Cosy chats and posturing

sousse-imageCould the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) have done more to prevent the murders of 30 Britons in Tunisia last year?

In June 2015 the Britons and eight other foreign nationals were murdered when Seifeddine Rezgui attacked a beachfront hotel in Sousse, Tunisia. The attack, later claimed by Daesh, came just three months after 22 people, mostly European tourists, were killed by gunmen in the Bardo National Museum, in Tunisia’s capital, Tunis.

At the pre-inquest hearing in the High Court today, the counsel for the families, Andrew Ritchie QC said “there is a line of thinking within some of the families that the FCO may have failed in their responsibilities to the 60,000 British citizens that went out per month to Tunisia between Bardo and Sousse”. Bearing in mind the main inquest is not due to start until January 2017 and today was meant just to run a procedural finger over the administration, it was an unexpectedly strong opening salvo.

Three weeks ago Judge Akremi, the Tunisian investigator, released his report into the Sousse attack of 26 June. His Honour Judge Loraine-Smith, chair of the Inquiry, said he had seen early parts of the translation and it was “illuminating [and] there’s the possibility of damage to national security by full release on what little I’ve seen”.  Andrew O’Connor QC, counsel for the Government explained: “The detailed consideration of security measures in Tunisia, including the shortcomings of some of those measures, would undoubtedly assist those planning further attacks.”

Mr Ritchie hadn’t finished with the Foreign Office. He said there was concern over the FCO’s “practice of cosy chats with the travel companies” who were more interested in their ability “to run a profitable business”, regardless of FCO advice that there was “a high risk of terrorist activity, including in tourist areas”.

In an inflammatory passage he hinted that the FCO had acted to protect tour operators like Thomas Cook and Thompson. The no-refund policy whereby bookings can only be cancelled and refunded if the FCO has recommended a travel ban to the destination was central to it all, he suggested. He noted that after the March attack there was no evidence of existing bookings being cancelled, perhaps due to the no-refund policy. Instead of recommending a travel embargo after the Bardo attack in March, Mr Ritchie said the FCO had “had discussions with local authorities who said, ‘This will be catastrophic to us if you embargo’, and [holiday companies] said, ‘Don’t do it. We will increase security’”. Unsurprisingly all such suggestions were dismissed by Andrew O’Connor for the government.

A lot of this was posturing for the main inquest. The counsel for the families wants the Inquiry to determine whether or not the British Government breached Article 2 of the Human Rights Act – the right to life – through the advice, or lack of it, from the FCO. He wants to introduce evidence from a security expert who works in an “anti-terrorist Western organisation” who might criticise the FCO by concluding “they mucked it up”.

The next pre-inquest hearing is set for December 1st and will specifically address whether the issue of Article 2 of the Human Rights Act is within the scope of the Inquiry. If the Chairman determines it is, and if he later decides the Government was culpable through the FCO’s advice (or lack of it), the compensation claims will run into many millions.

Westland – 30 years of lessons

  • Heseltine image“Westland needs more Government interference in its affairs like it needs a hole in the head.” Paddy Ashdown never minced his words, as this example from a letter he sent to the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on January 3rd 1985 attests. It was the start of the Westland affair of 1985-86 and Government documents recently released under the 30-year rule and available in the national archives have shone a fascinating light on the crisis, which still echoes today.

The rumpus concerned the future of Britain’s last remaining helicopter manufacturer, which was in deep financial trouble and subject to takeover bids by two consortia: one American, the other European-led. It eventually claimed the scalps of two Cabinet Ministers and Mrs Thatcher genuinely feared for her premiership at the time.

In reality the affair was a smokescreen for the first serious challenge to her premiership. Michael Heseltine (pictured), the then Defence Secretary, had picked the fight but eventually resigned after storming out of a Cabinet meeting on January 9th 1986. He favoured a European bail-out of the company, fearing an American partnership would “mean the transfer of technological secrets and research capability to the US, leaving Westland as a mere metal basher”.

The problem for Heseltine though, was that the American bid by Sikorsky was “much more attractive than the rickety, non-cohesive European consortium of loss-makers” as an article in The Times on Saturday January 4th 1986 put it (under the provocative headline ‘Bovver boy’s hover ploy’).

