Alex Stevenson's Rules of the game blog

It's that man again: Blair wants ground troops sent into Iraq

Tony Blair is calling for "boots on the ground" in the fight against an enemy he judges to be a threat to western security in Iraq. It sounds familiar - but this time the former prime minister might have a point.

One thing is for certain: Blair is incorrigible. He used his evidence sessions at the Iraq inquiry to call for the west to go in all guns blazing against Syria. He has consistently argued that the best way to confront radical Islam is to batter it into submission through force. Now, seven years after leaving Downing Street, he thinks he has a right to be listened to as he outlines a fresh case for sending western soldiers into the Middle East.

"Maybe it's worth appreciating the fact that there are lessons I have learnt from the experience of having gone through the process of taking these decisions, of having to deal with the situation in Iraq where, as I say, precisely the same type of terrorist forces we were facing in Iraq in 2006-07 is exactly what we face now in 2014."

These comments come in a BBC interview promoting a 'long-read' article on his Faith Foundation website, in which he lays claim to a pamphleteering kind of wisdom. Even its broadbrush title, The Way Ahead, is something which Tom Paine or Lenin could have come up with. The message is that the threat from Islamic extremism is a kind of world war for the 21st century. "I became convinced whilst PM that this was the issue of our time," Blair writes. "I am even more convinced now."

The Islamic State seems to be making Blair's case for him. "A group like Isis, they are brutal, they kill without mercy and they're prepared to die without regret," Blair says. "That makes them a fanatical force." Never mind that they have taken advantage of the weak political situation in Iraq, a country left bruised and vulnerable to exactly this kind of insidious takeover because of the 2003 invasion of Iraq which Blair masterminded. Cause and effect seem important to him, but he refuses to acknowledge the extent of his own culpability for the region's present instability. Blair claims kudos for having been there and done that. Yet he shies away from accepting any kind of responsibility.

He shouldn't need to. We need to get over his role in the past. It is history, and the counterfactuals are now so hard to calculate that they effectively become irrelevant. Whatever got the world into this situation - of having an entire political quasi-state that make the Taliban look as mild and meek as Mary's little lamb - we are here now and this threat needs dealing with. There isn't much subtlety about destroying a state by force. When it needs to be done, though, Blair is rather good at knowing what works.

"You can harry and hem them in, but in the end you're also going to have to have [use] force capability on the ground," he says simply. "I'm not saying we in the west need to do this. It would be better if it were done by those people closer to the ground who have the most immediate and direct interest in fighting them. But I don't think in all circumstances we should rule it out and after all we do have the force capability to do this."

Blair is ahead of the world leaders on this. Unencumbered by the need to present a semblance of legality to the attacks on Isis, he has made his view on ground troops clear when the politicians have barely reached consensus on airstrikes. Britain is expected to join America and France in authorising the targeting of Isis targets later this week. This is itself a big turnaround. It's not so long since, on September 11th, foreign secretary Philip Hammond regrettably stated that Britain would not be sending in its Typhoons. No 10 hastily reversed that statement, saying it didn't rule anything out. David Cameron will complete the U-turn later this week. There is even talk of parliament being recalled on Thursday to authorise the military action.

Blair wants more. "My point is very simple: all of our experience teaches us that unless you're prepared to fight these people on the ground, you may contain them but you won't defeat them," he insists.

Last week, American generals seemed to indicate they liked the idea, too. US Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told a Congressional panel that ground troops should be deployed if the present strategy of airstrikes and logistical support doesn't shift Isis from Iraq's most important assets.

He and Blair are on the same page. Dempsey, clarifying his position, said that he would recommend sending some of the 1,600-odd American military 'advisers' already in Iraq "on attacks against specific targets" the moment he thought doing so would be useful. This is the first tentative step on the road to military conflict on the ground; it's what JFK was up to against the Viet Cong, and look how that turned out. Blair makes the same distinction. "No one is wanting to see armies back in there, occupying territories," he says. "It's not necessary and probably not wise to do that. But there may be situations - there's already enormous help being given to those on the ground by intelligence, military training, through helping arm and support them in all sorts of different ways. I think as policy evolves there may be a role for some armed force capability."

