Donald Macintyre's Sketch: If Syria was on everyone’s mind, why was no one talking about it?
The Commons chamber was visited with a welcome onset of grown-upness on Iran
Donald Macintyre writes political sketches for The Independent, having been Jerusalem correspondent since 2004, covering Israel and the Occupied Territories, as well as travelling for the paper to Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Libya and Egypt.
Monday 17 June 2013
MPs proved again on Monday that just because a subject is dominating the news, it doesn’t mean they will ask questions about it. Here was Philip Hammond who, as Defence Secretary, would be responsible for arming Syrian rebel forces, if it happens. And first up with “topical questions” was John Baron, the Tory backbencher leading opposition to any such act. And Baron asked him a question about Army reservists.
In fairness, this was not as odd as it often is. For Baron probably judged that Hammond had refused to offer any new information on the lifting of the EU arms embargo in an answer to the Shadow Defence spokesman Jim Murphy.
David Cameron has repeatedly stonewalled when pressed to say how his pledge to ensure that any such weapons would not fall into the “wrong” rebel hands would actually be fulfilled. So Murphy tried a subtly different, tack. What “precedent” was there for a “vetting process”, to “ensure that weapons... don't fall into the possession of those whose aims we do not share?"
The question was “hypothetical”, Hammond insisted in wearisomely familiar language. The focus was on a Geneva conference but “we must leave all options on the table.” We were none the wiser.
The Commons chamber was then visited with a welcome onset of grown-upness on Iran, thanks to Jack Straw’s Urgent Question to William Hague on whether the election as Iranian President of Dr Hassan Rouhani might mean a fresh start in relations between Tehran and the West.
Straw said that when he had "many dealings" with Dr Rouhani as head of Iran's security he found him "courteous, engaged and straightforward". If this was name-dropping on a global scale, it was pretty pardonable since as Labour’s Foreign Secretary, Straw was involved in kick-starting the fraught talks on Iran’s nuclear programme now taking place between Tehran and the big powers. Hague was circumspect - but hoped that Iran would take the “opportunity” to “open a new relationship” with the international community.
Earlier - and sensationally - the normally super-impassive Hammond made a joke. Or that’s presumably what it was, rather than a baleful warning to dissident service brass. Confronted by the LibDems’ Tessa Munt with a declaration by Rear-Admiral Patrick Middleton that the argument for the government’s precious Trident “is rapidly becoming a losing one”, he said: “I suspect this is a retired rear admiral... and if it isn’t, he soon will be.”
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