The central issue, which has dogged military and political bigwigs since the second world war (and continues to do so today) was neatly summed up in a parliamentary question by Austin Mitchell, MP for Great Grimsby, to Mrs Thatcher on January 13th  1986: “What is the policy of Her Majesty’s Government towards dependence on supplies of arms and war material from the United States? Replace ‘the United States’ with ‘any country outside the UK’ and you get the nub of the problem.

The thorny question of defence sovereignty is a hardy perennial that has entangled many a politician. What value should a nation place on strategic independence? Should a country aim for self-sufficiency, so that it is not dependent on fair relations with international partners in the event of war? It’s a poor strategy to build fighter planes if the wings come from a potential adversary. But is it prohibitively expensive to maintain a domestic defence industry, especially if you want the most advanced equipment? (And, believe me, it’s no fun stepping into the two-way rifle range with kit made by the lowest bidder.)

A COTS strategy (Commercial Off The Shelf) may be cheaper, as you can just browse a military version of the Argos catalogue and not have to invest in all the pesky and expensive research and development costs. But it is unlikely a country offering a COTS option will be selling the top-notch stuff, which they will keep for themselves (you wouldn’t give potential enemies such an easy ride). So, you buy in the sure knowledge that even the eye-wateringly expensive kit you have just bought is second-rate.

And what of the political considerations of the wider industrial and employment factors? Jobs equals votes; so a national defence industry is attractive to politicians, even if the military top brass don’t get the best available kit on the international market. The political tempo focuses on the short-term with elections every five years (which leans towards supporting local businesses), whereas the defence procurement tempo is generally long-term (which needs investment over many years; an unappetising prospect for the Treasury). But, as Ron Smith, Professor of Applied Economics at Birkbeck University of London, says, once the defence budget falls below 5% of GDP there is unlikely to be a macro economic effect for the country anyway.

At one extreme is the position Jeremy Corbyn recently espoused for the replacement of Trident, Britain’s fleet of four nuclear-armed submarines. He suggested we should build the subs but not arm them. This would effectively turn that slice of the defence budget into a form of welfare: pointless subs but lots of jobs in Barrow-in-Furness, a sort of Keynesian approach to defence procurement. (I visited Barrow-in-Furness once to see the construction of the next generation of hunter-killer subs by one of the last great domestic defence manufacturers the UK has. I took the lift to the fourth floor in the construction hangar and when the doors opened I was still only level with the base of HMS Ambush’s conning tower – these things are BIG!)

When it comes to defence procurement then, it’s difficult unequivocally to identify the national self-interest. In 1986 Westland found itself in the middle of these competing issues. “Ministers {Heseltine and Brittan} should be put back in the Cabinet and the lid firmly shut,” thundered Paddy Ashdown, “instead of winding [Westland’s] arms half way up their backs with threats.”

Ron Smith warns against the ‘Winner’s Curse’, whereby a company wins a contract with a low bid but then has to deliver the goods on budget, and the ‘conspiracy of optimism’ whereby the government really wants to believe they can. One way to avoid it is to remain close, very close, to an ally that will give you preferential access to state of the art kit.

And that seems to be what the UK has done with the US. On the first day of the 2016 Farnborough International Air Show on July 11th, the government signed two key deals with the US worth about $6 billion. Nine P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine warfare aircraft and 50 AH-64E Apache helicopters will be bought direct from the US manufacturer Boeing. Westland – now, through various take-overs, called Leonardo – won’t see a penny. It is effectively a COTS purchase, but for the top-notch stuff rather than just a good deal on last year’s ski gear.

A former military helicopter pilot who was intimately involved in the programme to buy the first Apaches for the UK – the AH-64D model ten years ago – is glad Westland/Leonardo didn’t get the upgrade contract. He told me Westland was never good value for money and their service poor. He regularly had to speak directly to Boeing or Lockheed Martin over issues with weapons and radar and felt Westland concentrated mainly on their relationship with the UK government, rather than actually making the thing work.

Lewis Page was equally scathing. In his book Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs he railed against the value to Britain of allowing Westland to have the AH-64D contract. He took the 34,000 man-years of work delivered to the British population and assumed a human working life of 45 years. By that calculation he reckons 755 people were saved from the dole. “We could have bought the helos direct from Boeing,” he says, “then simply given 755 jobless people a million pounds each…and still saved ourselves a billion.” So, not a fan then.

