Vladimir Putin must find it hilarious that David Cameron won’t back Europe on Russia’s abuses

In his latest dispatch our columnist reports from a George Michael concert and has some advice for Andrew 'Thrasher' Mitchell, the under fire Tory MP
  • @ChrisBryantMP

I’m not sure who will pick up the well-deserved Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the EU, but it should be the High Representative Cathy Ashton, who will be dining this Sunday with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov. Cathy has more steel in her than Corby and Corus put together (albeit wrapped in a paisley shawl), but this will be tough, as the EU is finally beginning to lose patience with Russia.

Successive European leaders used to fly solo to Moscow and do their own little deals with Vladimir Putin, but Russia’s disgraceful intransigence on Syria, together with the departure of Putin’s mate Silvio Berlusconi and arrival of François Hollande in France, has persuaded them that Europe needs to adopt a more united front. All of this puts Cathy firmly in the driving seat in the run-up to the EU-Russia summit later this year.

Sadly, the fly in the ointment is David Cameron, who is trying to play both ends against the middle. British relations with Moscow have been fraught since the murders in Britain of Alexander Litvinenko and in Russia of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who worked for a British firm.

Earlier this year, the Commons unanimously passed a motion demanding that anyone involved in Magnitsky’s death or the corruption he unveiled should be barred from Britain. Yet at a Council of Europe meeting last Tuesday five Tory MPs (Brian Binley, James Clappison, Edward Leigh, Ian Liddell-Grainger and Robert Walter), two Tory peers (the Baronesses Eaton and Eccles) and one Lib Dem (Mike Hancock) voted with representatives of Putin’s party against a report criticising human rights abuses in Russia.

With torture endemic in the Russian criminal justice system, the courts subjugated to political control, politicians imprisoning their opponents, independent journalists murdered with impunity and pride marches banned for a hundred years, it’s difficult to see how these British politicians can square their vote with their conscience, unless their sole motivation is mercantilist. This is just shabby appeasement – and all the evidence is that, far from impressing Putin, this kind of craven behaviour makes him even more disdainful of lily-livered Western ideas about human rights.

The story that Henry Kissinger asked “what number do I call when I want to call Europe?” may be apocryphal, but Cathy Ashton jokes that she has an answer anyway. If the US president rings her he first gets some options, “for the German position press 1; for the Italian position press 2; and for the British position call back later”. It’s a nice joke, but the truth is that Europe needs to speak with a single voice if it doesn’t want to be laughed at by Putin, and Cameron needs to butch up.

Sticking it to the oldies

I’m often shocked by the behaviour of older people. At a George Michael concert in Cardiff last week (at which hundreds of women screamed “I love you” so often anyone would think they hadn’t noticed he was gay), I spotted the 60-or-so-year-old fan behind me take her chewing gum out and stick it to the chair in front of her.

Fearful of being thought too snooty for my own good, I um-ed and ah-ed about whether to say anything. Finally I summoned up courage as she was leaving. “Would you like to take your gum with you?” I said. She looked at me with thunder in her eyes. “Why, would you like it?” she said before storming off.

Mitchell should sing a Moyet tune

It being Tory conference week, we went to see the elegant and slimmed-down Alison Moyet at Ronnie Scott’s. She had an adoring set of fans hanging on her every trill, so it was a bit disturbing when the band struck up the first tune and she launched into her song, only to stop with a couple of robust swear words. She recovered well, pointing out: “If you get something wrong here and you can get over it, then that’s jazz. But if you can’t get over it – well, it’s just wrong and you’ve got to start again.” I wish Andrew Mitchell had heard her. He must surely know that his recent bum notes mean he can’t take the Chief Whip’s traditional seat two down from Cameron next Wednesday for PMQs. Better to give up and start again.

Lords can lobby too easily

This week the Lords debated the Defamation Bill, which has profound implications for the press. Interestingly, one of the peers who sat on the joint committee to consider it is the Conservative Lord Guy Black. I don’t mind that he is parti pris as the former director of the Press Complaints Commission. Everyone is entitled to a past. What I do object to is his direct conflict of interests.

He is executive director of the Telegraph Media Group. He and his company personally stand to benefit by this legislation. Had he been a member of the Commons he would have been obliged not just to register and declare an interest (as he has done), but he would have been barred from the committee and from initiating any legislation. Yet in the Lords debate he suggested a string of amendments, which he will doubtless move when the Bill is in committee. Different rules apply in the Lords, but when peers use their position in the Lords to pursue the financial interests of their employer, they are effectively engaging in paid advocacy and bring the whole place into disrepute.

He has broken no rules, but the rules are bust.