Andy McSmith's Diary: Minister fails to challenge Saudis over flogging of blogger

Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 public lashes

Andy McSmith
Tuesday 21 July 2015 20:32 BST

There have been reactions from all around the world to the shocking story of the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes to be administered in public, 50 lashes at a time, and a hefty fine, for having opinions unacceptable to the Saudi authorities – but one person not talking about it is the Foreign Office minister, Tobias Ellwood.

Stewart McDonald, MP for Glasgow South, arranged a Commons debate on civil rights in Saudi Arabia during which he raised the Badawi case. Replying for the Government, Mr Ellwood claimed “the case is in the Supreme Court and is under review. We therefore cannot interfere with that process, in the same way that the Saudi authorities would not interfere with our process.”

When challenged, he insisted: “The case has returned to the Supreme Court, which reflects the fact that the leadership has taken stock of international opinion. The punishment has stopped and is under review. Until that process moves forward, it would be incorrect to comment on another country’s judicial process.”

The last the world heard was that in June the Saudi Supreme Court had upheld Mr Badawi’s sentence, and it was reported then that his only remaining hope was a royal pardon. I asked the Foreign Office if they could throw light on Mr Ellwood’s statement. More than seven hours after he spoke, I was told that their Saudi desk was working on a reply. When it comes, I will gladly pass it on.

Huffington Post 1; PM 0

As lobby journalists were quaffing champagne at the Downing Street end-of-term party, someone mentioned to David Cameron that Andy Burnham had said he would carry on supporting Everton even if he won the Labour leadership. Cameron was asked if he ever managed to watch Aston Villa, whereupon Owen Bennett, of Huffington Post, interjected: “Or West Ham?” Cameron affected not to hear.

EU’s heart of darkness

During the same evening, Cameron said his summer reading will include Dark Continent, by the historian Mark Mazower, who debunked the idea that it was always Europe’s destiny to be the home of freedom and democracy, arguing that extremism, particularly right-wing extremism, is every bit as much part of the continent’s heritage. “We can no longer afford to … simply think of it as a dead load that by itself time will bury in oblivion,” he warned.

That should provide the Prime Minister with a few arguments when it comes the EU referendum.

The ‘dwarf’s’ revenge

The Commons had been in session for only a few minutes when John Bercow threw a wobbly. The Chancellor, George Osborne, was replying to a question on the economy from the veteran Labour MP Barry Sheerman, and used the chance to express mock regret that the Labour Party is not listening to “the sensible voices of the old intake”. The Speaker was correct to rule him out of order, because Labour’s internal turmoil is not Treasury business, but did so with shocking vehemence. “Sit down!” he barked, and when Osborne appeared to be ignoring him, added: “Chancellor, sit down, man! I told you to sit down, so sit down!”

Onlookers wondered why he was so angry. I think it was because of the exchange that preceded it.

The first person to put a question to the Chancellor was the Tory backbencher, Sir Simon Burns. It was an exercise in sycophancy. “What progress,” he asked, had the Chancellor made with his “long-term economic plan?” This was answered with a few minutes of self-congratulatory blather, after which Sir Simon put a second question. Did the Chancellor agree that his Budget “clearly demonstrated the Conservatives are the natural party for hard-working families?”

Sir Simon is not always so respectful. He once called Bercow “a sanctimonious dwarf”. Hearing him wasting time with toadying “questions” is – I hear – what drove Bercow into a fury.

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