The P-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft were bought to fill the capability gap created when the MoD scrapped the Nimrod MRA4 programme after the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review. This was judged a bold decision at the time and suggested a more realistic, breath-of-fresh-air attitude to military procurement could be expected from David Cameron’s government.

Put simplistically, anti-submarine warfare involves being able to see stuff under the water. It was the perfect capability to use in the search for the missing Malaysian aircraft MH370 that disappeared in the Southern Ocean in 2014 (and brilliantly reported by an underpaid hack at The Economist here). I’m told Mr Cameron was outraged that the press footage of the airfield in Perth, Western Australia, where the international search effort was being coordinated, showed no aircraft with a union flag on the tail. He apparently had a sudden change of heart about how necessary such planes were and quite how ‘bold’ military procurement decisions should be in the future.

Things have moved on a bit since Paddy Ashdown warned Westland was being treated like a “political football”. Even if we set aside the idea that the whole spat was a leadership challenge from Michael Heseltine (who, like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, never believed the political maxim that he who wields the knife never wears the crown) the days of the UK affording a sovereign defence industry had already passed. Westland accepted the rescue bid from Sikorsky, briefly returned to profitability and was then sold to the Italian firm Agusta, later renamed Leonardo. It has survived and still picks up a bit of helicopter-related work, but the days of manufacturing, even under licence, seem over. A pyrrhic victory for Mr Heseltine perhaps?

By going direct to Boeing for the new Apaches and the P-8s, perhaps the government has signaled that it has learned different lessons from these tales of defence procurement: that the UK is never going to be a big defence industrial player any more and the MoD budget is an expensive way to shore up jobs in the industry. Maybe the boldest decision is to accept that and just pay the price the market demands for the stuff, whilst staying very close to your allies for preferential access to the best kit. But has the UK compromised too much in recent years to stay close to the US? Now that’s another subject…

Defending Brexit

20160725-Fallon_imageIt was pretty sweaty in the House of Commons when I visited last week to attend the Defence Select Committee. As the temperature outside nudged 30 degrees I was glad I’d chosen shorts that morning, but the nuclear-flash of whiteness when my lower legs were revealed was not a pretty sight. Still, I was in better shape than General Sir Gordon Messenger, the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff; the second most senior person in the UK’s Defence hierarchy. The poor chap was trussed up for the occasion in his heavy wool service dress and his shiny flushed cheeks suggested he was wearing an olive-drab steam sauna. When we shook hands my palm slipped straight off his and we ended up gripping each others’ wrists, as if in some bizarre Masonic clinch.

The Vice Chief was there along with the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon (pictured), and Peter Watkins, a senior civil servant and current Director General of Security Policy in the Ministry of Defence, to answer questions from the 11-person committee (you can watch it here). It was the last such session before the summer recess (Parliament next sits on September 5th) and covered a lot of ground including the recent NATO summit in Warsaw, Russia, Chilcot, Brexit and the work of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team. Select Committees will never make the list of Top Ten tourist destinations in London, but this one cantered along at a fair old pace, with one or two moments of tension between the panel and the committee.

One such moment was when James Gray, a Conservative, pressed the Defence Secretary about the impact of Brexit on the UK military. He suggested that if Britain is not to be a member of the EU for much longer, “presumably we won’t be taking part in any EU [military] operations?” In response the Defence Secretary asserted that it was in Britain’s national interest “not just to be good Europeans [and] cooperation with the EU is going to remain important to our shared security interests”. There was no intention of withdrawing from the EU’s military missions conducted as part of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), he said, and highlighted the overlapping interests and missions of the EU and NATO. He pointed to the current deployments of Royal Navy ships in the Aegean with NATO and the central Mediterranean with the EU; both operations are tackling people-smuggling networks and rescuing migrants in peril. He also referred to Norway, a non-EU member providing military resources for CSDP missions (most of which are outside Europe) where there are shared national interests, as a possible future model for the UK.

Interest. Mine, yours, national, security; it’s an ill-defined term that can be used to explain a multitude of choices and outcomes. Is our national interest defined by that which is to be defended or that which is to be influenced? And which interests are enduring and which temporary? We expect our politicians and officials to wrestle with these conundrums amid a turbulent world, with limited resources, a paucity of information and, often, a sceptical public.

