Theresa May’s weak and unstable leadership

New York Times, 12 June 2017

The Opinion Pages | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR


LONDON — Just under a year ago, a referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union ended the career of a Conservative prime minister, David Cameron. Now a general election called to strengthen the position of his successor, Theresa May, has brought her to the brink. Mrs. May is clinging on, but a country already reeling from three terrorist attacks in as many months has the most fragile government in living memory.

Some supporters of the opposition Labour Party are cheering, buoyed by the fact that their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, ran a more effective campaign than had been predicted. But no one should crow over last week’s extraordinary results, which have precipitated a deep political crisis.

The nation is divided, but not on traditional party lines. People who had previously voted for the U.K. Independence Party, the right-wing nationalist party that campaigned on the Leave side in the Brexit vote, went all over the place, producing freak results in this general election. During the referendum, Mrs. May and Mr. Corbyn were on the Remain side, nominally at least, but they have both said that its result must be respected. That hasn’t satisfied passionate feelings in either camp, and the electorate responded with the message that it didn’t want either of the two main parties in government.

Mrs. May believed her popularity ratings, but it turned out they were based on years of not saying very much. Voters barely knew her, and when they had a closer look during the Tories’ abysmal election campaign, they didn’t like what they saw. She will be able to govern only with the support of one of the most extreme parties in British politics, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists. The D.U.P. has softened its stance since the late 1970s and early ’80s, when its founder, a hellfire preacher named the Rev. Ian Paisley, campaigned against gay rights under the memorable slogan “Save Ulster From Sodomy.” But only a bit: The party opposes gay marriage, and also abortion, which remains illegal in Northern Ireland even in cases of rape or incest.

The Democratic Unionists have only 10 members of Parliament, and few Britons outside of the province had even heard of the party’s leader, Arlene Foster, who holds a seat in the Northern Ireland Assembly but has never been elected to Parliament in Westminster. Though recently re-elected to the Assembly, she had faced calls to resign as Northern Ireland’s first minister earlier this year after a scandal over a green energy scheme. Yet Ms. Foster will now wield disproportionate influence over Mrs. May’s government.

The D.U.P. is keen for Britain to leave the European Union, but the party also wants to maintain a “seamless and frictionless” border with Ireland. Good luck with that, Mrs May.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party’s widely touted electoral success is not what it’s cracked up to be. If voters weren’t keen on Mrs. May, they didn’t see Mr. Corbyn as a viable alternative, either. Despite the hype, Labour is nowhere near being able to form a government, falling far short of a parliamentary majority. Indeed, the party’s tally — 56 seats behind Mrs. May’s chastened Conservatives — was a result that would, in normal circumstances, have led to angry calls for the resignation of Labour’s leader.

Expectations of Mr. Corbyn were so low that, for the moment, he is safe. But some Labour members of Parliament, who watched him speak at huge election rallies this month, wonder why he didn’t put so much energy into last year’s campaign to keep Britain in the European Union.

Public displays of unity won’t change the fact that Labour is just as split as the Tories are. Mr. Corbyn has a huge following, especially among people in their 20s who like what he’s saying about equality, social justice and a fairer society. He has been in Parliament since 1983, before they were born, and for them, his back story, which includes a record of staggering disloyalty to previous Labour leaders, is ancient history. He represents hope after years of public spending cuts, and anything that doesn’t sit easily with their rosy view — his friendly relations with Hezbollah, Hamas and former leaders of the Irish Republican Army, for instance — is dismissed as a smear by the hated mainstream media.

It isn’t just Britain’s rampant right-wing press they hate; suspicion of unbiased journalism is something Mr. Corbyn’s most enthusiastic supporters share with Donald Trump’s fan base in the United States. There are strains of anti-Semitism among Mr. Corbyn’s followers, as well as misogyny — as some female BBC journalists have discovered.

His critics concede that he’s changed his tune in recent weeks. After the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, Mr. Corbyn criticized Mrs. May for cutting police numbers, a law and order issue that is not a traditional concern for his section of the party. Whether he has changed his underlying views is another matter: Until he became leader, Mr. Corbyn was best known for a reflexive anti-Western rhetoric that led him to soft-pedal on regimes with terrible human rights records, including Cuba, Iran and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Among people with longer memories, these unsavory connections mean Mr. Corbyn is, and always will be, outside the Labour mainstream. The presence in his office of former members of fringe parties, including a key aide who left the Communist Party of Britain only a few months ago, supports the view that the Labour leadership is in the hands of a hard-left cabal. In an indication of trouble ahead, pro-European Labour members of Parliament who defied Mr. Corbyn’s instructions to vote with Mrs. May’s Tories in favor of triggering Article 50, the formal mechanism to begin Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, scored some of the most impressive results in last Thursday’s election. The two wings of the party are stuck with each other, but it’s a stalemate, not a truce.

