Asa Bennett   |   July 17, 2014    5:53 PM ET

Vladimir Putin has brushed aside America and the European Union's toughest sanctions yet against Russia over the mounting unrest in Ukraine, warning that the "aggressive" response would backfire.

The Russian president, speaking in Brazil, said that the new restrictions in response to the four-month uprising by insurgents in the Ukrainian region of Crimea would have a "boomerang" effect that would hurt the United States' own interests.

President Barack Obama unveiled "significant but targeted" restrictions on a handful of companies including Rosneft - 20% owned by oil giant BP - accessing American capital markets, with steps also being taken to prevent senior officials and rebel groups in eastern Ukraine getting hold of funds.

Meanwhile, European leaders agreed a more limited package, imposing asset freezes against around 11 more individuals. But they signalled that measures will be expanded significantly at the end of July to cover "entities and persons" helping to undermine Ukraine's "sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence".

Warren Ruhomon, an analyst from, told the Huffington Post UK that the sanctions had already hit Russia "hard", as Russian stocks slipped to a six-week low and the rouble weakened against the dollar.

“The RTS Index, the benchmark stock index has fallen by 4% whilst the Moscow stock index (MICEX) has slumped 2.9% in trading as investors moved to downsize risk in Russian stocks on the back of the tougher sanctions," he said.

"Of course, the main concern here is that this creates a new wave on uncertainty as to what the implications of these new sanctions will mean, and how the situation could escalate.”

The EU previously hit individual members of Putin's inner circle with travel bans and asset freezes after the Crimea region was annexed, with further sectoral sanctions on the cards if Moscow fails to back down in its stand-off with Ukraine.

The White House has signalled that it is keeping the option in reserve of fully cutting off key Russian economic sectors in case the crisis escalates yet further.

President Obama said: "I've repeatedly made it clear that Russia must halt the flow of weapons and fighters across the border into Ukraine. So far, Russia has failed to take any of the steps that I mentioned."

Sara C Nelson   |   July 17, 2014    4:21 PM ET

Almost 300 people have died including reportedly, nine Britons, after a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet was apparently shot down near the Russia - Ukraine border.

Flight MH17 - a Boeing 777-200ER travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur - was in transit over the war-torn region when it disappeared from radar screens.

All 295 people onboard, including 280 passengers and 15 crew members, are believed to have perished.

Graphic images and footage showed a pall of smoke, charred wreckage and bodies at the crash scene in the rebel-held eastern Ukraine village of Grabovo.

debris mh17

These are the first images of aircraft debris from the scene

Flight MH17 is said to have been flying at an altitude of 32,000ft when it was downed

Interfax news agency said the plane came down 20miles (50kms) short of entering Russian airspace.

It "began to drop, afterwards it was found burning on the ground on Ukrainian territory," an unnamed source said.

Reuters quoted emergency service personnel at the scene who said body parts from the plane's passengers are scattered around up to 15km from the crash site, and at least 100 bodies were on the ground.


As the drama unfolded, several other passenger jets were flying through Ukrainian airspace on one of the main routes from Europe to Asia for air traffic.


The flight was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur

malaysia airlines
The route of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 and where it was shot down

The jets path would have seen it flying at high altitude on an intercontinental flight that took it over the crisis hit region of Ukraine, where the authorities have accused Russia-backed separatists of previous attacks on aircraft.

Anton Gerashchenko, an advisor at Ukraine's interior ministry, told Bloomberg it was Ukrainian rebels who shot down the plane.

mh17 malaysia airlines

Officials at the scene of the disaster in the rebel-held eastern Ukraine village of Grabovo

mh17 malaysia airlines

Writing on his Facebook page, Gerashenko claimed the plane had been hit by a missile from a Buk launcher, which can fire up to an altitude of 22,000 meters (72,000 feet).

Earlier on Thursday the Ukrainian authorities said one of their fighter jets was shot down by an air-to-air missile from a Russian plane and Ukrainian troops were fired upon by missiles from a village inside Russia.

A similar launcher was reported by journalists near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne on Thursday.

buk missile

In this June 30, 2010 file photo, a Russian Buk-M2 air defence system is displayed at a military show in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow

Andrew MacDonald, at defence analysts Vision Gain told HuffPost UK initial reports that pro-Russian rebels were responsible for downing the plane were "quite plausible".

He said: "Earlier today separatist fighters claimed to have shot down a Ukrainian Su-25 ground attack fighter in the area, so the goal may be to create a de-facto no-fly zone in the east of the country in a show of force after their ousting from Slovyansk.

"However, the aircraft will at that stage in its flight will have been cruising at a very high altitude – around 30,000 feet – so would have been well out of range of any shoulder-launched MANPADS weapons you might expect insurgent groups to possess.

"This makes the Ukrainian interior minister’s claims that a BUK self-propelled SAM system was used quite possible, and such a substantial bit of kit would presumably have to have been provided by Russia.

"Whether or not this strike against a civilian airliner is a deliberate act of terrorism or the result of poorly trained, over-enthusiastic irregular forces, is currently unclear."

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the downing an act of terrorism and called for an international investigation into the crash.

"We do not exclude that this plane was shot down, and we stress that the Armed Forces of Ukraine did not take action against any airborne targets," he said. "We are sure that those who are guilty in this tragedy will be held responsible."

The self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic," the pro-Russian separatist movement in southeastern Ukraine has denied involvement in the downing of the plane, reports.

Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted that he was "shocked and saddened" by the disaster and confirmed that Whitehall officials were meeting "to establish the facts".

US President Barack Obama said the downed plane "looks like it may be a terrible tragedy" and vowed the US would offer any assistance necessary to determine the cause of the crash.

This afternoon Malaysia Airlines tweeted it had: "lost contact of [sic] of MH17 from Amsterdam. The last known position was over Ukrainian airspace. More details to follow."

Malaysian Prime Minister Mohammad Najib Tun Razak tweeted of his shock at the news.

The flight is understood to have been around four-and-a-half hours into its 11-and-a-half hour journey. It took off at 12.14pm from Amsterdam Schipol airport and was due to arrive in Kuala Lumpur at 6.10am local time.

A UK Foreign Office spokesman said: "We are aware of reports and we are urgently working to establish what has happened."

A Department for Transport spokesman said of the Malaysian Airlines crash: "Flights already airborne are being routed around the area by air traffic control in the region. Pilots around the world have been advised to plan routes that avoid the area by Eurocontrol, the European organisation for the safety of air navigation."

The incident brings tragedy to Malaysia Airlines for the second time this year.

In March, one of its jets disappeared with 227 passengers and 12 crew on board in one of the greatest aviation mysteries of all time.

flight tracker

The flight tracker which reportedly shows the flight over Ukraine

Will 'Mrs Miliband' Turn Out To Be Ed's 'Secret Weapon'?

Mehdi Hasan   |   July 17, 2014    1:43 PM ET

At a recent summer drinks party for high-profile Labour supporters, it wasn't Ed Miliband's speech that wowed the crowd. It was his wife's.

"I am trying to change the world through the law," Justine Thornton, aka Mrs Miliband, told the assembled luminaries in the sun-lit courtyard of Mary Ward House in central London.

Her speech was a combination of charming tributes to her husband, passionate declamations on the need to change the way politics is conducted and, of course, the obligatory, self-deprecating anecdotes about life as a political leader's wife. Thornton, a Cambridge-educated barrister, told an amusing story about how she and her husband, only a few weeks ago, had been frantically trying to find a bottle of wine in their kitchen to serve to a surprise house guest, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who just happens to be the prime minister of Denmark (as well as the wife of Labour parliamentary candidate Stephen Kinnock, son of Neil). "It was more Fawlty Towers than Borgen," she deadpanned.

Members of the audience, which included actor Ross Kemp, TV presenter Fiona Phillips and Hollywood director Paul Greengrass, later described her address - delivered, like a true Miliband, without notes - as "inspirational", "from the heart" and "pack[ing] a punch".

It hasn't been easy for Thornton to play the part that is expected of her by politicians and pundits alike. Shortly after Miliband won the leadership of his party, Thornton logged onto Amazon to look for books that might help her adapt to her new role. But all her searches produced were links to DVD box sets of the hit US legal drama, 'The Good Wife'.

The role of politician's wife is "not a role I applied for, darling," she said, turning to grin at her husband who watched on with a mix of awe and pride. Nevertheless, Thornton continued, she intended to be at his side throughout the election campaign, ready to help take on her husband's vast army of doubters, critics and opponents.

Ten months out from the general election, and with Labour's poll lead narrowing, Miliband needs all the assistance he can get - and from every possible quarter. In recent weeks, the Leader of the Opposition has been battered over his image, with polls showing voters think he is "weird" and fellow Labour MPs, such as the former home secretary Alan Johnson, claiming to find little warmth or enthusiasm for him on the doorstep. Then there was the indignity of being photographed trying - and failing - to eat a bacon sandwich for breakfast, as well as his bizarre decision to pose for the cameras alongside a copy of The Sun.

In contrast, standing next to his wife, on the courtyard steps at Mary Ward House, Miliband looked relaxed, personable.. normal. Over the next few months, according to senior Labour sources, we will start to see the confident and self-assured Thornton emerge from the shadows; we will see Ed and Justine together in public, at events, on the campaign trail, in the media. Her chief task, they whisper, will be to humanise him, to anchor him in the "real world", not the "wonk world".

