Ken Livingstone once again shows that he is a liability

When I rang the Leader of the House of Commons, Harriet Harman, on Friday afternoon to tell her that she was sharing an event with a man who has justified the killing of British troops in Iraq, she gasped and was briefly speechless.

Now, as the bad headlines grow, how Harriet and her Cabinet colleague Ed Miliband, who also graced the proceedings, must be regretting their decision to associate themselves with “Progressive London,” the re-election vehicle and fan club of ex-mayor Ken Livingstone, and its sometimes bizarre smorgasbord of “progressive” chums.

As I described yesterday, Azad Ali, the progressive in question, was suspended from his civil service job last year after praising Abdullah Azzam, the key mentor of Osama bin Laden. Azzam was, said Mr Ali, one of the “few Muslims who promote the understanding of the term jihad in its comprehensive glory” as both a doctrine of “self-purification” and of “warfare.”

Mr Ali then quoted Azzam’s son, approvingly, as saying: “If I saw an American or British man wearing a soldier’s uniform inside Iraq, I would kill him because that is my obligation… I respect this as the main instruction in my religion for jihad.”

Last week Mr Ali lost a libel action against a newspaper which reported his comments. The judge said that he “was indeed… taking the position that the killing of American and British troops in Iraq would be justified” and said his libel claim had an “absence of reality.”

Azad Ali – who also disputes the Mumbai attacks were acts of terrorism, and has called for a global Islamic dictatorship under sharia law, despite taking a handy salary from the British government – was not the only person on show yesterday for whom the label “progressive” is misplaced.

Although the majority of those speaking were genuine progressives, democratic socialists or social democrats, there was a fair sprinkling of speakers whose politics could fairly be described as anti-democratic, illiberal or straightforwardly totalitarian, and a number who advocate discrimination against women and gay people.

In that respect, as in so many others, it was a re-run of Ken’s mayoralty, which wooed bigots and reactionaries far too much for many progressives’ liking. As one prominent Left-wing blogger, who attended yesterday’s conference, put it, the event “invited a whole range of old, stale voices because they were Ken’s friends… The problem, many have said, is that Ken is too loyal to people who have become a liability.” We were spared Lee Jasper and Sir Ian Blair yesterday, but they were about the only two.

Ironically, as others on the Left have pointed out, it is Ken himself who blew the best opportunity for at least a generation to create a progressive, non-party coalition in London. Let us not forget that in 2000 he was elected to the mayoralty as an independent. Then in January 2004, at the height of public anger about Labour’s behaviour over Iraq, he rejoined the Labour Party, just as virtually else I know was leaving.

Now, as they contemplate the universally bad headlines from Ken’s event, even the Labour Party will be reminded of what the 2008 election should already have told them – Livingstone is a liability.

Harriet Harman, Ed Miliband, Ken Livingstone and the man who justified killing British troops

From my story in the print edition of today’s paper:

Two members of the Cabinet are to speak at the same event as a leading Muslim radical who has justified the killing of British soldiers in Iraq, praised a spiritual leader of al-Qaeda, and denied the Mumbai attacks were “terrorism.”

Azad Ali will speak at today’s “Progressive London” conference organised by Ken Livingstone, former mayor of London, alongside Harriet Harman, the leader of the House of Commons and Ed Miliband, the energy and climate change secretary. 

Mr Ali, a civil servant for the Treasury, was suspended from his job last year after praising Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden’s key mentor. Writing on his blog, he described Azzam as one of the “few Muslims who promote the understanding of the term jihad in its comprehensive glory” as both a doctrine of “self-purification” and of “warfare.”

He quoted Azzam’s son, approvingly, as saying: “If I saw an American or British man wearing a soldier’s uniform inside Iraq, I would kill him because that is my obligation… I respect this as the main instruction in my religion for jihad.” Mr Ali said: “There are some Muslims who go out of their way to deny the full meaning and understanding of the term jihad.”

He added: “Self-censorship has taken many Muslims to the point where you can almost feel the contempt they have for jihad. We have had campaign after campaign that tells people Islam is peace… What peace does a man have when he is oppressed?”

