Tony Blair's denial of moderation in the Middle East

 

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This is not a great time for journalism or to be a journalist. As Andy Coulson spends his first weekend in jail for phone hacking – or, as I see it, cheating at journalism – those of us reporters who act legally still have our liberty curtailed. Google was once a reservoir of everything on the internet – an apparently bottomless lagoon of facts, some of it important, some utterly irrelevant. But complete, nonetheless. Now it has been dredged by the EU ruling on the right to be forgotten, we are left with a censored version of history. It stinks.

However difficult this makes our job in Britain, at least we are fortunate to be able to do that job without fear of imprisonment. Unlike the three Al-Jazeera journalists who, after being detained since last December, were jailed for more than seven years in Egypt last month for interviewing members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, which prosecutors claimed was aiding the group. Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned the sentences as "unacceptable", while US Secretary of State John Kerry said they were "chilling" and "draconian". This international condemnation, particularly from those with a role in securing peace in the Middle East, was almost overwhelming. Except for Tony Blair, that is. No mention from the Middle East envoy's official Twitter feed or office on the day of the sentencing in June, despite his title suggesting he might have a passing interest.

Now we know why: the former Prime Minister will advise the Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who seized power in a military coup last year. Blair is to assist on economic reform as part of a UAE-funded initiative. Blair's office says he will not be paid, and that he has "no commercial interest" in Egypt. But that's not the point – he presumably doesn't need the money. It is that someone who wants to keep his status as an international diplomat thinks he can be both an honest broker in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel and yet advise – however informally – a regime that has sent political dissidents to the hangman.

Blair's defenders point out that the ex-PM has always supported the Egyptian regime over the Muslim Brotherhood. But whatever you think about the rise of Islamism in Egypt – and it is troubling – the problem is not that Blair should have picked one side in Egypt, but that he should pick any. In 2006, I travelled with Blair on his final tour of the Middle East as prime minister. I watched him give a speech in Dubai supporting an "arc of moderation" in the region versus the al-Qa'ida-fuelled "arc of extremism".

Ever since Blair labelled the media the "feral beast" in 2007, it's been obvious he does not care much for journalism. By giving international legitimacy to el-Sisi's anti-free speech regime, it's clear he doesn't care much for moderation either.

That figures, George

I am roughly the same age as George Osborne, so he is of a generation that was denied the crutch of the calculator in maths tests. When I was at school, the cream and beige Casio fx-81 electronic calculator was the iPhone of its day – everyone had to have one. Unlike its predecessors, the fx-81 could do algebra and had an eight-digit screen, allowing nine-year-olds like me and George to type 55378008, which spells a naughty word if you turn it upside down. But we weren't allowed to use them in tests.

So the Chancellor should have known the answer to seven-year-old Sam Reddings' question "What's 7x8?" Yet being able to spout your times tables in your forties is pretty difficult, particularly when you're not used to reciting it every day. I agree with Osborne – and my colleague John Rentoul – that it's more important he makes the right judgement about how the Government spends its money. And that's a calculation whose answer we will only know in May 2015.

Not sorry to be blonde

Mattel have launched a new Barbie doll called Entrepreneur Barbie with the Twitter hashtag #unapologetic – a word which conveys, I assume, her forthrightness as much as the toymaker's attitude. But on a billboard to advertise the new range, the doll was joined by other newish Barbies including "President Barbie".

In 2012, when President Barbie was launched, she was blonde, yet in 2014 she's a brunette. I know that engaging in the finer details of a plastic doll's hair colour risks pushing me to the edge of credibility, but surely little girls and boys need to know that blondes can be top politicians too? Think of Margaret Thatcher, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Stella Creasy, Boris Johnson and, of course, Hillary Clinton. Perhaps President Barbie will re-emerge in 2016 as a pantsuit-wearing glass ceiling-cracker.

All about the boy

I met Sandra Howard, the author and ex-model, at a Conservative Party conference during her husband Michael's leadership. She was giving a speech to a fringe event in support of the drug addiction charity Addaction. It was in 2004, when political wives were still in that ludicrous pigeonhole of "accompaniment". Mrs Howard is now an established novelist, with her latest book, the semi-autobiographical Tell The Girl, out this month and reviewed on page 20 of Arts&Books. So it was pretty insulting of The Spectator to describe her and husband as "Mr and Mrs Michael Howard" in a blog last week. Not just insulting but factually incorrect, too, given that he is Lord Howard of Lympne.

Tour de Westminster

With the Tour de France starting in Yorkshire this weekend, Sport England and the team from British Cycling challenged MPs to their own race – a slightly easier one, though, which involved pedalling as fast as you could in 30 seconds on a (stationary) Wattbike. The MP who won the Commons yellow jersey was Mark Spencer, the Conservative member for Sherwood and a former farmer, who notched up an amazing 482 metres (thanks to his 6ft-plus stature). I managed only 356m (though as I'm not an MP I couldn't get on the leaderboard). Happily for an exercise in cycling, the Lib Dem MP Tom Brake came second. But I couldn't spot any Labour MPs who had competed. Does this mean they are not fit for office?

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