ROGER Gale, who has been the Conservative MP for North Thanet in Kent since 1983, was spurred into going into politics by the Russian invasion of the Czech Republic. He did not want his children growing up under Communism and his public speaking baptism of fire came when he addressed some 50'000 anti-invasion protesters. However, today, decades after the end of the Cold War, Gale admits that we are living in dangerous times, quite possibly the potentially most explosive of his career, if not his life. Would things be different if the Conservatives were in power? Gale, who addressed Conservatives Abroad at the Club de Mar last night, admits that, should there be a snap a election tomorrow Labour would lose the election rather than any other party winning it, but I think if there was literally a snap election tomorrow it would result in a hung parliament. However, Gale said that the assumption is that there will not be an election until 2008 or 2009 and that is one of the reasons Cameron is taking his time to formulate and announce policy. Gale explained that political parties in opposition always face the danger of playing their policy too soon leaving it to either be stolen by the government or proved to be rubbish. Gale did not support Cameron in the leadership battle, he backed David Davis, but he did admit yesterday that Cameron is doing a good job. He faces the task of reaching out to three electoral generations who have never voted Conservative and I think he is connecting with the voters he needs to reach the position where he has to form a government. But, Gale warned that Cameron has to be careful in his search to attract the young and new voters not to alienate the traditional Tory voters.
Who Cameron and the Conservatives will challenge at the next election, no one, not even the Labour Party, is too sure about. The assumption, albeit perhaps dangerous, is that it is going to be the favourite Gordon Brown. But, events of the past three weeks certainly have not done him any good in the short term but in the long term, the softer face of Gordon may pay dividends, he said. However, Gale is ruling out neither Alan Johnson, a very shrewd and very good operator, nor David Miliband, although he admits he would be surprised by the latter. He would be as equally surprised if John Reid would make a challenge: he would like it if it was offered to him but I don't think he'll go looking for it. The Conservatives are having to closely track Labour leadership developments because when (there is an election) depends very much on who, said Gale. He explained that Johnson or Miliband may take over as PM for six months, use that time to get the general public used to the idea of him coming in and out of Number Ten and decide that he wants his own mandate, his own people and take a chance with a quick election. But, Gale warned that should things get worse for the Labour government, it may decided to hang on to power. Once any political party has the skids under it, there is an infinite capacity for things to get worse. It is possible that a change of leader might halt that slide, it certainly did for the Conservatives when John Major took over from Margaret Thatcher under less than happy circumstances and John did go on to win the next election. A cut-and-run change of leadership might prove advantageous to the Labour party. They might lose a lot but still hold on to enough to form a government. Gale was cautious enough to suggest that Gordon Brown would perhaps be able to do just that, cling to power. Like him or not, an impression that he has managed the economy well has been created amongst the general public which is not passionately interested in politics. I could pick holes in that, the undermining of pensions and the problems with the child tax credit scheme, for example, can be placed directly at Brown's door but the public do not see that, so somehow there is a false impression that Gordon Brown has been a good Chancellor. So, if he had the courage to push for the leadership early and go to the country, He might scrape home. Labour's biggest threat is that the longer they allow the current political situation to run, Cameron will be able to formulate more policy and the more time people will have to understand what he is really about. I think at the moment, particularly in the press, he is treated as somewhat of a light weight. This begs the question, what is Cameron really about?