Earlier this week Mr Ali lost a libel action against a newspaper which reported his comments. Ruling against him, the judge, Mr Justice Eady, said that Ali “was indeed… taking the position that the killing of American and British troops in Iraq would be justified.”  

Mr Ali has now been reinstated to his Whitehall job despite calling for the replacement of British-style democratic government with a “caliphate,” or Islamic superstate. His speaking at the conference also appears to breach the civil service code on impartiality. The event’s official purpose is given as being to “stop the Right in 2010,” and Mr Ali will be speaking at a session which attacks the Government’s “imperialism.” 

Spokesmen for the ministers said they would not be sharing a platform with Mr Ali and pointed out that who the organisers invited was “a matter for them.” Mr Ali did not return calls.

Iraq dossier: Tony Blair rewrites history

One of the consistent claims of Tony Blair, and other government witnesses, to Sir John Chilcot has been that the famous Iraq dossier was a non-event – and so cannot have been the great deception that is alleged (by me, among many others).

Today Mr Blair said: “The thing that strikes me most was how the dossier was received… as somewhat dull and cautious at the time [of publication]… It has taken on a far greater significance than it ever did at the time.”

Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff said the dossier was “not such a big deal” and was seen at the time as a “damp squib”. Jack Straw said it was “treated as really rather prosaic and telling people what they knew”. Alastair Campbell, of course, said nobody would ever have remembered it without the allegations I made afterwards.

Worryingly, Chilcot appears to be buying this. He said to Powell that with the exception of the famous “45 Minutes From Attack” splash in that day’s Evening Standard “it was seen as a dull document and had little impact”.

Chilcot must not fall for this rewriting of history. Parliament has only been recalled three times in the last ten years – for 9/11, the death of the Queen Mother, and to launch the dossier. In the seven and a half years since the dossier there has been no further recall of Parliament.

In his evidence Jack Straw claimed to quote my own first reaction to it, about an hour after it was published, on that morning’s Today programme, saying that I said it was “dull”. Alas, Mr Straw’s representation of what I said about the dossier is as faulty as his representation of what the intelligence services said about Iraqi WMD.

Although I did say that the majority of the document was “cautious and measured in tone,” which it was, I said the document included a number of “spicy angles” and “lines designed to make headlines for the tabloids”. And the ones I picked out were the 45-minute claim, and the claim that Saddam had continued to make progress with his WMD – both of which, we now learn, should never have been published.

The dossier was our lead item on the Today programme that morning, and went on to be a huge event which dominated the print and broadcast media for days. A simple Nexis database search shows that the following day’s national newspapers carried more than 100 separate stories mentioning weapons of mass destruction.

Thirty-nine stories mentioned the dossier’s most notorious element, the 45-minute claim. Most newspapers mentioned it in their front-page splashes and many in their headlines.

Those headlines included:

“Mad Saddam Set To Attack – 45 Minutes From A Chemical War” (Star)

“Why Saddam Must Be Stopped… Dossier Reveals Iraq Can Attack in 45 Minutes” (Telegraph)

“Missiles Fire In 45 Minutes” (Times)

“Brits 45 Minutes From Doom” (Sun)

“‘Saddam Has Plans For Chemical And Biological Weapons That Could Be Activated In 45 Minutes'” (Times, headline on edited transcript of Blair speech)

“Straw Tells MPs that Weapons Could Be Activated In 45 Minutes” (Times)

“Saddam ‘Could Have Nuclear Bomb In Year'” (Times)

“He’s Got ‘Em – Let’s Get Him” (Sun)

Not all that dull, cautious, and lacking in impact, then!

Tony Blair at the inquiry: important admissions

Watch Tony Blair live at the Iraq Inquiry
Watch Tony Blair live at the Iraq Inquiry Photo: Reuters

Tony Blair often seemed keener to talk about Iran, or Afghanistan, or Libya, or almost anywhere other than Iraq this morning. But he did make some potentially important admissions.

He appeared to concede that the threat from Iraq had not changed in 2001/ 2 – only that his “perception” of that threat had changed, in the light of 9/11. This raises two difficulties.

First, of course, Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 and no links with al-Qaeda; Mr Blair was forced into a series of hypotheticals – if Saddam had passed WMDs to terrorists, and so on? As one of the Chilcot panel, Sir Roderic Lyne, reminded him: “But it’s these ifs, isn’t it?”