Mrs. May has been punished for her colossal misjudgment in calling an unnecessary election, but anyone who is enjoying her humiliation needs to consider some sobering facts. Next week, according to a timetable established before the election, the prime minister is due to begin negotiations on Britain’s departure from the European Union. She never had a strong hand, but now she looks fatally wounded. As the country faces a moment when the security services are struggling to monitor the roughly 3,000 people suspected of posing a terrorist threat, having a prime minister who has lost her authority is little short of catastrophic.

Another election later this year must be a real possibility. Whether it would produce a clearer result is far from certain. Britain’s relationship with Europe has been a toxic issue for the Conservatives for years, which is why Mr. Cameron gambled on a referendum — and lost. Now the contagion has spread far beyond the Tory Party. Divisions over Europe are tearing the country apart, leaving it weak and unstable in the eyes of a horrified world.

Crime round-up

Sunday Times, 11 June 2017

Just over a decade ago, a young Iraqi-Kurdish woman was murdered in this country by professional killers. The hit men were hired by the father and uncle of the victim, Banaz Mahmod, after she left an abusive marriage and fell in love with a man who hadn’t been chosen by her family. This real-life tragedy is the inspiration for Mark Billingham’s ground-breaking novel Love Like Blood (Little, Brown £18.99), which confronts the phenomenon of “honour”-based killings.

For many readers, what Billingham is writing about will be unfamiliar and troubling territory. In recent years, the police have set up units to tackle “honour”-based murders, but they remain under-reported and difficult to investigate. Billingham has chosen a scenario very much like the Banaz Mahmod murder for his novel, putting his detective, DI Tom Thorne, on the trail of a pair of hit men responsible for a series of contract killings. When a couple of students of Bangladeshi origin are reported missing from a college in north London, Thorne has to decide if they are the latest victims — and whether their parents were involved in the disappearance.

These are precisely the challenges facing real-life detectives who work in this area. Billingham is acutely aware of the cultural sensitivities connected with such a controversial subject, but he doesn’t shy away from the horrors inflicted on the victims, whose deaths he characterises as hate crimes. His hit men have elements of the pantomime-villain, but Love Like Blood is a gripping, unsensational take on a type of crime that is happening more frequently than many of us realise.

Block 46 by Johana Gustawsson, translated by Maxim Jakubowski (Orenda £8.99), also has roots in real events. Gustawsson is a French journalist who lives in London, and her prizewinning novel is the first in a series featuring a true-crime author and a Canadian profiler. It begins with a young designer, Linnea Blix, failing to show up for the launch party of her new jewellery collection at the Cartier showroom in London. A few days later, Blix’s body is found in a snow-bound marina in Sweden, bearing mutilations similar to those on the corpse of a boy discovered in Hampstead.

Most of the novel is set in 2014, but there are flashbacks to 1944 when a German medical student, Erich Ebner, arrives at Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. Ebner is subjected to unspeakable brutality before being put to work with the sadistic camp doctor, Horst Fleischer, who is carrying out gruesome experiments on the corpses of children. Gustawsson’s aim is to highlight the role of resistance organisations inside Buchenwald but bringing the two strands of the novel together is a challenge, and the solution she comes up with is far-fetched.

Abir Mukherjee’s first novel, A Rising Man, was a Sunday Times crime book of the month. His second, A Necessary Evil (Harvill Secker £12.99), returns to colonial India where his detective, Captain Sam Wyndham, is still trying to recover from his experiences in the First World War. Wyndham is a widower who lost his wife in the great flu epidemic of 1918, and he is trying to blot out painful memories in the government offices of Calcutta. The assassination of an Indian prince takes him to the wealthy kingdom of Sambalpore, where his ignorance of Indian customs soon has his investigation floundering. Wyndham is an appealing character, reckless and self-aware by turns, and the contradictions of the Raj are beautifully invoked.