So, could Mrs Miliband be the Labour leader's secret weapon?

Born in 1970 in Manchester but raised in Nottingham, Justine Thornton attended local comprehensive West Bridgford School, where former pupils include the Oscar-nominated British actress Samantha Morton.

Thornton herself had the acting bug and came to public attention as a teenage actor appearing in the Central Television drama 'Hardwicke House'. She played rebellious schoolgirl Erica who called Geoffrey Howe, then Margaret Thatcher's foreign secretary, a "fascist" in the pilot show, though the series was soon cancelled after a public outcry over its "comic violence and portrayal of dysfunctional pupils," according to the Daily Telegraph.

justine thornton

A teenaged Thornton played wild child Erica on ITV's 'Hardwicke House'

Thornton also starred in ITV's 'Dramarama', before starting to lose interest in acting. Ferociously intelligent, the teenaged Thornton wanted to focus on her academic career.

She achieved straight As in her maths, English and history A-levels and secured a place at Robinson College, Cambridge, where she read law. Graduating in 1992, Thornton was called to the bar two years later where she met, and struck up a friendship with, Frances Osborne - now the wife of the chancellor - with whom she went backpacking across South America. (“I’m immensely fond of Justine,” Osborne told the Times in 2012, adding that the two women were part of a "common gang" of MPs' spouses.)

In 2004, Thornton met Miliband at a dinner party in London. The Labour Party special adviser, who had only just returned from a two-year sabbatical at Harvard University, struck up a conversation with the sharp, witty and attractive lawyer and the two hit it off. It was a meeting of minds - a friend of Justine's once described to me the latter's excitement after meeting Miliband as "gosh how fascinating, he's really clever" rather than "gosh how handsome".

In a speech to Labour activists in 2013, Thornton herself recalled how it was local Labour activists in Doncaster, from where Miliband was trying to get elected in 2005, who first guessed that she and the Labour candidate had fallen for each other. Thornton said she had travelled up from London to Doncaster to help Miliband set up for a party meeting when an activist said to her: "That's a very long way to come to move chairs, are you sure you're just friends?" According to Thornton, the activist was "clearly very astute and realised before we did I think."

Miliband himself told Radio 4's 'Desert Island Discs' in 2013 that the reason he was such a fan of the Robbie Williams song 'Angels' was because he had realised he was in love with Thornton while the pair watched Williams sing it live on stage during the Live 8 concert in Hyde Park in July 2005.

robbie williams hyde park 2005

Was it Robbie Williams who brought Ed and Justine together?

For Miliband, a former special adviser to Gordon Brown and Harriet Harman, who had been raised in the über-ideological home of a high-profile Marxist academic, Thornton was a breath of fresh air. She brought some much-needed fun and colour to his serious, politics and policy-obsessed life - and, by all accounts, still does.

Friends of the Labour leader's wife speak, for instance, of her "sense of adventure". In 2005, only a few months after she started dating Miliband, Thornton joined a friend and fellow barrister, Quincy Whittaker, on a climb up the 4,167-metre Mount Toubkal in Morocco - the highest peak in the Atlas Mountains. Later, when Whitaker suggested they visit India, Thornton proposed they go "via Afghanistan".

Nevertheless, the adventurous Thornton has also had to do much of the heavy lifting in her relationship with Miliband, distracted (obsessed?) as the latter is by the all-consuming worlds of politics and government.

When the pair combined their financial resources to buy their north London townhouse for £1.6million in 2009, it was Thornton's name, and not Miliband's, that went on the property deed.

When their first child Daniel was born in 2009, Thornton registered the birth but wasn't able to add both parents' names because they weren't married. Miliband, it later turned out, was "too busy" to get round to going to the registry office in person and adding his name to the certificate.

He was also, it seems, "too busy" to get married to Thornton, becoming the first unmarried man to become leader of the Labour Party in September 2010.

In May 2011, the couple finally married in a small, very private ceremony, and with an emotional Miliband reducing his new wife to tears by telling her she was his "rock" and "the most beautiful, generous and kind person that I've ever met in my life".

justine miliband

Miliband described Thornton as his "rock" at their wedding in 2011

When the time came for her own speech, Thornton told guests at the wedding: "When I was growing up I thought when I was 30 I would be married and have two kids. It might be a decade late but it was worth the wait for Ed."

It is, in a sense, remarkable that we have so seen so little of the eloquent and charming Thornton over the past four years. She is on the radar of only a handful of journalists; few members of the public would be able to identify her if shown a picture of the Labour leader's wife.

Yet, in an age of 24-hour news channels and live blogs, politicians' spouses tend to find themselves under greater scrutiny than ever before. The high-powered careers of Thornton (environmental barrister), Samantha Cameron (former business executive) and Miriam González Durántez (City lawyer) help explain some of the interest - but equally explain why the wives themselves are so uninterested in playing ball with journalists and prefer to adopt lower profiles.

It is difficult to overstate the importance that Thornton gives to her own job, as a high-flying barrister specialising in environmental law. In an interview with Grazia magazine in 2012, Miliband joked that his wife considers him the third most important thing in her life, behind their two sons and her legal career.

"She works at one of the country's most eminent chambers," says a member of the shadow cabinet, pointing to her position at Thirty Nine Essex Street, where she is believed to earn around £200,000 a year - compared to Miliband's £130,000 salary as leader of the opposition . "She's very impressive."

Leading legal directories such as Chambers & Partners and Legal 500 agree with the shadow minister's assessment, regularly referring to Thornton as, among other things, "very calm, focused and knowledgeable", "extremely bright [and] hardworking", a "first-class" advocate who "shows considerable attention to detail, commitment to the cause and great knowledge".

As the partner of a top politician, however, she has had to pick her cases with care. In March 2009, when Miliband was energy and climate change secretary in the Gordon Brown government, Thornton found herself embroiled in a 'conflict of interest' row when it emerged that she was representing energy company E.ON as it tried to win the right to build a series of coal and nuclear powered stations worth more than £20 billion. A departmental spokesman for Miliband was forced to remind the press that Thornton had not "acted for or against the department and will not receive or accept any such work in the future".

Perhaps, then, it is unfair to say she has put her career ahead of his. Indeed Miliband has said that his wife often jokes with him that she could have had "an easy life married to somebody else but it would have been a less interesting life".

A working mum, Thornton tells friends she values her privacy and, especially, the privacy of her kids - though the Labour leader's wife has, on occasion, agreed to do photo shoots with Daniel, aged 5, and Samuel, aged 3. She is still feeling her way towards an appropriate and - the cynics would say - mutually-beneficial relationship with the the press corps.

justine miliband

The Miliband kids aren't always off limits to the media

Can we expect her to see her pop up on the 'This Morning' couch or on the 'Loose Women' panel in the run-up to the general election next May? Maybe. Or she might, alternatively, decide to turn up on the Andrew Marr show or the Today programme to talk about the environment or the law.

"She will do her own thing, she won't be SamCam or Cherie," says a senior Labour source. "Justine is her own woman."

"I think she could do more media, but not just as a wife," adds a shadow cabinet minister. " She has strong views; she's an independent-minded woman."

The big question, though, is this: will Thornton be able to help Miliband revive his plummeting poll ratings?

According to a member of the Labour leader's inner circle, the comprehensive-educated Thornton, with her non-political, provincial background, "roots him in real life". She "connects Ed to the best part of himself," says the source.

In internal discussions, party strategists are said to refer to Thornton as "the best validator and authenticator" of Miliband and his 'One Nation', pro-'squeezed middle' message.

Those same strategists have secretly planned a bigger role for Thornton in the run-up to the general election - both during the Scottish referendum campaign over the summer and, in particular, at the party's annual conference in Manchester in September.

justine miliband

Will Thornton go from giving a kiss to giving a speech at the next Labour conference?

So far, all three leaders' wives have consistently refused to introduce their husbands at party conference, despite Sarah Brown having famously introduced husband Gordon at the Labour conference in 2009 as "my hero".

At Labour's conference in Brighton in 2013, Miliband told a TV interviewer that Thornton "has got a full-time job.. we are not bringing her on to introduce me at conference, I can assure you of that".

Whether he will make the same assurance this time round is another matter. Speculation is rife amongst some senior Labour figures that Thornton could give a 'game-changing' speech to introduce Miliband at this year's annual conference in September - the last such conference before the general election next May.

If Thornton does decide to speak ahead of Miliband in Manchester, as she did in Mary Ward House, she'll eschew corniness. "That's not Justine's style," says a member of the shadow cabinet. "The [Sarah Brown] 'hero' stuff was awful."

As an indication of how seriously Thornton takes her (rare) public appearances, it is worth recalling the irritated remark she made to a group of Labour supporters in Brighton last year. "All you'll know about me this year is the make of the dress I wear for Ed's speech on Tuesday," she told Young Labour activists. "I am in fact more than a dress."