Dempsey's comments didn't go down too well. While defense secretary Chuck Hagel was also interested in the idea of ground troops, the White House shied away from the idea. Obama repeated his promise not to send in the troops. But he did offer this lofty piece of rhetoric as an addendum: "When the world is threatened, when the world needs help, it calls on America. And we call on our troops."

Perhaps this is what motivated Blair to make his own call for action. Despite the man's toxic brand - and there really is no-one quite as tainted as Blair engaged in the current debate - when it comes down to it Isis does need confronting and destroying. It cannot be allowed to continue. Blair, the armchair general, has a more legitimate voice in 2014 than Blair the statesman. However sickening it may be to admit it, he's got a point.

English home rule: Cameron U-turn leaves Miliband exposed

Sometimes U-turns are well worth it. The prime minister has dropped his insistence on linking Scotland's package of post-referendum devolution to comparable changes in England. On paper it should be a humiliating move. Right now, it looks like a masterstroke.

David Cameron couldn't have been any clearer. On Friday he made clear that he wanted the separate-but-related issue of stopping Scottish MPs voting on English-only issues could only go ahead if it took place "in tandem with, and at the same pace, as the settlement for Scotland".

It seemed understandable enough. A poll for the Mail on Sunday yesterday made clear that middle England backed him. So did disgruntled Tory backbenchers and even several senior Cabinet ministers, who made clear they were determined to get something out of this redistribution of power. With the whole of Tory England behind him, Cameron looked set to continue the standoff indefinitely.

But the whole thing stank. It looked like a cynical attempt to deny Ed Miliband his cohort of around 40 Scottish MPs which might just make a decisive difference after the general election. This was blatant political opportunism. The reporting of many of the national newspapers, which have sought to place all the pressure on Miliband for going on the defensive rather than Cameron for going on the offensive, was among their most egregious of recent years.

It looked like the kind of standoff that could, in a worst-case scenario, end up in the collapse of the Westminster leaders' pledge to Scottish voters. Such an outcome would be disastrous for our democracy, and probably lead to Scottish independence within the decade. What Cameron needed to do was find a way out that allowed him to keep the moral high ground, while piling maximum pressure on Miliband.

He has found it. A No 10 source has told the Times the Scottish package "will happen, come what may, no ifs, no buts - it is not conditional on anything". Tory MPs, who met with Cameron at Chequers yesterday and will do so again today, are to be placated with the promise of a separate vote on English devolution before the general election. The two processes are not so much proceeding "in tandem" as on two bikes travelling next to each other. Just because one crashes into a ditch no longer means the other goes with it.

This is clever stuff. It has the added bonus of utterly derailing Miliband's pre-election party conference, which has been bounced off the top of the news agenda by this ongoing constitutional crisis.

The Tories are retreating to the same old tactic they're using on another issue which has something to do with a referendum. Bob Neill's private member's bill on the EU referendum is designed to be a win-win scenario for the Conservatives. Either they guarantee the in-out poll in law, or they get to force Labour's hand by obliging the opposition to come out and block it.

Exactly the same will happen when the vote on English devolution comes before the Commons. Cameron's cynicism has proved short-lived; by thinking again he largely exonerates himself from the shameless jockeying for partisan advantage. Instead that charge now falls exclusively on Miliband's head. The leader of the opposition is only holding up English devolution because of fear that doing so will hand the Tories a permanent, in-built advantage.

Perhaps he needs to consider stepping back from the brink, too. Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, is already pressuring his party leader to learn to let go.

He told the Guardian:

"We have to sound confident that we can win a majority in England, and are not going to rely on a Scottish bloc to get us over the line. We are right to be confident – we won a majority of seats in England in 1997, 2001 and 2005. Historically Labour has won without Scotland, and can do so again. This debate shall ensure we redouble our efforts to take the fight to middle England seats."

Miliband is probably falling into the partisan-minded trap that governs all calculations about constitutional change. Whether on party funding, or Lords reform, or the alternative vote (remember that?) Labour has always been guided by its private assessment of the potential risks or benefits of any alteration to the rules of the game.