If the national interest is more towards defending territory, life can be, relatively, easy. The Cold War demanded a fairly narrow definition of security (survival of the country) and limited Defence funding could be poured into heavy metal. But in the modern era, in a complex battlespace that, arguably, extends from the Iraqi desert to the streets of Nice and every environment in between, things are not so clear. Lay on top of that the rise of religious, ethnic or resource-driven conflicts and an array of new actors – Non-Governmental Organisations, criminals, terrorists, Trans-National Corporations, social movements and so on – and policy can quickly be overwhelmed, paralysed and rendered irrelevant. How much Defence is enough? Which issues are exclusively military concerns? And what are the security implications of marginal changes up or down in the Defence budget?

Defence Strategy is never about being right – it costs too much to cover every eventuality – rather, it is to be not so wrong that when the threat finally reveals itself the military cannot quickly adjust to the adversary without losing a lot of people and bankrupting the country. Influencing partners and potential aggressors, therefore, is critical to shaping our interest in any possible future, given the current myriad threats.

So, military resources are also used to influence as far as possible, as a much cheaper way to realise national interests (of course, action also influences in a more immediate and obvious way). The Defence Secretary was keen to point out how, in this chaotic and dangerous world, it is in Britain’s interest to retain and strengthen partnerships. NATO, the 5-Eyes intelligence-sharing arrangement with the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the 2010 military bilateral agreement with France (which is not without its issues, according to Chatham House) and even, notwithstanding Brexit, the EU are all critical channels in this regard.

In closing this part of the Select Committee the Defence Secretary said he saw no reason why Brexit “should inhibit either our cooperation bilaterally or future cooperation on missions in our direct interest.” Militarily-speaking then, the new government of Mrs May intends to continue the policy of Mr Cameron’s: that it is in Britain’s enduring national interest to remain close to our European allies. It seems Brexit will have little impact on future British military posture and engagement with the EU.

When the Vice Chief nodded a goodbye as we left the Palace of Westminster, his eyeballs looked like they’d been poached. I went in search of a cool drink; he headed off in the direction of a dry-cleaners.




IMG_0396The Methodist Central Hall, which stands opposite Westminster Abbey in central London, hosted the first ever meeting of the United Nations in 1946. When I visited to watch the Stop the War Coalition’s (StWC) protest taking place outside on the day of the release of the Chilcot Report last week, there was little harmony on display and not much more unity.

The report was due for release at 11am next door in the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre. The police had sealed off the area for the media and the protesters had to make do with rallying a few yards away outside the Methodist Hall. To the intense annoyance of many from StWC the road had not been closed to traffic, which resulted in two thin strips of outrage on the pavements either side. The occasional taxi edged through, carrying utterly bemused tourists.

Chris Nineham, a founder member of StWC was leading the event. Via a small stage he announced that the Report would be deemed a whitewash unless four criteria were satisfied. I doubted he was about to describe a set of moderately achievable propositions but really hoped to be wrong. I wanted Chilcot to represent a line drawn; an intelligent, helpful and welcome contribution towards healing the scars of Iraq; that it would, in some way, help to explain the mad deference, hubris, weakness and irresponsibility that had gripped our governing class and, to a lesser extent, much of the rest of the country in the run up to the Iraq war. I wanted the response from StWC to go some way to drawing out the anger, the preference for black and white arguments and drift towards highlighting points of division rather than connection that is coursing through our national psyche right now.

So perhaps I was expecting a lot of Chris and his four criteria, but, hey, with great power (and a leading figure in StWC has such) comes great responsibility. So I bundled up my doubts and prepared to cast them into oblivion, find the nearest biro that worked, sign up to StWC, buy the T-shirt and grab a placard.

I was not disappointed, except, of course, I was.

The four criteria: One, state unequivocally that Tony Blair lied to take us to war. Two, state unequivocally that the war was illegal. Three, acknowledge the chaos that resulted. Four, insist that Tony Blair stand trial for war crimes.

In terms of taking the issue forward this was an exercise more of scab-picking than national healing.


I aim here only to talk about two aspects of the Report that specifically stuck out for me (the general ghastliness of the whole thing has been well covered in the media).