Volker Kutscher’s wonderfully atmospheric crime novels are set in Germany at the end of the 1920s. The Silent Death (Sandstone £8.99), translated by Niall Sellar, is the sequel to his critically acclaimed Babylon Berlin, and features the same bad-tempered detective, Gereon Rath. As communists and Nazis clash on the streets of Berlin, Rath does his best to stay clear of politics, concentrating on his investigation into the bizarre death of a silent-film actress. Betty Winter is crushed on set when a live spotlight falls on her, plunging Rath into the brittle, back-stabbing world of Berlin’s rival film studios. When other actresses disappear, Rath finds himself hunting a serial killer in a novel that offers vivid insights into the cultural upheavals of the late Weimar republic.


Catching a Killer exposes the mind of an abuser for the first time – and you need to watch it

Daily Telegraph, Friday 2 June 2017

It isn’t easy to leave a manipulative man. It’s a simple thing to say but the harsh reality is exposed in a ground-breaking documentary made for Channel 4, Catching a Killer, which follows a real-life murder investigation. The victim, 31-year-old Natalie Hemming, was killed last year by her ex-partner when she finally made up her mind to leave him after enduring years of abuse.

‘Cold and calculating,’ 42-year-old Paul Hemming then tried to persuade detectives that someone else was responsible for her disappearance. The murder inquiry began with a call to Thames Valley police from Natalie’s distraught mother, Margaret. Her daughter had disappeared after her first date with a new man, which she had tried to keep secret from her former partner. From the outset, Natalie’s mother feared that Paul Hemming was responsible.

Detectives took the unusual step of allowing a documentary-maker, Anna Hall, to film their inquiry. The 90-minute film, which airs tonight, is a rare opportunity to see how an unrepentant abuser operates.

Under questioning, Hemming uses exactly the same techniques – dishonesty and tears – that he used on women. He lies from the moment he is woken up by police officers investigating Natalie’s disappearance, even refusing to hand over his mobile phone in case his former partner – who is in reality already dead – should call him.

When he’s arrested the following day, he wipes away tears and comes up with a story Natalie has gone away because she was raped by another man. According to Hemming, they were on good terms when she left the house and had agreed to ‘start afresh’.

Not a word of it is true, but Natalie’s mother and sister go through hell before her body is found in a wood in Hertfordshire three weeks later.

Even then, Hemming does not confess. On the first day of his trial, he changes his story, admitting manslaughter and claiming that he ‘accidentally’ killed Natalie by throwing a jade egg at her head during a row. The jury aren’t taken in and convict him of murder. He’s currently serving life with a recommendation that he should be locked up for a minimum of 20 years.

This is believed to be the first time that a murder investigation has been filmed from start to finish. Home Office figures show that two women are killed by a current or former partner every week. What is going on is sometimes known by family members – Natalie’s sister Jo tried on many occasions to persuade her to leave Hemming – but less often to the authorities.

Research carried out in London by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime suggests that most victims of domestic homicide are not previously known to the police, suggesting either that they keep hoping for the best – or don’t know what help is available.

That’s one of many reasons why the documentary is so important, showing the determination of Thames Valley Police, led by Superintendent Simon Steel, to gather the evidence they need to convict Hemming. While it is true that some police forces are more effective than others, the film confirms that official attitudes to domestic violence have changed out of all recognition in recent years.

Natalie’s story is familiar, but no less tragic and compelling for that. She was a 21-year-old single mother, struggling with post-natal depression, when she met Hemming. He was 11 years older and already on file for violently assaulting a previous girlfriend. But men like Hemming target vulnerable women and he swept Natalie off her feet, presenting her with a £2,500 engagement ring.

They never married but went on two have two children together, despite escalating violence on Hemming’s part. On one occasion, he injured her so badly that she had to go to A&E and gave a statement to police. Hemming bombarded her with tears and promises that he would change, and Natalie eventually withdrew her complaint.

When a woman is murdered by a partner, outsiders often ask why she didn’t leave him years ago. Now viewers can see for themselves the techniques used by an accomplished liar and abuser, offering unusual insights into the mentality of such men. Last year, Radio 4 soap The Archers was praised for a plotline depicting domestic abuse in real time. This film is the next logical step in our education.

Women are most at risk when they finally find the courage to leave – something that murder detectives know all too well. The general public doesn’t, and that’s why documentaries like this one perform an important public service.

The Yorkshire Ripper was not a ‘prostitute killer’ – now his forgotten victims need justice

Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 30 May 2017

The Yorkshire Ripper is not a criminal mastermind. Peter Sutcliffe, who is now 70 and serving life at HMP Frankland, was convicted of 13 murders and seven attempted murders in 1981. At the time, police believed he had only begun attacking women in 1975 – but now a different picture may be emerging.