He needs to realise that this time it's different. The Scottish independence referendum has changed Britain, not just Scotland. It is heralding the biggest power shift in the way Britain runs itself in many, many decades. Those who set themselves up as enemies of it become anti-democratic, and will be pilloried accordingly.

Lansley lifts lid on Speaker's Commons stitch-up

Andrew Lansley is not the kind of man to be indiscreet lightly - which makes his revelations about Speaker John Bercow's behind-closed-doors conduct all the more shocking.

The former leader of the House was a member of the House of Commons Commission which recommended Australian Carol Mills should replace the retiring Robert Rogers. Now he has declared the Commission's process "ill-founded" - and pointed the finger at the Speaker for ruining it.

Mills' attempted appointment has been a disaster for Bercow. Nobody in Westminster knows much about the secretary of the Australian department of parliamentary services. Whatever her merits may be - and as MPs haven't even seen her CV, we don't know what these are - she most certainly doesn't know enough about the extraordinarily complex set of rules and traditions that make up the clerk of the Commons' life.

Over the summer MPs lined up against Bercow and his favoured candidate. By the time parliament returned from its long summer recess there were over 50 signatures on an early day motion demanding a change of heart. The Speaker had little choice but to stick on the brakes. So he resumed the Commons' sittings with a brief statement pausing the appointment process in a bid to secure consensus.

Now Bercow's credibility is being damaged even more. MPs used backbench business time yesterday to table a motion calling for a select committee to be established to sort the matter out. The usual suspects were out in force. So, too, was Lansley.

This was a man, let's not forget, who has been in frontbench politics for many, many years. He was leader of the House until being barged out of office by William Hague in this year's reshuffle. Lansley is a politician who, as he's demonstrated on Thursday mornings, is extremely capable of maintaining the party line.

All of which made his revelations, breaking the conventions of privacy which dominate the atmosphere in the Commons, so significant. Lansley has revealed that Bercow attempted to change the particulars of the job description, in an apparent bid to pave the way for his preferred candidate. In 2011, when Rogers was appointed, it was made clear the clerk should have "detailed knowledge of the procedures and practices of this House". Lansley explained:

"Mr Speaker sought to replace 'detailed knowledge' with 'awareness'. By way of compromise, the word 'detailed' was left out. But the selection panel was not therefore asked to subject candidates to the same test as in 2011. The process for appointment was, therefore, ill-founded, and any internal candidate with the procedural and practical knowledge but less opportunity to be a chief executive of a large organisation was at a disadvantage."

It's not enough, in Lansley's view, for the process to be paused. He wants it scrapped completely. This is a damning indictment of the Speaker, a man who Lansley was obliged to work closely with throughout his time leading the Commons.

"Andrew Lansley's revelation makes clear that there are still significant questions to be asked," says Jesse Norman, the Conservative backbencher who led yesterday's debate. These questions, in his view, are "not merely about the qualifications of Ms Carol Mills, but also about the process by which she was selected".

He is right. There is the bald fact of Bercow attempted to change the job description. And then there is the way in which the panel came to agreement. The Speaker has repeatedly talked of the consensus with which his panel operated. But it is now clear, from Lansley's revelations, that the panel was not unanimous in its recommendation of Carol Mills.

Another of its members, the shadow leader of the House Angela Eagle, appeared keen in yesterday's debate to muddy the waters on exactly this point. David Heath, the Liberal Democrat MP and former deputy leader of the Commons, quizzed her as he sought to "understand the precise process".

Heath asked: "Did the panel agree before the interview process the job description it judged against, or was that presented as a fait accompli?"

Eagle replied: "My memory is that we agreed it. It is important that I do not go into too much detail on the floor of the House, and essentially in public, about what happened in a process that resulted in agreement. As I have said, I am happy that the process was open and fair, and that it came to a conclusion by consensus."

A 'consensus' with which Lansley, then the leader of the Commons, disagreed vehemently does not sound like much of a consensus at all.

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