First, I was truly saddened to see the extent to which groupthink enabled a collective, unspoken narrative to form. The ease with which a case was made for action against Iraq before all other avenues had been exhausted shows how dangerous this is. Of course, Tony Blair at this time was still considered an almost divine politician, so perhaps we forget how easy it was to dazzle colleagues and opponents alike. But the sheer lack of imagination and skepticism from those that should have checked and balanced baffles. Their thinking, such as it was, seemed to consist of the following: Saddam is bad and something must be done. Blair is proposing something. We must do the something that Blair proposes. Dangerously simple.

Politicians, civil servants, military, the media; all complicit. Thankfully we all know better now, so will hold our leaders better to account and ask more probing questions of those that use our name to justify their actions. Perhaps. Jack Straw’s dismissal of an assessment six months before the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’ of September 2002 is only one example of the expectation that all departments would conform rather than confirm:

“The paper has to show why there is an exceptional threat from Iraq. It does not quite do this yet.”

The only greasy pole I have ever attempted to climb was the military. I got half way. But like, I would imagine, similar poles in politics, the civil service, the intelligence agencies and so on, I was constantly told those above me were an order of magnitude more intelligent and capable. So how did it happen? Why did so many clever, worldly and experienced professionals make such a hash of it all?

The only senior officer I know to have taken a stand was General Sir Richard Dannatt, the-then Chief of the General Staff who stood up to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. He told me he only ever tried to do the right thing. It cost him his career, which perhaps explains why he was a lone actor (and says a lot about the realities of truth spoken unto some politicians). I suggested to General Nick Houghton, the current Chief of the Defence Staff, that we no longer view military victory or defeat as a question of lines on a map and how many tanks we’ve destroyed. Rather, in the environments of the modern world (i.e. those that are, annoyingly, no longer devoid of civilians in the combat zone), it is a case of having freedom of movement and the ability to act as we wish without hindrance from the enemy. Perhaps not surprisingly General Houghton did not agree that we were defeated in southern Iraq by the time of our withdrawal. He did not recognise what, in my view, was a shabby deal done with the Mahdi Militia: we would not interfere with them in return for a cessation of the attacks on British Forces. I’m a big fan of the military, but by God, there’s a lot of dead wood keeping the ship afloat.


Chris Nineham was calling out, “Blair lied!” and the crowd eventually twigged they had to respond “Thousands died!” It took a few rehearsals but eventually they cracked it and took to the task with gusto. There was a bizarre StWC placard with a blood spatter and the inscription ‘Out, Damned Spot’ I knew I’d be revealing my innate ignorance but had to get the man in the StWC tent to explain the meaning: the blood on Lady MacBeth’s hands, of course. By now I had developed a headache and considered obscure Shakespearian references a step too far for my first protest.

A man jumped on the podium and raised a cheer with: “the truth will not be blurred today. It will be Blaired!” Then another grabbed the microphone and said he’d been told recently by the head of the army that he’d ordered 600 new tanks for use in the Baltic. “A new cold war!’ he thundered. I decided I’d had enough. I waded through the banners of groups with, as far as I could tell, a tenuous link to a protest about the Iraq war: CND, Women For Corbyn, Momentum, Women Of Colour in the Global Women’s Strike and a 9/11 conspiracy theorist (who pressed an sheet of ‘proof’ into my hand) to name a few. It was like a dozen protest movements had all suffered from satnav groupthink and collided outside the Methodist Hall. Only Veterans for Peace seemed to be in the right place.

They all seemed a merry enough bunch with costumes, props and homemade banners and it was apparent they’d all done this a number of times before. I chatted to a placard-carrying man who was complaining about the noise coming from the podium, although I thought that was the point (“Blair lied, thousands died!” was in full swing). “I wish we’d get this number when we protest about paedophiles,” he yelled, “or the cover-ups at the BBC!” And then, like a sarin-filled artillery shell launched 45 minutes earlier, it struck me. I was in the presence of a professional ranter. Were the rest like that? And didn’t that dilute the strength of the message groups like StWC were trying to achieve? Free speech loses its power if its too free.


The poor understanding of intelligence material in senior government circles was the other major dismay for me in the Report. This may sound a bit wonkish but it’s important to note as this is the bread and butter of how a case for war is built.

There is information and there is intelligence. The latter is information plus assessment. It will always be a best guess; sometimes close, sometimes pretty wide of the mark. It never stands alone – the only 100% intelligence is called hindsight – it is always caveated with a grading about how likely it is to be correct.

