit vague. There are more concrete ways we can help – both individually and collectively. But part of the problem is that our nation (not just the Government) has been reticent to help. Even today, I heard a vox pop in which the speaker called for us to “pull up the drawbridge” and send the refugees elsewhere. Iconic images like that of  Alan’s little body help us revise our attitudes and in turn sway the Government to reassess its policy.

To those of us of a public-spirited international disposition, it can feel incredibly frustrating that our Government sometimes seems weighed down by public opinion or its own inertia.

My understanding – through my own conversations with well-placed MPs – is that often ministers want to be more generous or interventionist, but feel the public mood has a tethering effect. That may be true more so since the Iraq war than before it. At such a time as this, it may be less that public pressure forces the Government to take action than that it frees the Government to do so. I do not know where the balance lies.

Hashtag activism

I should stress that while I’m all in favour of an emotional outcry raising the profile of an issue, cool heads must prevail in policy-making. I am concerned about the tyranny of petitions and hashtag activism. As argued in Conservative Home, “our immigration policy must be decided by reason – not by photos and hashtags”.

This doesn’t mean I won’t sign a petition, though I’m often hesitant. Here’s one I did sign, proposed by my friend Tamanna Rahman. It calls on the Government to allow us to host refugees in our own homes.

Neither does my attitude mean I won’t tweet about issues I care about, though I’m mindful the Twitter bubble far from represents the nation. I believe ministers should listen to the public mood, but they need to weigh petitions with caution. I believe they need to understand the Twitter mob, but not be beholden to it. Unlike the public, ministers have a responsibility to act in the public interest.

Now, as ever, the British public interest does not end at our shores. That awful image of Alan Kurdi has created both an opportunity and an obligation on us all.

May he and his brother Galip, and their mother, rest in peace.

May their father find comfort.

And may the rest of us never rest until their country is restored to peace.

Is it the end for Spectre? Or a new beginning?

I almost tingled with excitement to see the first full length trailer for Spectre.

It looks awesome.

It’s being directed by Sam Mendes, of Skyfall fame (along with American Beauty and Jarhead). And it includes many of Skyfall’s key characters. Many people regarded Skyfall as the best Bond movie ever made. I’ll stay clear of such hyberbole. It was excellent, but there are so many top 007 escapades that’s not easy to name a winner. In any case it’s hard to weigh up the incredible story of From Russia with Love (a Fleming faithful) or the innovations of Goldfinger with the technical mastery of the Craig-era movies.

Like many of the Bond movies, Skyfall was a standalone affair. It needs little context beyond a sprinkle of awareness of the series as a whole. And it’s pretty conclusive – there’s no cliffhanger. In general, that’s how they should be. Each movie stands alone as a contemporaneous reflection of the real world, in the James Bond universe.

A central plot theme of Skyfall involved data theft and the leaking of MI6 agent details. Against the backdrop of Wikileaks, this was very current in 2012, and typical of the series. Consider, for example, the Cold War themes of the 1960s, the global energy crisis referenced in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), the Space Shuttles in Moonraker (1979), and 007’s short-lived alliance with the Afghan Mujahedin in The Living Daylights (1987).

Oh how the world has changed; and yet it hasn’t.

Much as I enjoyed Skyfall, three things bothered me.

  1. Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace naturally fell together as the first two parts of a potential trilogy. The latter movie resolved some personal issues for Bond, but left open the fate of the Quantum outfit. This is a far-reaching organisation that has “people everywhere” – according to the excellent Mr White, who’s still at large. I was disappointed not to see this storyline carried forward in Skyfall.
  2. Casino Royale & Quantum of Solace portrayed a young Bond at the beginning of his 007 career. Skyfall seems to portray a very different character, tired and disillusioned. It’s excused because Bond takes a stray bullet on the orders of M in the opening sequence, and goes dark for a while (a few months?) But, for me, the character leap goes too far in a single movie.
  3. There is still no gun barrel sequence right at the top. This was excusable in Casino Royale, less so in Quantum of Solace, and a real let-down at the top of Skyfall. Many of you may find this objection absurd, but for this Bond fan the opening tradition (born in 1962) is so important and builds audience tension ahead of the first scene.

Spectre cannot rewind the clock to fix my character development concerns in Skyfall, and whether it opens with the gun barrel sequence remains to be seen. But I’m pleased to see Mr White in the trailer. We haven’t seen enough of him, and he has the makings of a top henchman, delightfully urbane. Mr White’s presence at least implies that the Quantum storyline is not – entirely – abandoned. But Quantum falls short of the kudos, allure and history of Spectre – the Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge & Extortion.

In a welcome throwback to the Spectre era, the trailer brings in some of the theme music from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). It’s a nice touch. And there are plenty of other back references to classic Bond movies, as the Radio Times notes.

The big question for me is this: Does Spectre have a future after its rebirth in October, or will Daniel Craig’s Bond bring the the nefarious organisation to its demise?

The answer may depend on whether Daniel Craig will be back for another installment before he hands in his Walther PPK and licence to kill.

Spectre launches in the UK alongside the official premiere on Monday 26th October.

How much is Greece’s debt worth?

We know Greece owes about €320bn – that’s a debt-to-GDP ratio of 180%.

The UK’s equivalent debt-to-GDP ratio is ‘just’ 80%.

But how much is Greece’s debt worth?

We know it must be worth less than €320bn, given that there is, let’s say, considerable doubt over whether it can be repaid in full.

If you lend me £100, you could probably price that debt to anyone who knows me at somewhere in the region of £99. I’d promise to pay it back, but there’s always a small chance I’d die, forget or run out of cash. Invariably debts tend to be sold on for less than the original lender thought they were worth, particularly where the debtor is considered a bad risk.

Indeed, once upon a time Greece’s debts were held by private banks who decided it was worth selling them at a significant discount to the ECB and euro-area central banks. Eurozone nation states were content with the deal because it protected the banks from their exposure to such a risky debtor.

Greece also owes money to the IMF (the most senior lender), to private investors, and to the European Financial Stability Facility (a special fund established to address the EU sovereign debt crisis).

The general consensus seems to be that Greece’s creditors are unlikely to be repaid in full. Given the risk of default, no doubt they are keen to establish how much the debt is currently worth. But to strike a workable deal, the challenges are myriad:

  • IMF rules prevent restructuring of debt.
  • EU rules prevent the ECB granting a voluntary haircut on Greece’s existing obligations – it would close the tap on any further funding.
  • Electorates across Europe would not tolerate a haircut in any case.
  • Quite apart from the cost to taxpayers, it would also be politically untenable to sell the debt on to other creditors at a discount, unless Greece had left the Eurozone – by this stage Greece would most likely have defaulted and its remaining debt would be worth even less.
  • If Greece is given special treatment, other PIGS nations (Portugal, Italy, Spain) would hope and argue for the same.
  • Private investors will not be inclined to write off any of their own debts unless the transnational creditors agree to absorb some losses first.

But make no mistake… while Greece may own £320bn, the debt is not worth that to its creditors. It’s worth considerably more than I could afford to pay for it, and considerably less than Greece can afford to repay.

So far, a deal to reduce Greece’s debt obligations looks untenable, despite the fact few people – least of all in the Greek government – seem to think it can meet those obligations. But unless such a deal is found, then default and Grexit looks increasingly likely.

Greece’s populist government, led by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his left-wing Syriza party, wants to stay in the eurozone. At the same time it wants to break free from some of the most onerous obligations imposed by its eurozone creditors. It seems unlikely it can do both. At some point it should clarify the options and put them to the people in a referendum.

In the birthplace of democracy, let the people decide how to proceed.