Second, more importantly, it directly contradicts Mr Blair’s key claim to Parliament before the war, where he insisted that the Iraq threat – the actual threat, not just the perception – was “growing.”

Asked by Sir Roderic: “Was the intelligence telling you it was growing?” Mr Blair referred to a Joint Intelligence Committee assessment saying not that the threat was growing, but that it was “continuing.” His second piece of evidence of a “growing” threat was the alleged mobile biological weapons labs. But as the JIC assessment (quoted in full in Annex B of the Butler Report) says, this programme had been there since 1995.

It wasn’t the only time Mr Blair appeared to misrepresent intelligence. Asked for the intelligence to justify another dubious claim, that the “assessed intelligence” had established Saddam’s WMD “beyond doubt,” he cited a 15 March 2002 JIC assessment that said it was “clear.” In fact, as far as I can see, the word “clear” does not appear in the JIC assessment of that date.

Mr Blair was also taxed about his claim to Parliament, on 16 July 2002, that Britain was not planning for possible military action. By that point Britain had, in fact, been planning for possible military action for at least two months. He appeared to concede that he had misled MPs, saying: “In retrospect it’s maybe better just to say it.”

Mr Blair’s “sexing up” of the intelligence to make the case for war was, of course, a claim first made by me in May 2003. His answers today won’t have helped his case that he acted properly.

Tony Blair's key wriggle on Iraq – watch out for it

blairinquiry

I think we can all agree that Tony Blair, who takes the stage in the Iraq inquiry about now, is unlikely to collapse, sobbing, on the witness table, begging for the nation’s forgiveness. But he will, nonetheless, have to do more today than he has done before.

Self-serving as the testimony of many government witnesses has been, it still shows the serious reservations they held at the time. The spectacle of so many of them, saying the same sorts of things, on the record, on television and over a relatively short period has piled great pressure on Blair. His usual lines that he acted in “good faith” and did the “right thing” will not be enough today.

The central charge against Blair is simple: that the decision to go to war was the beginning, not the end, of the process; that an agreement was made early, and secretly, with President Bush, despite the lack of a legal basis, factual justification and military planning – all three of which were later twisted to fit the decision already taken.

Blair, a skilled performer, will probably concede some error – on peripheral points. He will try to acknowledge the anger that people still feel. But he is unlikely to give ground on anything important. Perhaps his most important defence, against the most resonant charge – that he lied about Iraqi WMD – will be as follows.

He will say, correctly, that everyone – including countries which opposed the war – believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. And indeed, everyone did believe it – it was a perfectly logical inference to draw from Saddam’s behaviour, even if the evidence was weak. The Russians believed it. The French believed it. David Kelly believed it. I believed it.

But that is not the argument Blair made at the time. Everybody had assumed the existence of Saddam’s WMD for the previous 15 years, and it had never previously been seen as a justification for war. So the argument Blair made was that those WMD were a “growing” threat, a threat so “current and serious” that a war was needed to stop them. That, we can now definitely say, was false. There was no intelligence at all that the threat was growing, or that Saddam was in any way a danger to anyone, other than his own people.

It’s a very important distinction, too often missed. Let’s hope Team Chilcot gets it today. I’ll be blogging as the inquiry continues.

Watch Tony Blair live at the Iraq Inquiry and share your view with our interactive ‘credibility meter

BNP man barred from council ceremony – Labour says he was drunk, he denies it

Bob Bailey, the BNP’s London organiser and leader of the opposition on Barking council, was turned away last night from a ceremony conferring the freedom of the borough on the footballer Sir Trevor Brooking and the Royal Anglian Regiment. He had been due to speak at the event.

That much is common ground – but the reasons are heavily contested. The council’s ruling Labour group has issued a press release claiming that at the reception preceding the ceremony, Cllr Bailey was “worse for wear” and “under the influence.”

The deputy leader of the council, Robert Little, who was at the event, claimed Cllr Bailey was “clearly under the influence of alcohol and was in no fit state to deliver any speech. In all my time as a councillor I have never seen anyone behave in such a way,” he said. “It was embarrassing.”