Sceptics suggest 'upgrading' Thornton's role, and giving her a bigger profile, either at conference or on the campaign trail, will have little effect on the result of the next election. Pollster Peter Kellner, chairman of YouGov, tells me that "wives (and husbands) have little impact on the fortunes of political leaders, in Britain anyway". Kellner adds: "Two wives who had a positive image were, and are, Glenys Kinnock and Sarah Brown. They may have enhanced their husband's standing inside their own party; but as neither of their husbands won an election, it's hard to sustain the argument that they were vote winners."

Perhaps. But even if Thornton's only contribution in the coming months is to help Miliband get permission to be heard - as a normal, middle-class family man, 'rooted in real life', rather than as a weird, out-of-touch wonk, rooted in Westminster - Labour strategists will conclude that it will have been worth it.

And, as Damien Lyons Lowe, of the polling firm Survation, says: "If Ed Miliband presented himself more as a family man, a father, a husband - sending signals of someone in touch with life outside of politics, it's possible this could improve his personal ratings."

It would be a mistake to underestimate Thornton's commitment to the Miliband - and, by extension, Labour - cause. She is, in fact, as quietly ruthless and steely as her husband. During the leadership campaign in 2010, Thornton is reported to have told friends that she was more worried about her partner's political prospects, than his sibling rivalry with David: "Ed has to win it, and then we can sort that out."

Miliband refers to her as his "best counsel", and speaking to friends of both the Labour leader and his wife (then girlfriend) for our biography of him in 2011, my co-author James Macintyre and I discovered just how much of a "rock" Thornton is for Miliband. She advises, supports, bolsters, cheerleads. All of Miliband's big political moves - from his decision to challenge brother David for the party leadership in 2010 to his decision to challenge the Daily Mail's Paul Dacre over the legacy of his late father Ralph in 2013 - have been made only after long and intense discussions with Thornton. ("Life's an adventure," she is said to have replied, when Miliband asked her whether he should run for leader, "and you've got to seize the day.")

One friend of both Ed and Justine has talked about "their strikingly consensual relationship.. It is so equal: neither dominates at all." Other friends who we spoke to for our biography described Thornton as, among other things, "a great political wife, because while everyone is talking she just gets on with things"; a partner who "is engaged with [Miliband's] political life but easily his greatest refuge from it too"; and the person who "encourages him to trust his instincts".

Thornton, according to a shadow minister who has known the couple of several years, is very much on the centre-left and a keen supporter of Miliband's "responsible capitalism" agenda. "She's a political soulmate," says the shadow minister.

justine miliband

Thornton is the Labour leader's 'political soulmate', says a shadow minister

She also keeps him "grounded", to quote one of Miliband's former girlfriends, and is a reminder to the public that the Labour leader isn't just a professional politician, a wonk who obsesses over inequality and redistribution. He happens to be a proud husband and father too; Miliband has a wife and two kids who love and adore him as a person, not as a politician.

Normality is the keyword. "While Glenys at least was a political activist," Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader, once reminded me, "Justine just has a totally normal background."

Will her "normal background" aid and abet the Leader of the Opposition in his mission to convince sceptical voters that he is on their side, understands their concerns and plans to fight on their behalf - if, that is, they decide to put him (and his wife) in Number 10 next May?

Over the next 10 months, Thornton will be on the campaign trail and will be speaking out much more often - regardless of how many critical pieces the the tabloids decide to run on her clothing or her career. "She regards it as a price she has to pay in order for Ed to do what he has to do," says a friend. Another adds: "She is not going to buckle no matter how difficult this gets."

Unlike a growing number of Labour MPs, Thornton believes in her husband - and believes he will win. She is convincned - as evidenced by her occasional public statements, as well as from the testimony of her friends and her husband's friends - that only Miliband can bring about radical change in the way the country is run.

Wrapping up her speech at Mary Ward House, Thornton said she and her husband wanted to make the next election about the need for "decency and principles in public life".

"That's why I am up for a fight," she told the crowd, "however nasty, however brutal."

Mehdi Hasan   |   July 17, 2014   12:58 AM ET

The five things you need to know on Thursday 17 July 2014...


You can tell a general election is around the corner. From the Times:

"Labour accused David Cameron of lying about its tax plans after he claimed that the party would increase taxes on the middle class if Ed Miliband won the general election. Speaking at prime minister's questions yesterday, Mr Cameron repeated comments made in an LBC radio interview this week by Harriet Harman, Labour's deputy leader, when she said that people on 'middle incomes should contribute more through their taxes'. Mr Miliband hit back, saying that the prime minister's decision to pounce on Ms Harman's words was 'totally desperate stuff'. A Labour party spokesman added later that Mr Cameron had 'twisted her words'."

Harman's point, which she later reiterated in a letter to the PM, was that the system of progressive taxation that we have in this country, in which people pay more tax as they earn more money, is fundamentally fair and correct. Are the Tories saying they don't agree with that? Are they going to propose a flat tax instead? I think not.

The Mirror reports:

"Ms Harman later wrote to Mr Cameron to accuse him of undermining public trust in politics. She said: 'This is not true. It is a lie.' The MP included a full transcript of remarks she made on an LBC radio phone-in on Monday night. She added: 'It is utterly clear this is not a call for higher taxes, but a defence of a system which has commanded wide support, in which people on middle incomes contribute more than people on lower incomes.'"

Quoting people out of context is pretty indefensible - doing it at PMQs when you're the prime minister is even worse. Check out my colleague Asa Bennett's collection of five Cameron and Osborne out of context quotes which seem to show they agree with Harman on tax.


You'll never believe it but Nick Clegg has done a U-turn. Yes, really. On the bedroom tax - sorry, spare room subsidy. His 'axeman', the Lib Dem chief secretary of the Treasury Danny Alexander has penned a piece for the Mirror:

"Our revised proposal is that new tenants in the social rented sector would receive housing benefit based on the number of rooms they need. But those already in the social rented sector would only see a reduction in benefit if they are offered a suitable smaller home and, crucially, turn it down. Disabled adults should be treated the same as disabled children, by permanently exempting them."

Labour have accused the Lib Dems of "unbelievable hypocrisy". Meanwhile, the Times notes:

"The move, which will isolate the ­Tories on the issue, comes just a few days after the Lib Dems dropped to 6 per cent in YouGov polling. It also came a day after the publication of an internal government review that showed almost 60 per cent of households affected by the housing benefit changes were in arrears as a ­result and a shortage of smaller properties meant just 4.5 per cent of tenants had been able to downsize to avoid it."


Guess who's got a meeting with the Leader Of The Free World? Go on, guess? Yep, Edward Samuel Miliband. Who says hiring David Axelrod was a waste of money? From the Guardian:

"Ed Miliband is aiming to stage a high-stakes visit to Washington next week that is expected to include a drop-in meeting with Barack Obama, the same level of courtesy offered to David Cameron in 2008 when the then-leader of the opposition met Obama's predecessor, George Bush. The meeting will not be Miliband's first encounter with the US president but the visit to Washington will be his first in his official capacity as leader of the opposition. It is expected to take place on Monday and will include a speech to a Washington thinktank the Centre for American Progress highlighting the confluence in Labour and Democrat thinking about the broken link between economic growth and shared prosperity."

The Guardian uses the phrase 'drop-in meeting', the BBC goes with 'brush by', i.e. an informal, supposedly 'chance' encounter with the president in a corridor of the White House, or maybe in the midst of a formal meeting between between Miliband and one of Obama's aides. The US president can't be seen to be interfering too much in the domestic political debate in the UK, especially nine months out from a general election.

Remember also: despite their political differences, Barry and Dave are supposed to be pals.


Watch this video of Sky News presenter Adam Boulton swallowing a fly live on air, outside Number 10 Downing Street. You know you want to.


Could Lord Hill, the rather unknown Tory peer picked by David Cameron to be his candidate for EU commissioner, be about to be blocked because of his supposedly eurosceptic views? The Times reports that "the president of the European parliament launched an outspoken attack on the former lobbyist and self-declared Eurosceptic, warning that he could be blocked when MEPs vet candidates in September. 'I cannot imagine Hill — whose views, in as far as he’s got any, are radically anti-European — getting a majority in the European parliament,' Martin Shultz, a German Social Democrat, said."

Oh dear. Meanwhile, the Tories aren't wasting any time in terms of a post-reshuffle challenge to the hated European Convention on Human Rights and the court in Strasbourg that enforces it - the BBC has this exclusive:

"The Conservatives have drawn up plans designed to limit the power of the European Court of Human Rights and to reassert the sovereignty of Parliament. David Cameron has been presented with the proposals that would mean Parliament decided what constitutes a breach of human rights. Strasbourg rulings on issues like votes for prisoners have angered many Tories. Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, sacked in the reshuffle, is thought to have warned against the planned change."


Anyone who has any doubts about whether the Israeli military is committing war crimes in Gaza should have a read of the gut-wrenching, eyewitness account filed by the Guardian and Observer's Jerusalem correspondent Peter Beaumont:

"The first projectile hit the sea wall of Gaza City's little harbour just after four o'clock. As the smoke from the explosion thinned, four figures could be seen running, ragged silhouettes, legs pumping furiously along the wall. Even from a distance of 200 metres, it was obvious that three of them were children... the second shell hit the beach, those firing apparently adjusting their fire to target the fleeing survivors. As it exploded, journalists standing by the terrace wall shouted: 'They are only children.' In the space of 40 seconds, four boys who had been playing hide and seek among fishermen's shacks on the wall were dead. They were aged between seven and 11; two were named Mohammad, one Zakaria and the youngest Ahed. All were members of the extended Bakr family."

