February 20: Is Britain still a world power?

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THE scrambling of RAF fighter jets, after two Russian bombers were spotted off the Cornish peninsula, is indicative of the West’s increasing edginess over Vladimir Putin’s intentions as the ceasefire naively negotiated by France and Germany to end the Ukrainian civil war begins to unravel.

Like it or not, the Kremlin’s acts of provocation – whether it be the military struggle over Ukraine’s sovereignty, the independence of the Baltic states or its hold over global energy supplies – come at a time of maximum weakness on the part of its opponents. It does not need much cunning on Mr Putin’s part to realise that there is little appetite in Britain or the USA for another major military operation following the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Russia also knows that its two foes are in a state of political flux – Barack Obama is a lame-duck president while David Cameron could be out of office in May.

Yet this must not preclude the West from making abundantly clear to Russia that any threat to the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia will not be tolerated because this triumvirate are all members of Nato – in contrast to Ukraine – and any transgression, on the Kremlin’s part, would represent an act of aggression against the free world.

The challenge is articulating this message when British and American foreign policy is operating in a vague vacuum – and when Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel’s appeasement of Mr Putin has backfired. In this regard, it is imperative that foreign affairs is not overlooked in an election dominated by the economy. For questions pertaining towards Britain’s future relations with Russia, the turmoil in the Middle East and future levels of defence spending will all be major issues for the next government, irrespective of its make-up. And, as such, the main parties should not use delays to the Chilcot report as an excuse not to reveal more detail about their intentions – and the global role that they intend this country to undertake.

Tide is turning

Tories take the fight to Labour

AS DAVID Cameron continues his tour of the English regions ahead of the election, his optimism is plain to see as Labour’s strategy continues to implode. This week’s unemployment figures reveal a record number of people to be in work – despite Ed Miliband and Ed Balls spending much of the past five years talking down the economy.

Mr Cameron has two other grounds for optimism. All the Labour talk of a “cost of living crisis” is not borne out by the latest inflation figures and supermarket price wars. And it has also emerged that Mr Miliband’s proposed energy freeze, announced in the autumn of 2013, has had a detrimental impact on the pricing policies undertaken by the so-called “big six” suppliers.

With growth and confidence returning to

the economy in equal measure, the Tories now need to build on this momentum and demonstrate how the whole country will prosper if the party is returned to power.

Complacency is not an option – this is the most unpredictable national poll in a generation, not least because of the emergence of Ukip and the Greens as electoral forces, and the Conservatives still have work to do in those Yorkshire marginal constituencies where the final result will be won and lost.

In this regard, it is odd that Mr Cameron is so reluctant to debate with Ed Miliband – he should be relishing the challenge as the economic tide turns in favour of Great Britain plc.

Retail therapy

Asda set to ride out price storm

IT IS indicative of the strength of Britain’s supermarket sector that Leeds-based Asda can shrug off its first fall in annual sales in 2008 by announcing a £600m store investment programme. For, while the rise of the discount stores like Aldi, Lidl and Netto is changing the dynamics of the retail industry, reports of the demise of the “big four” supermarkets, to paraphrase Mark Twain, appear to have been greatly exaggerated.

Asda boss Andy Clarke believes his company is better placed than its rivals to respond to these systemic changes because it was the first supermarket to respond to the presence of the discounters – and it was not forced to offer “unsustainable” offers in the run-up to Christmas.

He effectively accused his competitors of printing £10 notes. As for 2015, there is only going to be one winner as the supermarkets, big and small, battle for supremacy – and that is the consumer. With stores having to innovate, and under intense pressure to offer value for money, such healthy competition can only lead to cheaper bills all round.