Cllr Bailey himself, contacted today, flatly denied that he had been drinking and said the claims about his behaviour were “total rubbish.” He told me: “You know the BNP are against the war in Afghanistan and I was barred from attending the event because they were worried I would say something against the war.”

Richard Barnbrook, the BNP’s London leader and another Barking councillor, also present for part of the event, said: “Somebody mentioned it to me when [Bob] was leaving, saying he seemed to be a little bit drunk, but in my presence he seemed perfectly fine.”

Whatever the truth of the matter, it’s the first skirmish in what is likely to be a very tough struggle between the BNP and Labour at the forthcoming council elections in May. Though media attention in Barking will focus on the parliamentary battle between BNP leader Nick Griffin and Labour’s Margaret Hodge, the real contest may be for the council. Last time, had the BNP put up candidates in every ward, it would probably have taken control of the council. Labour is fighting back, but it knows that still remains a possibility.

Islamist hardliners lose another libel action

One of the key tactics Islamist hardliners use to suppress reporting of their activities is to hassle those who write about them with libel actions, Press Complaints Commission complaints, and so on. Thankfully, there is growing evidence that this tactic is failing.

Today, in a very significant judgment, a man named Azad Ali lost his High Court libel case against an article in the Mail on Sunday which described how he had been suspended from his job as a Treasury civil servant after writing a highly controversial post on his blog.

As I put it in my own story for my then newspaper, the Evening Standard, Ali praised a spiritual leader of al Qaeda, Abdullah Azzam, denied the Mumbai attacks were “terrorism” and quoted, apparently approvingly, a statement advocating the killing of British troops in Iraq.

He criticised those Muslims who “tell people that Islam is a religion of peace”. He described non-Muslims as “sinners” and said Muslims should “hate [non-Muslims’] disbelieving actions”.

In his ruling today, Mr Justice Eady said: “I would hold that [Ali]  was indeed, in November 2008 and for so long as the blog remained available, taking the position that the killing of American and British troops in Iraq (whether before or after the 2005 elections) would be justified…In those circumstances, the claim can be categorised legitimately as ‘bound to fail’ and as having about it an ‘absence of reality’.”

Interestingly, I and the Standard never received any complaint from Ali about my piece, nor were we ever threatened with litigation.

This is the second time in two months that Islamist hardliners have suffered a serious reverse in court. In November, the think-tank Policy Exchange won its long-running legal battle with the North London Central Mosque which alleged extremist influence there.

For the first time in a long while, something appears to be going right in the libel courts.

First Capital Connect and Tube Lines: the meltdown continues

It’s turning into a bad month for the private companies which pick our pockets and strangle our railways. Last week, the well-publicised travails of Britain’s worst company, First Group, led the Government to warn that it might strip them of their Thameslink (aka “First Capital Connect”) franchise.

After I wrote my weekly newspaper column about Last Group, my inbox filled up with tales of woe about Worst’s wretched train (and especially bus) services. I also highly recommend the amusing firstcrapitalconnect parody website (“This train has been cancelled. This is due to no decent management being available.”)

And I loved the First manager in the Herts Advertiser who admitted: “Many feel we are totally incompetent.” News on a par with the religion of the Pope and the sanitary habits of bears in woods – but nice to hear it from the horse’s mouth!

This morning, it’s the turn of Tube Lines, the sole remaining child of the disastrous PPP. TL has received a thorough kicking from an independent arbiter appointed to rule on its claim that the public purse should pay it yet more money for its incompetence in delaying the Jubilee Line upgrade. “Labyrinthine, artifical, and unconvincing,” he called Tube Lines’ case.

Here are some more quotes from the arbiter that didn’t make it into our report:

“In the 6 files of documents provided by Tube Lines on this subject … there is not one letter from Tube Lines that supports the complaints now made.”

“There is an air of unreality about the complaints Tube Lines now makes.”

“What [Tube Lines] now submits is markedly different from that which occurred
contemporaneously…Tube Lines’ case… appears to have been fashioned with the benefit of hindsight.”

Oh dear. Boris, as I’ve reported before, is quite rightly trying to get rid of Tube Lines. One-nil to him, I think.

Council Pravdas under yet more attack. Bring it on!