On a side note, my latest column is on the subject of the west's complicity in Israel's war crimes against the Palestinian people and why it matters.


From the Sun/YouGov poll:

Labour 36
Conservatives 33
Ukip 13
Lib Dems 9

That would give Labour a majority of 32.


Tim Montgomerie, writing in the Times, says: "Crosby’s growing power did for ‘toxic’ Gove."

Martin Kettle, writing in the Guardian, says: "An untested and unready Ed Miliband faces Cameron’s redrawn Tory ranks."

Andreas Whittam Smith, writing in the Independent, says: "Little that the Prime Minister says about the reshuffle bears scrutiny."

Got something you want to share? Please send any stories/tips/quotes/pix/plugs/gossip to Mehdi Hasan (, Ned Simons ( or Asa Bennett ( You can also follow us on Twitter: @mehdirhasan, @nedsimons, @asabenn and @huffpostukpol@huffpostukpol

Shamefully, the Western World Has Failed the People of Syria

James Snell   |   July 14, 2014   12:50 AM ET

Despite the existence of other international crises, the civil war in Syria and its effects remain. Three years on from the beginning of protests against the dictatorial rule of President Assad, the original struggle for greater rights in a tyrannical state has morphed into an armed revolution.

The situation in Syria has been called the 'greatest humanitarian crisis of our time' by the United Nations. It is my belief that this miserable result is due, in whole or in part, to the inaction of Western governments - both in failing to intervene in order to remove Bashar al-Assad, a murderous tyrant who is perfectly willing to destroy his country in order to save the regime that rules over it, and in the lack of humanitarian assistance provided to the Syrian people after Britain, France, the United States and their allies meekly gave up on combating the brutality last August.

First, the lamentable lack of action from European nations towards stopping the horrors of the Syrian war, including the backing down of David Cameron, Barack Obama and Francois Hollande in the aftermath of the regime's chemical weapons attacks on Ghouta last summer, inevitably prolonged the crisis.

After the Obama administration grandly called for a 'red line' over chemical weapons usage, it seemed as if the mechanised horror of such weaponry could be contained. As it happened, this pronouncement was utterly empty. Assad's forces, backed by the UN veto, and covert military aid of a supportive Russia, publicly stepped over the line with impunity. And not just once. Der Spiegel exhaustively documented other instances of the use of chemical weapons. Tom Rogan in the National Review drew poignant attention to the use of chlorine gas by the regime.

The Assad government, happy to rid itself of its declared chemical arsenal, has continued to brutalise the population by other means. This is bad news for President Obama and his allies. Even an otherwise congratulatory New York Times leader acknowledges that 'there are still questions about whether Syria retains hidden weapons and related technologies'.

However, after a sham deal, which included the foundation of 'peace talks' in Geneva that everyone agrees are ineffectual, Assad was essentially left alone to perpetrate his crimes.

After the sound and fury of the build-up, silence reigned. All it took was a single parliamentary vote, and the leaders of the most powerful nations of the world gave up the pretence of caring about the fate of Syria and its people. Not when their electoral changes might be affected, anyway. And the fact that intervention was so unpopular also speaks volumes. It speaks of a populist mindset close to doctrinal isolationism, and the inherent national selfishness that such a mood creates.

In the aftermath of the failure of Britain and her allies to intervene, there has been another injustice. The fate of Syrian refugees is one of vital importance and powerful emotive impact, and yet the British government in particular has reacted very poorly to this tragedy. Having failed to win the war, Western governments, through either calculated callousness or administrative incompetence, are rapidly losing the peace.

In Britain, Ukip, a party which ran a not inconspicuous campaign against any intervention in Syria, has also made its opinions known on this most vital of humanitarian disasters. And those opinions are not good. After Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, appeared to support giving refuge in Britain to some of the world's most needy, his party rebelled. Eventually, members and activists forced him into pledging to accept only Christians fleeing the country.

Happily, such naked discrimination met with criticism from across the British political spectrum; but outrage on this scale helped no one, and the number of refugees taken in by Britain and other European nations remains distressingly low. In Britain, only 24 Syrian refugees have been allowed to enter the country. To say that the government is dragging its feet, as refugee groups and the Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, have done, is a grotesque understatement.

James Bloodworth, a British journalist, summed up the appalling state of the UK government's response.

There's a good chance that Syria will, for future generations, be considered the humanitarian crisis of our time. As such, the scale of the tragedy requires a much greater response than the callous and disinterested one shown thus far by the government.
But that failure is not just confined to the UK. France, a country that like Britain backed out of dealing with Assad militarily last year, agreed to accommodate only 500 Syrians; this from a total refugee population of over two million. The Hollande government is currently under pressure from organisations such as Amnesty International to take its fair share of Syrians. But regardless of whether the President caves in, his initial unwillingness to allow the victims of terror and intimidation and brutality shelter in his nation ought to be held against him from now on.

The failure of Western governments is particularly obvious - and shaming - when viewed in relation to the loads borne by the nations bordering Syria. In Iraq, a country that has more than its own share of problems at present, over 200,000 displaced Syrians find shelter. In Turkey the number is over 650,000.

This numerical failure is also a moral one. Having failed to combat the power of a despotic ruler who is busily engaged in hammering his opponents into the ground at any cost, the West now refuses to recognise, and act on, its own ethical obligations.

This dual failure points to a broader climate of non-interventionism and isolationism - which are two separate but interlocking phenomena. Both philosophies contain elements of the parochial and the selfish. Like it or not, those ideas - aided by the recent successes of the European far-right - are now closer to government than ever. Syria has already been abandoned to the brutality of a tyrant. To effectively mete out the same fate to those fleeing the conflict does the West, and the wider world, an enormous disservice.

James Snell is a Contributing Editor for The Libertarian

Obama's Diplomatic Coalition of the Willing - Or Else!

Jon-Christopher Bua   |   July 14, 2014   12:00 AM ET

Emperor Nero was accused of playing the fiddle while Rome burned.

This analogy may be applied to our world leaders today as the crisis in the Middle-East has the potential to spiral out of control into the next world war.

Although it is true that President Obama has had more than than his fair share of international crises to deal with, it is also true that no president can pick their challenges.

President Obama started his first term with two wars - Iraq and Afghanistan, a financial meltdown to rival the Great Depression, the "Arab Spring-Winter" - the overthrow of several governments in that region and a civil war brewing in Syria.

Following all that up, in his second term Obama faced the Syria "line in the sand" chemical weapons challenge, Benghazi, an Iran nuclear weapons stalemate and Russian aggression in Ukraine along with the un-answered invasion and annexation of Crimea.

Even with all of these world events taking place beyond America's borders, what is unquestionably true is that the American people today are much less interested in the rest of the world and far more interested in their own personal well being.

Perhaps we as Americans can not see beyond our own borders unless events somehow threaten the integrity of those borders and our own way of life.

It may be as sad as it is true that the average American does not understand that their personal safety and financial well being are directly affected by world events and they simply cannot be ignored.

An all out war in the Middle-East, creating more failed states, will not only affect the US economy, it is also likely to pose a real safety risk to US citizens both here and abroad as terrorists entities like ISIS pledge to annihilate those who do not follow their path to salvation.

Like it or not America is still an indispensable factor when it comes to world leadership and keeping world peace.

To be fair, it is not America or its leaders alone who seem to be less interested in dealing with these international crises.

The leaders of the EU have not exactly rushed in to fill the vacuum either.

When it came time for them to show real leadership and join the US to impose the toughest sanctions against Russia for "annexing" Crimea - none of them seemed ready to handle the economic or political pain that such a move might cause back home.

As a result weak sanctions were the order of the day and Putin's aggression went unanswered.

The 100th Anniversary of World War I prompting revised interest for anyone paying attention to the causes of that war, should give all these world leaders some pause - since their failure to act now could put them all in a far worse position later.

"Kicking the can down the road" for the next hapless president or prime minister to deal with is simply not an option.

The Middle-East has never been so explosive.

Every country in the region is facing serious problems.

On top of the war raging in Syria, Egypt who was once a reliable power broker in the peace process, is now struggling to stabilize itself after overthrowing a democratically elected Muslim president.

Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq are all having their own immigration border issues as fleeing refugees from Syria and other neighboring countries stream in causing them further destabilization.

And Israel of course is threatened by more instability than ever both within and outside its own "established borders".

Hamas seems to have decided that the world will do nothing based on the Syria situation and they are taking advantage of this lack of world leadership to push their agenda and put Israel to the test.

Up till now the "Iron Dome" protection system has given Israel the time and space it has needed to avoid taking the most extreme actions in response to the constant shelling of its towns and cities by Hamas.

However the actions they have taken in self defense - and the related collateral damage to civilians in Gaza - have had the unintended consequence of inspiring Muslims to join Hamas' cause.

This situation cannot last. If "Iron Dome" fails to protect Israelis just once then all bets are off.

There is also no hope of a long term solution since the peace talks have collapsed with no clear plan to restart them.

Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran, who all border this mess, are also keeping a watchful eye on these events since this area is ripe for a proxy war between Shia and Sunni Muslims.