When Tony Blair wrote in the forward of the September 2002 paper (the dodgy dossier) that the intelligence had “established beyond doubt” Saddam’s WMD programme was active I will bet my Body Shop Loyalty Card that he ignored the caveats and plumped for the arresting statement. Alistair Campbell’s assertion after the publication of the Chilcot Report that neither he nor Tony Blair ‘sexed up’ any assessments or invented intelligence was, therefore almost certainly true. But that’s not to say they treated such material as it should be. And nobody in government or parliament called them out on it, probably because they didn’t know how to think about such matters themselves.

For me, the Chilcot Report’s repeated references to “intelligence and assessments” does not absolutely nail out of sight the point that they are both assessments; the only difference being that the former is usually informed or produced by spooks. It is certainly not a fact to accompany the latter’s guess. If you know any politicians, please raise this with them at your next dinner party as an ice-breaker.


I headed away from the Westminster Hall to go and read the Report as it had only been out on general circulation for half an hour and nobody around me had actually read it. I doubted the protesters would allow minor details like that to change their views or that Chris would be satisfied his criteria had been met. So, another establishment whitewash then. (Reading their commentary afterwards has confirmed this to be the case.) Personally I think the Report has pulled few punches, although I would have liked to see greater analysis of the impact of the Blair-Brown rift (particularly regarding funding for the military) and the compliant, frothy and irresponsible media. Remember The Sun had a front-page splash comparing Charles Kennedy, then leader of the Liberal Democrats, to a reptile after he opposed the war: ‘Spot The Difference; one is a spineless reptile that spits venom…the other’s a poisonous snake’. Classy.

We’ve learnt how worryingly easy it is to take the nation to war if a small number of people in the right (wrong?) places think it’s probably the right thing to do, regardless of how many people in ordinary or unimportant places think otherwise. If the holes in the swiss cheese all align at the wrong moment, otherwise sensible people can make stupid decisions.

Could it happen again? I see nothing in our divided politics and the ambition I know to still exist in our senior military to say with any conviction that it could not. A few yards away from the Methodist Hall, on Parliament Square Garden, is the Mahatma Gandhi statue. Just next to it is the temporary memorial to Jo Cox, the MP murdered in June. Like most people I only heard of her after her death, but she seemed like someone who understood responsibility and duty; two qualities that most actors in the Chilcot Report seemed to lack.


Still hesitating while others act

Harman letter 1You may remember the post last October where I described my efforts to help a Yemeni friend of mine who was trying to flee his country with his family. Yemen has been torn apart in recent months as Saudi Arabia and Iran fight a proxy war.

My friend, Adim (not his real name) and many of his fellow Officers had initially been tolerated by the Houthi rebels, the group supported by Iran who now hold power in Yemen. Slowly though, distrust and open aggression took over. Fearing for the safety of his family, Adim decided to try to leave the country.

He tried a number of options, all to no avail, then approached me. I  sought help from Harriet Harman, my MP, hoping she would convince the Foreign Office to provide Adim a visa for entry into the UK. I offered accommodation and was reasonably confident I could arrange employment with the British Defence Academy.

Harman letter 2As I wrote at the time, to my intense frustration Ms Harman not only did not help, but also (in my view) fobbed me off with the very thoughtless reply ‘I am not in a position to assist [Adim] as he is not residing in the UK..’ which, as I hoped was obvious, was the whole point of my reaching out to her.

So I felt a pang of sympathy for Labour Councillor Jamille Mohammed when he came doorstepping in January in advance of local elections. The poor chap got both barrels from me and had to ditch his prepared chat about bin services and cycle lanes as he suddenly found himself knee-deep in a debate about geopolitics and refugees. To his credit he took it in good grace and promised to follow up my gripe with Ms Harman.

I received the two replies above. Neither addressed my central question about requesting the Foreign Office to approve a visa for Adim and his family. I can only conclude Ms Harman has unfortunately missed the point once again. Still, as she says, I’ll try not to hesitate before contacting her in the future for any more help.

Adim sent me an email last week. He has managed to escape with his family to the neighbouring country of Oman. A mutual friend of ours in the region was able to do what we – Harriet Harman, the British state and I – totally failed to do: get through the bureaucratic and political treacle in order to provide succour to a family in genuine need. Makes me proud to be British.