It’s always flattering to hear your words used in Parliament. Andy Slaughter, the Labour MP for Ealing, Acton and Shepherds Bush, quoted a big chunk of this blog (with acknowledgement) in his contribution to last week’s Commons debate on “council Pravdas” – free propaganda papers, either weekly or fortnightly, produced at great public expense by local authorities and delivered to all homes.

Complete with TV listings, restaurant reviews, gardening columns and sport, among much other non-council-related content, their aim is to destroy the independent local press, thus ensuring that the only news you read about your local council is written by your local council. It is one of the most blatant democratic abuses I can think of.

Slaughter is facing a serious challenge to his seat from the Tories in May’s election, and believes – I think rightly – that his local Tory council, Hammersmith and Fulham, is using its fortnightly propaganda rag, H&F News, and its advertising budget, to dent his chances. As he says:

“There are magazines, newsletters, banners in the streets, poster vans driven around the borough, whole tube stations kitted out with advertisements, and online material, all advertising the Conservative party, in effect, in all but name.” Slaughter’s own name is, he says, “prohibited from appearing in H&F News,” while his Tory opponent “gets half a page to himself.”

The MP who opened the debate, Sutton’s Paul Burstow, also borrowed, by the looks of it, large parts of a piece I wrote for my old newspaper, the Standard. All credit to Slaughter, Burstow and the others who spoke for highlighting this. And all credit to the independent local press for starting to fight back.

Earlier this month I wrote how H&F News’ independent rival, the Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle, was itself going free to take the Pravda on. Yesterday at the Oxford Media Convention the Chronicle’s ultimate boss, Trinity Mirror chief executive Sly Bailey, launched her own blitz on the “propaganda dressed up as journalism” of the council sheets.

And this week, in my own borough, Greenwich, one of the local independent papers, the News Shopper, has launched a big campaign against our own (Labour-controlled) Inner-City Isvestiya, Greenwich Time. As the front page (click over the ad-page to see) proclaims, “time’s up.” Geddit? Inside, everyone you can think of, Labour MPs included, lines up to slag off the council’s ludicrous parody of journalism.

 Time may not be up for the Pravda press, but it’s definitely running out.

Lee Jasper: last post for a while, but a good 'un

I seem to have written rather a lot about Lee Jasper in the last few weeks – sorry – but the following historic event cannot go unrecorded. Tomorrow, at the Friends Meeting House in Euston, Ken Livingstone’s former race adviser will be appearing alongside a woman named Karen Chouhan. For the first time in public, Londoners will be able to re-live The Relationship Which Sunk A Mayoralty.

Until 4 March 2008, as far as the world knew, Mrs Chouhan was just a salt-of-the-earth diversity outreach consultant and professional “visionary” (as she described herself on her Companies House records). And if her companies did seem to receive an awful lot of money from City Hall, while not doing terribly much in return, that was surely just a tribute to her skills at cross-sector stakeholder engagement?

But on that fateful day, thanks to the year’s most embarrassing set of leaked emails, we learned that at the same time as Mr Jasper was signing the City Hall cheques to Mrs Chouhan’s companies, he was also proposing to “honey glaze” Mrs Chouhan, “whisk [her] away to a deserted island beach” and “let [her] cook slowly before a torrid and passionate embrace.”

She wasn’t Mrs Chouhan in those messages either – she was his “darling,” his “gorgeous, wonderful, sexy Kazzi,” – and he was the “General.”  Mr Jasper didn’t declare this relationship, as City Hall rules required. Within four hours of the emails’ publication, he was unemployed, and Ken’s campaign to keep his own job was holed below the waterline, too.

I don’t mention this just to mock – though the temptation is irresistible – but because of the sheer brazenness of the people involved. Tomorrow is another part of Jasper’s renewed bid to make a comeback in public life. The Chouhan incident should remind us all why that is not a good idea.

PS: The event’s hosted by Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote – Jasper’s representative on earth, defender of the great man in various radio and TV studios and himself a former director of two of the Jasper crony organisations, including one of Chouhan’s. Amazingly, Woolley has recently been made a £500-a-day commissioner of the government’s Equality and Human Rights Commission. I know the EHRC has suffered a lot of resignations recently, but really…