The US and its allies have avoided direct military involvement in Syria allowing it to collapse into a failed state and a haven for terrorists.

A direct result of this failure to act in Syria is that ISIS has taken over parts of both Syria and Iraq and they now threaten to redraw the map of the Middle-East unless they are stopped.

It is an election year in the US and the importance of all of this as it effects the US response cannot be underestimated.

Although President Obama and his team might like to focus on domestic issues since the Mid-Term elections are only about four months away, the world is simply not cooperating.

Support of Israel is a political cornerstone of any successful US political campaign -whether you are Republican or Democrat.

It is clear that at this time military involvement in yet another conflict is a sure political loser.

This puts both President Obama and his Republican challengers in a tough spot, since this situation seems to be a real "no win" no matter what they do here.

Unless of course, Obama can convince Cameron, Merkel, Hollande and the other EU leaders along with China, Japan and Russia to put their domestic political issues aside, speak with one strong voice and join a Diplomatic Coalition of the Willing to quell this brewing storm before it is too late.

Palestine: Something Must Be Done, But What and By Whom?

Gregor Cubie   |   July 13, 2014   11:47 PM ET

As Israeli military operations reignited in Gaza on July 8, the familiar indignant echo of "something must be done" rang out around the liberal and non-interventionist quarters of the Western world in a show of solidarity with the trampled Palestinian people that, while admirable, all too often fails to delineate exactly to whom the appeals for reason should be addressed.

We'll start with our own government just in case anybody, particularly of purple pound-sign persuasion, still clings to the black-and-white, Elgar-scored fantasy of Britain as an international diplomacy high-roller.

In the immediate term William Hague has called for a ceasefire while reiterating Israel's right to defend itself in a statement so closely aligned with President Obama's side of a reported phone conversation with Israeli PM Netanyahu it may as well just have read: "what he said".

The UK's other recourse would be to boycott Israeli businesses with branches in the occupied territories like the now infamous Sodastream although it is worth noting that this victory came as a result of two years of protest, affected one of 27 companies operating out of the occupied territories and trading in the UK, and was at odds with the government's anti-boycott position, cemented by David Cameron at a Middle East press conference in March :

I'm anti-boycott. I couldn't have been clearer about that today. And that's all I've got to say about the matter.

So what about the America? Strategically the United States and Israel enjoy a near symbiotic relationship, with a Republican Senator once famously describing Israel as: "America's aircraft carrier in the Middle East".

But lately things have not been quite so cosy, as Secretary of State John Kerry seemingly routinely provokes outrage among Israeli officials with such critiques of their policy as the "apartheid" barb. However, what started out as arguably the most pro-Palestinian White House in recent memory has been bent back into its traditional role as "Israel's lawyer" by a hostile Republican congress and an increasingly unstable diplomatic landscape in the Middle East.

This uncertain new horizon has seen the US and Israel reinforce both economic and diplomatic ties, both of which are held in place by the huge weight of historical responsibility that successive US governments have placed on their own shoulders where Israel is concerned.

Another distracting sideshow for the US State Department is the relatively positive progress made in US-Iran relations, the very existence of which causes disgruntled rumbles in Jerusalem's diplomatic wheelhouse and provides yet further disincentive to rock the port side of the Israeli boat.

The upshot of this impossibly delicate situation is that the American response to Israel's latest belligerence has stopped short of calling for a ceasefire, instead offering to "mediate" a temporary truce.

From a Palestinian point of view this is a less than welcome proposition - imagine a football match being refereed by one team's largest minority shareholder - so assuming a negotiated ceasefire is the best workable option, what other options are there in the international community?

The UN Security Council has also, very creatively, called for a ceasefire , though historically the impact of this, the primary forum for international relations, is minimal to say the least - on a par with the moments in The Simpsons when Helen Lovejoy is shouting "won't somebody please think of the children?!"

The security council's main diplomatic tool is the Resolution - non binding recommendations that can instigate diplomatic or military action, but do very little to prevent it. The latest UN resolution in late June set out a framework for peace and non-proliferation in Mali - where 30 people were reported to have been killed in clashes between UN forces an militant Islamists just today . Within hours of this flagrant disavowal of UN authority, the tattered shreds of their discarded resolutions were also to be found in North Korea, where missile testing dealt another, all too regular blow to the UN peace mission.

Where Israel is concerned, things become even more difficult - each of the security council's five permanent members has the right to veto resolutions, a right exercised with trigger-happy abandon by the USA whenever a resolution is perceived to aid Palestine. There hasn't been a UN resolution on Israel since Resolution 1860 in 2009 which called for the immediate cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas. It was rejected by both sides.

Therein lies the rub. While overstretched superpowers continue to exert their creaking pragmatism by snuffing out any radical (ie. strongly worded) UN resolutions, such interminable, Sisyphean diplomatic questions as that of Israel-Palestine will continue to spiral into oblivion.

Mark LeVine, writing for Al Jazeera , made the case for removing the veto:

With the civil war and attending humanitarian diaster in Syria, the Central African Republic spiraling into a conflict across the region, the showdown over Crimea threatening to resurrect the Cold War, there is a growing sense that the only way to get rising powers to play a more proactive role in managing regional conflicts is through their greater empowerment within the international system.

While doing so would not resolve the security council's lack of legal clout, it would remove one roadblock between the diplomatic community and the kind of constructive debate that could lead to a peaceful compromise.

Get rid of the veto: then the discussion can begin.

  |   July 11, 2014    7:35 AM ET

The United States has said it is prepared to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, President Barack Obama told Israel's Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu in a phone call.

Thursday saw a dramatic escalation in air strikes on the beleagured territory. Palestinians reported at least 16 people were killed in strikes on two homes – occupied by the same family. It was reported that a beach restaurant in the south of the Strip was hit on Wednesday evening, where locals were watching the World Cup match, the Guardian reported.

Netanyahu has thus far ruled out any talk of an end to hostilities, saying it was "not even on the agenda" in a speech to the Israeli Knesset just hours earlier. "While the campaign has gone as planned further stages yet await us," he said, calling it a "tough, complex and complicated campaign."


A ball of fire is seen following an early morning Israeli air strike on Rafah in the southern of Gaza strip

Last night Obama "reiterated the United States’ strong condemnation of continuing rocket fire into Israel by Hamas and other terrorist organizations in Gaza and reaffirmed Israel’s right to defend itself against these attacks," the White House said in a statement.

But the president expressed concern "about the risk of further escalation and emphasized the need for all sides to do everything they can to protect the lives of civilians and restore calm."

"I would remind you who is at fault here, and that is Hamas," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Thursday, saying the militant group were "indiscriminately" firing rockets at southern Israel, directed at civilian targets.

Asked whether the US backed a potential Israeli ground invasion of Gaza, Psaki replied that it was "no one's preference."

The death toll is now believed to be around 90 in the Gaza Strip, with no one killed or injured in rocket attacks on Israel.

Israeli military spokesman Lt Col Peter Lerner said on Thursday that Israel had struck more than 320 Hamas targets over Wednesday night and into Thursday morning, and had mobilised 20,000 reservists for a ground operation. But such an invasion may not come about, he added, saying the IDF was focused on an air campaign.

Later on Wednesday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said: "I have been in contact with the regional and international parties in the last few days, particularly Hamas leaders in Gaza, and everyone I've talked to expressed his willingness to restore the truce and stop the escalation," adding that the Israeli actions against Gaza was "orchestrated and brutal aggression".

Climate Change - A Window of Opportunity for the US

Edward Davey   |   July 2, 2014   12:00 AM ET

Climate change threatens serious economic disruption to us all with serious implications to global stability and the impact it will have on the whole of humanity. The recent extreme floods in the UK and the violent storms here in the US have been warnings from the future if we do not act. So I applaud the President's bold action on climate change - the Climate Action Plan was a seminal moment in the global debate on climate change as we build momentum towards an international deal next year and it shows the World that the US, can and will act.

Securing a global future for the next generation is my overriding priority, where we can all enhance our economic development and live in a world that is not threatened by manmade global warming or at the very least managed. America is key to this, which is why I am meeting with leaders in the White House and State Department to discuss how we can best turn this momentum into a global climate change agreement in Paris next year.

Like in the UK, there are those who are sceptical of the science, but the President was right when he said that the science has clearly shown that our planet is changing in ways that will have profound impacts on all of humankind and that will also result in serious economic consequences. The National Climate Assessment found that: "corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington State, and maple syrup producers in Vermont are all observing climate-related changes that are outside of recent experience."

There are also opportunities and true entrepreneurs should have their eyes wide open. We are in a global race and the global market for low carbon goods and services has been valued at over £3 trillion and is growing at about 4% a year. In the UK, renewable energy has generated £8bn of investment and will support up to 260,000 jobs by 2020, in the first quarter of this year renewable energy supplied 19.4 per cent of our energy needs. I urge the US to also embrace these opportunities and build on this emerging economy, because the threat is real.

My second priority is to provide long-term certainty for investors. The UK's 2008 climate law was welcomed by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) as providing a clear path to reach our climate change goals. It is why the US Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan is so laudable and I'm glad to see it has received a positive response from some businesses and investors. Since 2010, we have mobilised £45 billion to be invested in the British energy market and in April supporting 250,000 jobs by 2020.