Officers from Operation Painthall have recently interviewed him about offences stretching back to 1964, including seven unsolved attacks on women and girls. This weekend, it emerged that he is also reportedly being investigated about the murders of two women in Sweden, in 1980.

These revelations don’t tell us that Sutcliffe hid his tracks brilliantly. It’s a stark reminder of how badly police mishandled the original case – and how long some of his victims have had to wait for justice.

I covered the case as a young reporter. It never seemed plausible to me that the so-called Ripper suddenly attacked several women within six months in 1975, having never done anything like it before.

But what is jaw-dropping, in retrospect, is how inept Sutcliffe was. He made mistakes, left behind evidence and didn’t care about being repeatedly spotted in red light districts, which were crawling with squad cars. He was interviewed about the Ripper murders on nine occasions, yet West Yorkshire police didn’t even search his house and garage.

At the time, I didn’t know any of this. But it didn’t take long for me to get the feeling that something was very wrong. ‘They’re never going to get him,’ I thought despairingly as I trudged from one police press conference to another. I was very nearly right – Sutcliffe was finally caught when he was stopped for a traffic offence by officers from another force, who had no idea who he was.

Detectives told the press they were looking for a man motivated by a deep loathing of prostitutes, but that theory didn’t even fit the facts of the case. I interviewed two of Sutcliffe’s earliest known victims, Anna Rogulskyj, who was 37 and lived in Keighley, and Olive Smelt, 46, who was assaulted near her home in Halifax. Neither of them had links with prostitution and both of them survived, albeit with terrible injuries. Ms Rogulskyj seized my hand and placed it on her head, where I could feel the damage to her skull caused by Sutcliffe’s hammer.

It’s been known for years that there was almost certainly a third victim during that summer of 1975: 14-year-old Tracey Browne from the small town of Silsden, near Keighley. She gave police a description of a man who looked just like Sutcliffe but she was the ‘wrong’ sort of victim – too young, and still at school – and she never even made it onto the ‘official’ list of victims.

After three ‘failed’ attacks against women, the killer moved to Leeds to commit his first known murder in October 1975. Wilma McCann was 28 and had no convictions for prostitution, but she had a chaotic lifestyle and Chapeltown was a red light district.

And so the theory of a prostitute killer was born, with catastrophic effects. The police excluded evidence from attacks on women who weren’t connected with the sex trade, even if they shared characteristics with the Ripper murders. And they relied on forensic evidence from the murder of a prostitute in Preston, which hadn’t been committed by Sutcliffe.

I watched this disaster unfold. I was at a press conference in 1979 – the only woman in the room, which wasn’t unusual in those days – when the police played a tape made by a man with a strong Wearside accent who claimed to be the Yorkshire Ripper.

Misogyny, not some half-baked ‘mission’ to kill prostitutes, was always at the heart of this case

I could see that the contents spoke to the police’s prejudices, taunting the senior officer on the case and confirming his idea that the killer craved publicity. We were told that it could only have come from the murderer because the tape and letters from the same man contained information that wasn’t in the public domain.

I’d read enough to know that wasn’t true and said so, making myself very unpopular. But who was going to listen to me?

The entire Ripper inquiry than hared off in search of ‘Wearside Jack’, a hoaxer who convinced them that the killer wasn’t from Yorkshire. Olive Smelt told me (and the police) that her attacker said something about the weather in a strong Yorkshire accent before striking her head with his hammer. She told me another crucial detail, saying that the same man had made a crude and deeply misogynist remark to her in a pub in Halifax earlier in the evening. But the police didn’t listen to her, either.

Misogyny, not some half-baked ‘mission’ to kill prostitutes, was always at the heart of this case. The oldest unsolved incident being examined by officers from Operation Painthall happened in 1964, when a 12-year-old girl was attacked on two occasions. Sutcliffe has denied it, saying he would never have targeted such a young victim, but he had no scruples about targeting Tracey Browne when she was only 14. He has already admitted that he may have been responsible for an unsolved attack in 1969.

Forensic science has improved out of all recognition since those days, and computer analysis means it is unlikely that such an obvious suspect as Sutcliffe would go undetected for so many years.

But the fact remains that the original investigation was a fiasco, and women died as a result. Every woman who was attacked by Sutcliffe has a right to know what happened to her, and why the cases weren’t connected at the time. Until that happens, the tragedy of the Yorkshire Ripper case won’t have reached its final act.