Gale says that Cameron genuinely cares about the environment, the cycling to work stunt may have been unwise, although Cameron did used to cycle to work, and, as a father with a young family, is genuinely concerned about the kind of world his children are going to grow up in. Gale believes that he is striking the right chord with young people who are concerned about the environment, the Third World, animal welfare and their future. So, on that front, yes, I think we know what he stands for but on the big issues of foreign policy, which is of burning importance internationally the United Kingdom has a very, very considerable role still to play. I think it's probably accepted that we pay way above our weight when it comes to international diplomacy and when indeed it comes to our armed forces, they are small but brilliantly efficient. But somebody has to decided just how far we can stretch ourselves in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Lebanon and what we do about Cyprus, Zimbabwe and other countries in Africa. Cameron still has to really make a mark on this. What Cameron has already made clear, however, is that he would distance Britain from the United States administration as opposed to the American people. We should look to preserve and protect the Atlantic Alliance and our special relationship, of course, but, when one is a good friend, one sometimes has to say what people need to hear as opposed to what people want to hear. Gale points out that Blair jumped to Clinton over Kosovo, for example, before he jumped to Bush. There are a number of us who have grave concerns about the relationship between Blair and Bush and the manner in which that has drawn the United Kingdom into certain positions that we ought not to be in, Gale said before an honest admission that he is not certain the government would have lost the vote on the Iraq Wars had the Conservatives known the true facts when they voted. It was a very difficult position for Parliament to have been in because our troops were committed. In a sense yes, the vote was hypothetical because you do not send your boys and girls into battle saying please go and die on our behalf but we're not supporting you' So I don't know if Blair would have lost the vote, I don't even know how I would have voted. What I do know though, is that I have a very grave unease about the commitment to and in Iraq. When we went in, we had not answered the key questions any military campaign is supposed to answer. Why we're going, what the rules of engagement are, how long we're going to be there for and what the exit strategy is. None of those four questions was properly answered when we went in and I know senior military commanders who were desperately concerned then and remain so today, said Gale. I feel very strongly about this because I've lost two constituents out there, he added. While our troops are being extremely brave and do all that is being asked of them, I wonder about some of the things we are asking them to do, he said. They are over-stretched and under-equipped, which the government is directly responsible for and it is ludicrous that the Range Rover the Prime Minister's wife goes shopping in is more heavily armoured than some of the Land Rovers the British troops are having to use in war zones, stressed Gale. We neglect our defence at our peril. We do still have the finest armed forces in the world, I would say, bar none. They are very highly trained and very dedicated and they will do whatever we ask of them, in so far as they can, but the question we should be asking ourselves as politicians is should we be asking them to do it'.
Gale believes that Britain was far too eager to commit itself to an adventure without properly assessing the implications before accompanying the Americans into Iraq and Afghanistan. We neither listened sufficiently to our commanders nor learnt the lessons of history, he added. And as a result, I think we may have created a situation which perhaps should not exist..... Gale warned that regime change and the rule of gun policy is a very dangerous game. I don't like Saddam, so I'll take him out, I don't like Mugabe, what happens when Mr Mbeke decides he doesn't like Mr Blair and, hypothetically, the African Union decides to take out the United Kingdom? Once you go down that path, where do you draw the line? To what extent does the world, even the United Nations, have the right to interfere in the domestic business of a sovereign nation? This is different to the first Iraq War when Saddam Hussein invaded another country and you legally justify the international intervention at the request of the Kuwaitis. But nobody asked us to go into Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein. We chose to do it or rather President Bush chose to do it and that was a decision taken at Camp David nine months before the war when Blair was asked, and agreed to, provide his support, long before parliament, and I suspect his own cabinet, were even consulted. I'm not saying for a moment that we should never interfere, brave decisions have to be taken, but I'm not sure that decisions over Iraq and Afghanistan were taken for the right reasons. I'm just one insignificant back bencher but I have grave concerns about the manner we were taken into all this and time will tell whether it will make the world a better place, I don't think it has right now. Yes, these are very dangerous times, admitted Gale. What people fail to realise is that the world is at war, at war with terrorism. Since the end of the Cold War the world has been relatively peaceful compared to now and there are a number of key changes happening. There are parts of the Third World growing in power, Africa for example, two new economies growing so fast they will soon be able to challenge the economic power of the West and add to that global terrorist activities and you have a potentially explosive situation, a situation in which we cannot have one country trying to behave as a global police force. We have this growth in home grown Muslim terrorists which is extremely worrying and people being radicalised who normally would not be and I think, to some extent the action of the United States and the United Kingdom has radicalised people, or enabled people to become radicalised. You take impressionable, young, passionate people to a cause - they will go and fight it. Have done from time immemorial. Neither I nor you are in a position to judge, history will decide, but sitting where I sit, on the back of the green benches, it would be odd if I was not concerned about what's going on.
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