Last week, the bipartisan Risky Business report, gave a comprehensive economic analysis of the costs of inaction across key US regions and sectors. It presents a stark choice - accept the climate risks, or get on another path. The independent New Climate Economy study, to be published in September, will also explore the global economic opportunities for businesses and governments further--ones that both our countries cannot afford to miss.

The reality is that no country's actions alone will create the impact required to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius - we all need to be part of the solution.
China is also taking action domestically and looking like it will overachieve on its pledge to reduce the carbon intensity of their economy by 45% by 2020. On his visit to London in June, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and the UK Prime Minister David Cameron issued a joint statement pledging to "redouble their efforts on climate change."

EU leaders, including the UK, Germany and France, have also set out a clear plan for agreeing to a 40% emissions reduction by 2030. These are just a few examples of growing global cooperation on these issues, many of which the US is playing a leading role in.

But we do not have time to spare - delaying action will cost the world and the US and UK economies more in the long run. As the Risky Business report shows, we need to create a sustainable economy, or we face a future of increasing resource scarcity, more extreme weather and continued environmental degradation.

We have an opportunity to fine tune our economies in order to deal with this threat and build a positive future for the next generations. Businesses and governments around the world need to embrace this opportunity and act on climate change. The US has shown it is willing to take ambitious action - together we need to make a global deal in 2015 a reality.

Ed Davey is the UK Energy and Climate Secretary

Mehdi Hasan   |   June 30, 2014   11:34 PM ET

The five things you need to know on Tuesday 1 July 2014...


From the Guardian:

"David Cameron is edging Britain towards the EU exit door after embarking on a negotiation strategy based on 'threats, insults and disengagement', Ed Miliband has said. In rowdy commons scenes, which saw one former Tory minister liken the incoming European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker to a Luftwaffe fighter plane, the Labour leader accused the prime minister of burning alliances, leaving his EU strategy in tatters. Emotions were running so high on the Tory benches as the prime minister reported back on last week's EU summit that the commons speaker, John Bercow, was forced to intervene to ask the 'baying mob' to allow Miliband to be heard."

The Labour leader said: "His combination of threats, insults and disengagement turned out to be a masterclass in how to alienate your allies and lose the argument for Britain, including his threat to leave the EU if Mr Juncker were chosen. We all remember he went rowing in a boat with Chancellor Merkel and other centre right leaders in a Swedish lake in order to win support. But what did she say afterwards. She said threats are not part and parcel of the European spirit."

Miliband's message isn't getting through, though - from the Telegraph:

"The Conservative Party has enjoyed a poll bounce in the wake of David Cameron’s failed attempt to prevent Jean-Claude Juncker becoming president of the European Commission. The so-called 'Juncker Effect' has seen the Tories overtake Labour in a poll conducted by Lord Ashcroft, the former Conservative party deputy chairman... The latest weekly poll by Lord Ashcroft puts the Tories on 33 per cent, up five points,and Labour on 31 per cent, down two points."

Labour will be hoping today's big announcement on the devolution of up to £30bn in funding to councils will help boost their poll ratings. In a speech in Leeds, based on proposals made by former cabinet minister and Tony Blair ally Andrew Adonis, the Labour leader will say English regions can be “economic powerhouses” if they are given more control of their budgets.

The Sun reports:

"Ed Miliband will today vow to hand vital powers to the regions in a new drive to tackle the North-South divide. The Labour leader will say all the cash raised from local business rates should be ploughed back into communities. In a speech in Leeds, he will pledge that "combined authorities" like Greater Manchester will get control of the money - rather than Whitehall getting half as now."


The Times has done an interview with Lord Heseltine, who's always good value:

"According to Lord Heseltine, the so-called 'productivity puzzle' is nothing of the sort. The infamous efficiency gap between the UK and rival economies is simply down to indolence: 'We don’t get up early enough, we don’t work hard enough, we’re not ambitious enough.' Not accusations many would level at the 81-year-old Conservative peer who, along with the cities minister Greg Clark, has just completed an exhausting tour of all of England’s 39 'local enterprise partnerships' (LEPs), the growth bodies created by the coalition to replace the costly, bureaucratic regional development agencies."

The report continues:

"Seated in Mr Clark’s office with his back to Big Ben, he claims that a local 'revolution' is about to sweep away inefficiency — British workers’ output per hour is 21 per cent below the average for the G7 — and set entrepreneurs and local government free to take the big decisions that will unlock growth."

And if he offends a fair few people along the way? Oh well...


Poor Dave. We've all held parties at which there've been some pretty embarrassing no-shows, right? From the Times:

"They wanted Daniel Craig and Benedict Cumberbatch, they got Ronnie Corbett and Bruce Forsyth. The idea had been to soak Downing Street in the full-beam power of the A-list celebrity spotlight, but David Cameron may have been left ruing the attempt last night having mustered only a sprinkling of stars shedding a somewhat lower wattage. The prime minister risked inevitable comparisons with Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia parties in 1997 when he invited a glittering collection of stars to an official reception."

The Guardian takes a similar line:

"David Cameron threw a star-studded celebrity party on Tuesday in an echo of Tony Blair's 1997 celebrated "Cool Britannia" bash. But while the New Labour party produced a famous image of Blair in deep conversation with Oasis's Noel Gallagher, Cameron's cast list was headlined by the somewhat less risky figures of entertainers Cilla Black and Bruce Forsyth."

Oh dear...


Watch this video of a dog reacting to Portugal being knocked out of the World Cup. It's quality.


I've been speaking to one of Iraq's most senior politicians, who warns the United States that if it refuses to carry out air strikes against jihadist group Isis then then Iraq will ask Iran to carry them out:

"Speaking exclusively to The Huffington Post UK, Dr Haider Al-Abadi, a member of the Iraqi parliament and a spokesman for Prime Minister Noori Al-Maliki's Dawah Party, said the Iraqi authorities feel so threatened by Isis 'that we will take any assistance, even from Iran'. It is believed to be the first time such a senior Iraqi politician has publicly raised the spectre of full-scale Iranian military involvement inside Iraq - in the absence of US military action. 'We are waiting for the Americans to give us support,' he said. 'If US air strikes [happen], we don't need Iranian air strikes. If they don't, then we may need Iranian strikes.'"

5) 'AS A FATHER...'

"As a father," said President Obama, in an official statement after the three Israeli teenagers abducted earlier this month in the West Bank were found dead near Hebron, "I cannot imagine the indescribable pain that the parents of these teenage boys are experiencing."

He is right to show empathy. The murder of three Israeli teenagers is a tragedy - and a crime.

But, I wonder, does President Obama, 'as a father', also feel the pain of the parents of the three Palestinian teenagers killed in recent weeks by the Israeli military? Or the pain of the parents of Yemeni or Pakistani teenagers killed by US drones?


From the Sun/YouGov poll:

Labour 37
Conservatives 35
Ukip 12
Lib Dems 8

That would give Labour a majority of 18.


Polly Toynbee, writing in the Guardian, says: "Isolated and xenophobic: Britain after a Tory victory."

Rachel Sylvester, writing in the Times, says: "Ed doesn’t lack policies. He lacks character."

Steve Richards, writing in the Independent, says: "Nothing Cameron could have done would have changed outcome in Europe."

Got something you want to share? Please send any stories/tips/quotes/pix/plugs/gossip to Mehdi Hasan (, Ned Simons ( or Asa Bennett ( You can also follow us on Twitter: @mehdirhasan, @nedsimons, @asabenn and @huffpostukpol

Mehdi Hasan   |   June 26, 2014    1:25 AM ET

The five things you need to know on Thursday 26 June 2014...


Poor Dave. The first half of this week was all about phone hacking and the fallout from a guilty verdict for David Cameron's former director of communications, Andy Coulson. Not only did Cameron have to offer his 'profound apology' but yesterday, as the Guardian reports on its front page, "criticism of the prime minister was compounded when a judge rebuked Cameron for potentially prejudicing the final phase of the phone-hacking trial by prematurely branding Coulson a liar before all the verdicts on his former spin doctor... had been reached." Oops!

The second half will focus on Cameron's failing strategy to prevent Jean-Claude Juncker becoming president of the EU commission. As the FT reports on its front page:

"David Cameron's European allies abandoned him yesterday ahead of a showdown over EU leadership, leaving him all but alone in opposing the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker to Brussels' top job at a summit tomorrow. Angela Merkel made a last -minute intervention to try to stop the prime minister's isolation over the appointment of the European Commission president turning into a diplomatic debacle, reassuring him that she would seek to help him reform the EU."

The Times takes a slightly different tack, under the headline:

"Angela Merkel claimed yesterday that there would be 'no drama' if the rest of Europe outvoted Britain and installed Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission."

Maybe not in Brussels. But in Westminster? Oh, there'll be plenty of drama. Dave will have been defeated. And the eurosceptics will be enraged. To add insult to injury, Michael Gove's former spad and Cameron critic Dominic Cummings has penned a column in today's Times headlined: "Cameron's empty Euroscepticism fools no one."



Ken Clarke, the minister without portfolio and veteran of the Thatcher and Major governments, is expected to be booted out of the coalition government in the coming reshuffle. And he knows it. Basically, he's demob-happy and doesn't give a damn about standing up for the PM or collective responsibility. Witness the europhile minister's comments on the BBC's World At One yesterday - my HuffPost colleague Ned Simons reports:

"Cameron has been criticised by the judge at the Old Bailey after he used a TV broadcast to apologise for employing Coulson as his communications director while the jury was still considering other charges. Downing Street insist that the prime minister received the 'best legal advice' before he made the statement. No.10 refused to confirm whether it had come from Attorney General, Dominic Grieve. However Clarke popped up on BBC Radio 4's World at One programme to say Cameron had been 'unwise' to comment. 'They should have taken some legal advice first but I doubt whether it ever crossed David's mind,' he said. 'There obviously wasn't a lawyer sitting around when they were being pressed by the public and the press to give comments on the news that had come out.' Told about Downing Street's claim it had received legal advice, he said: 'I think I know the source of 'the best legal advice' so I'll have a chat with him and he can correct me.'"

He also intervened in the row over the appointment of former Luxembourg PM Jean-Claude Juncker:

"Cameron has been fighting what looks like a losing battle to block Juncker from securing the post, arguing he is too integrationist. However Clarke, the most pro-EU member of Cameron's cabinet, said Junker was not the 'arch-villain' he has been portrayed to be. "I'm one of the few people, the prime minister is another, who has probably ever met Jean-Claude Juncker, he said. 'He's been turned into an arch-villain. He's not an arch-villain.'"


Now here's an axis George W. Bush could never have dreamt of - from the Times:

American, Iranian and Syrian military aircraft buzzed the skies of Iraq yesterday, conducting parallel surveillance missions and airstrikes as the global battle to halt a Sunni militant offensive grew more intense and complex, drawing in old enemies to the same side. While the southward offensive towards Baghdad appears to have stalled, gains by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis) in Anbar have brought fresh jitters to the capital."

They've also brought together Barack Obama, Ayatullah Khamenei and Bashar al Assad. Who'd have imagined it, even a month ago.


Watch this very amusing video of a pair of Romanians trying to inspect a sewage pipe.


Jon Cruddas has a way with words, doesn't he? And he probably thought he was helping when he sat down with the New Statesman's George Eaton to urge his party to focus, Tony Benn-style, on policies, not personalities. As the Times explains:

"Members of the shadow Cabinet must stop jostling for position to replace Ed Miliband and concentrate on winning over voters, a senior party figure has warned. Alluding to the in-fighting that has broken out within the party, Jon Cruddas, who is overseeing Labour’s policy review, said that those who believe a new leader would boost the party were 'deluding themselves'. ho believe a new leader would boost the party were 'deluding themselves'. He named Ed Balls, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper as he warned that a 'game of Top Trumps' had broken out at the top of the party over the future leadership... Mr Cruddas staunchly defended his leader. 'I see him at close quarters,' he told the New Statesman. 'He has a different form of leadership, which I quite like, actually, it's more inclusive, it's quite plural...'"


From the Telegraph:

"The campaign to keep the United Kingdom together is risking failure because it is run by "grumpy old men" while many of the undecided voters in Scotland are women, a former adviser to Gordon Brown has claimed. Baroness Vadera, a banker who became a Labour business minister, said the pro–UK Better Together campaign was 'testing to destruction' the belief that it will win. 'I think we'll win, I think it'll be all right, but really it doesn't have to be this close," she told an event run by Fortune magazine last night. Better Together is led by Alistair Darling, the former chancellor, who had a difficult relationship with the peer. In his memoirs, Mr Darling said he refused to have the abrasive Baroness Vadera on his team in the Treasury, saying she was 'only happy if there was blood on the floor – preferably that of her colleagues'."


From the Sun/YouGov poll:

Labour 37
Conservatives 32
Ukip 14
Lib Dems 7

That would give Labour a majority of 58.


Seumas Milne, writing in the Guardian, says: "They say Miliband's a loser – that's because they fear he could win."

Tim Montgomerie, writing in the Times, says: "I come to praise Coulson, not to bury him."

Peter Oborne, writing in the Telegraph, says: "Prime Minister and his gang haven’t learnt their lesson."

Got something you want to share? Please send any stories/tips/quotes/pix/plugs/gossip to Mehdi Hasan (, Ned Simons ( or Asa Bennett ( You can also follow us on Twitter: @mehdirhasan, @nedsimons, @asabenn and @huffpostukpol

Mehdi Hasan   |   June 23, 2014   12:14 AM ET

The five things you need to know on Monday 23 June 2014...


Iain Duncan Smith, arch-eurosceptic inside the coalition cabinet and, remember, a former Maastricht rebel, has weighed in on the row over Jean-Claude Juncker's proposed appointment as the next president of the European Commission - and the Guardian splashes on his pretty colourful remarks:

"In a sign of how Juncker's appointment could strengthen the hand of Eurosceptic members of the cabinet, the work and pensions secretary said the strong support among other EU leaders for the former Luxembourg prime minster amounted to 'flicking two fingers' at the electorate. Duncan Smith told BBC Radio 5 Live's Pienaar's Politics: 'If they give Jean-Claude Juncker a job this is like literally flicking two fingers at the rest of Europe and saying to all the people out there, 'We know that you voted the way you did but you are wrong and we are just going to show you how wrong you are by carrying on as though nothing happened.'' Duncan Smith warned of grave consequences if the appointment of Juncker were followed by a failure to embrace 'drastic change and reform' in the EU. He said: 'If they don't do that then it does make the prospect for Britain being in Europe very bleak indeed.'"

Meanwhile, David Cameron will be meeting European Council president Herman Van Rompuy later today for one final attempt to express his opposition to Juncker taking the top job in Brussels.


From the Telegraph:

"MI6 and the CIA were handed intelligence outlining the planned takeover of northern Iraq by jihadists and their allies five months ago but the British and American governments failed to act on it, senior officials in Iraq have told The Daily Telegraph. The head of intelligence for the autonomous Kurdish regional government, which has links with the West, said he had repeatedly tried to send warnings both to the central government in Baghdad and to its allies, Britain and America. But despite repeated attempts to impress on Washington and London the seriousness of the unfolding situation, he said there was no response from either government. The claims were made as it emerged that as many as 500 Britishborn fighters have travelled to the Middle East in recent months to take up arms with the Islamic State of Iraq and al–Sham (Isis). The families of three young men from Cardiff last night pleaded for them to come home after two of them appeared in an Isis propaganda video urging British Muslims to join them in their holy war."


Poor Nick. From the Guardian:

"Nick Clegg has become 'toxic' on the doorstep, despite being a 'nice guy', a former Liberal Democrat leader of Liverpool city council has warned. As the former party leader Sir Menzies Campbell said the Lib Dems would need to rebuild 'from the bottom up' after losing all but one of their MEPs, Lord Storey said Clegg has become an unpopular figure in his home city. Storey, who led Liverpool between 1998-2005, told the Sunday Politics on BBC1: 'Knocking on doors in Liverpool, I have to tell you that Nick Clegg is not a popular person. And some might use the word toxic. I find this very, very difficult because I know Nick very well and I see a principled person who passionately believes in what he's doing, and he's a nice guy.'"

Nice guys, of course, finish last. So will the Lib Dems have the cojones to try and replace Clegg between now and May 2015?


Watch a Vine of Cristiano Ronaldo back-heeling his way around three different US players in last night's USA v Portugal clash. Shame it didn't help Portugal win the game - they tied with the Yanks 2-2 in a thrilling game.

4) BRING ON... HS3?

HS2 is so 2013. 2014 is all about HS4, it seems. From the Independent:

"A plan to boost the economy of the North by building England's third high-speed rail link - HS3 - between Manchester and Leeds will be outlined by George Osborne today. The project would be based on the existing Manchesterto-Leeds rail line but journey times would be speeded up by building new tunnels and infrastructure. The fastest train between the two cities now takes 49 minutes, almost twice as long as the similar 35-mile journey between London and Reading."

Could this be a shrewd move by the Tories to try and woo back voters in the north, where they're most unpopular? Osborne is nothing if not ultra-political...


Poor Dave. From the Times:

David Cameron has revealed that he struggles to make calls to world leaders during his Cornish holidays because the mobile phone signal is so poor. The prime minister suggested that he had been forced to rely on one area of good reception for important conversations. Ministers are in talks over dealing with so-called rural “not-spots”, where reception on some networks cuts out. They want mobile phone companies to share their phone masts to increase coverage."

And you thought you had reception issues, right?


From yesterday's Sunday Times/YouGov poll:

Labour 38
Conservatives 32
Ukip 14
Lib Dems 8

That would give Labour a majority of 76.


Aditya Chakrabortty, writing in the Guardian, says: "What Labour's free owl pledge reveals about the state of political debate."

Stephen Pollard, writing in the Times, says: "Yet another Labour big beast departs the stage."

Robert Fisk, writing in the Independent, says: "If history and petropolitics teach us anything, it's that the collapse of Iraq shouldn't come as surprise."

Got something you want to share? Please send any stories/tips/quotes/pix/plugs/gossip to Mehdi Hasan (, Ned Simons ( or Asa Bennett ( You can also follow us on Twitter: @mehdirhasan, @nedsimons, @asabenn and @huffpostukpol

Obama - Caught Between Iraq and a Hard Place

Jon-Christopher Bua   |   June 23, 2014   12:00 AM ET

"Oh, when will they ever learn?" - Pete Seeger (1955)

A bit of background on how this disaster got underway in the first place.

Anticipating a victory over Germany and the Ottoman Empire, in May of 1916, representatives of Great Britain and France secretly reached an accord called the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

This Agreement's intention was to divide most of the Arab lands under the rule of the Ottoman Empire into British and French spheres of influence.

Under Sykes-Picot, the Syrian coast and much of modern-day Lebanon went to France.

Britain would take control over central and southern Mesopotamia, around the Baghdad and Basra provinces.

Palestine would have an international administration as other "Christian" powers, namely Russia, held an interest in this region.

The rest of the territory in question - a huge area including modern-day Syria, Mosul in northern Iraq, and Jordan - would have local Arab chiefs under French supervision in the north and British in the south.

Also, Britain and France would retain free passage and trade in the other's zone of influence.

Mother Russia, never far from being involved in this pie slicing game, signed a secret agreement with Britain in March of 1915 allowing her to annex the Ottoman capital of Constantinople and retain control of the Dardanelles - the ever important strait connecting the Black Sea with the Mediterranean.

Sound familiar?

Russia would then agree to British claims over other areas of the vanquished Ottoman Empire and central Persia (Iran) including the oil-rich region of Mesopotamia -corresponding to modern day Iraq, Kuwait, the northeastern section of Syria.

What these greedy soon to be victors did not take into account was that these local Arab chiefs and tribal leaders had very little in common except their unique and diverse ways of worshiping.

Today's crisis is also deeply rooted in the battle for succession in Islam that created the Sunni-Shia divide in the Muslim world today.

Sunni Muslims are in the majority worldwide except in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan where Shia Muslims make up the majority of the total population in those countries.

Although all of this complexity may be a lot to absorb for the average westerner, this history is important because it reveals how little we know about the people of the region and their beliefs.

The ISIS struggle for power in Iraq now clearly demonstrates the strong religious divisions that were suppressed during the reign of Saddam Hussein.

And now they are re-emerging on a previously un-imagined scale.

When the US and the "Coalition of the Willing" went to war in Iraq the second time we opened a Pandora's Box - never be closed again.

Plain and not-so-simple: The West toppled the Sunni led Saddam Hussein government in exchange for a Nouri al-Maliki Shia led government.

The West neutralised Iran's enemy, its Sunni led neighbour Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

All in all, what's going on now in Iraq is a high stakes religious war that threatens to topple the current Maliki Shia led government in Iraq and destabilise the entire region.

Now Iran, which is Shia, would like nothing better than to join with the Shia government in Iraq and Syria to create a huge, unified Shia Caliphate

Once again the US and the West find themselves unwittingly in the middle of a tribal religious war.

No matter what political side you were on regarding the decision to go to war in Iraq, once the invasion occurred, the goals were clear: to create a "stable democracy" that would prevent terrorism like 9-11 from ever happening again and guaranty the West safe access to Iraq's and region's oil reserves.

At this point is seems we have failed on both of these counts with ISIS in control of large parts of Iraq and headed toward Baghdad.

As President Obama alluded to during his presser on June 19, Iraq did managed to pull off one election but he also alluded to the fact that it may have failed to create a representative and inclusive political process that could function and survive for the long haul.

This is not the first time we have found ourselves in the same kind of religious conflict.

This was true in Vietnam five decades ago where the US went to war to stop the "domino effect of Communism" throughout South East Asia thereby securing America's access to the natural resources of that region.

Something the French gave up on a decade before that.

Perhaps the French may have realised that Vietnam was all about religious conflict and positioning for power.

The US war effort supported a Catholic minority government run by Diem over a Buddhist majority.

In Vietnam the US lost over 58,000 of its young men and women in a war that we could never win.

Over four decades ago on March 29, 1973, when the US withdrew from Vietnam, America and her allies had to accept the fact that the Western cultural ideals of a "Jeffersonian Inspired Democracy" would not prevail in that country.

All these years later, Vietnam is in fact a unified and communist run nation who we trade with and is even a prime vacation destination for the grandchildren of those who fought and died there.

Since Vietnam we in the West continue to champion these lofty democratic notions.

Although it has worked in some countries with strong democratic traditions, we have all learned at our peril - it simply does not work everywhere.

Along with the hope that "The Arab Spring" gave the world, it now seems that attempts at establishing some form of democracy in Lebanon, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere have not worked out so well for the US and the West.

Perhaps it is time for the US and the West to rethink its mission as "Champion of Democracy" and "Keeper of World Peace".

President Obama has found himself squarely between Iraq and a hard place.

A spot where many presidents have been before - dealing with an inherited foreign conflict that threatens world security with no easy way out.

Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon all knew this challenge - what was domestically a potential political nightmare might in fact be the right choice in the long term and serve the best interest of the United States.

Obama knows he has a war weary and unwilling public but he also understands he cannot let this region collapse into a terrorist haven.

It will not only take a courageous president but an equally brave Congress to address this problem in an election year.

The stakes on all fronts could not be higher.

The Threat of Russian Expansionism Is Not Over

James Snell   |   June 21, 2014   12:18 AM ET

A Russian tank rolling over border lines has become a familiar sight. Nevertheless, that does not lessen the political significance of such an action - which appears to have occurred again in recent days. Russian meddling in the affairs of its neighbours, as documented by Michael Weiss, is hardly over. As predicted, it seems that the Russian bear is not satiated by simply swallowing Crimea.

Russia has attempted to dominate its neighbours since before the end of the Cold War. The 'Union' of Soviet Socialist Republics was anything but. The formation of the USSR in the aftermath of the Russian Civil War was not one which most member states entered willingly - with the myth of happy unification serving as a fig leaf for what amounted to the military re-conquest of former Russian imperial territories.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, Russia has been its own nation, but one which sought to exert the same influence on nearby countries as it did in its previous incarnation. President Putin, a former official in the sinister KGB, well schooled in the police state methodology, seeks to replicate this today.

Hence the trauma and strife and resistance on the streets of Ukraine; when the Russian-speaking Eastern half of the country, backed by the Motherland herself, comes up against western, Europhile tendencies from the other Ukraine. Sparks were always going to fly.

I watched live footage of a demonstration gone bad during the original EuroMaiden protests, and, amid the garish lighting, setting the surroundings ablaze with a torrent of lurid orange fluorescents, the men and women of Ukraine (I hesitate, out of respect for their uncommon bravery, to use the word 'ordinary')  were being corralled by the machinery of the state. That state, now since thankfully replaced, was a Russia proxy. More aggressive action from Moscow can hardly seem surprising.

That night was full of the sounds of wordless shouting, mingled with the occasional sharp scream of pain, and the infrequent pop of some minor explosion. Viewing this - sitting as I was in the relative prosperity of the Western world, watching the citizens of some far-off land fighting to attain the same dizzy heights of freedom that I enjoy - made me feel at once humble, afraid, exhilarated and proud.

I was frightened for democracy; once more under threat from some two-bit would-be despot in a foreign field. I was humbled by the courage, moral and physical, of those who defied the threats of brute force from the authorities to protest against kow-towing to Moscow. I was exhilarated, as I am whenever what I love comes up against what I hate, by this open defiance of Russian soft expansion, and their de facto puppet in 'local' government. Finally, I was proud - unaccountably so, as I don't know anyone involved - but proud nevertheless.

It was also an education of sorts to observe the differences in coverage. It was very interesting to see that Putin mouthpiece Russia Today only focused on the violence apparently committed by demonstrators, who were called only "rioters". Obviously the Kremlin-sponsored government is above reproach.

The protesters were not perfect, by any means, and the new government in Kiev is not a model of democratic perfection; and, accordingly, any attempt to marshal this complex event into a black-and-white narrative would be misguided.

And yet, there are still lessons to be extracted from the trauma in Ukraine, etched with the pain and bloodshed of the nation. Rebels in the East of the country are hardly nice people - certainly less so than the new leaders in the nation's capital. There have been calls for the registration of Jews in Donetsk, where horror stories of the new order of things are emerging.

It is important to acknowledge that such threats to democracy still exist, even in nations as close geographically to Western democracy as Russia and Ukraine. Putin is a tyrant, who attempts to smash political opponents and undesirables with the weight of a compromised legal system. His many proxies and allies - in Ukraine, Belarus and the like - present the same challenge to liberty and democracy, and only make it worse.

While a fair amount of his political foes have been squabbling oligarchs, immoral billionaires rapidly enriched by the disintegration of the Soviet Union, it has been difficult to empathise with the victims of his oppressive rule. Some people even seem to like the guy; Peter Hitchens went as far as to deliver a lecture - only partially tongue in cheek - about his admiration for this xenophobic, gay-bashing murderer.

But now he is doing it to ordinary people, and in another sovereign state, no less. Bands are arrested and imprisoned on archaic statute. Discontent is stirred up by Russian Agents provocateurs in order to destabilise a democratic transition. This is still happening. And, as long as it is, it must be opposed.

James Snell is a Contributing Editor of The Libertarian