Lee Anderson’s appointment as deputy chairman of the Conservative Party is a gamble - Jayne Dowle

For a cautious man accused of presiding over a moribund empty shell of a government, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has surprised us by suddenly throwing a couple of curve balls.

First, he welcomes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on his first visit to the UK since Russia’s invasion, and states that “nothing is off the table” in response to the beleaguered leader’s demand to “give us wings of freedom”.

In other words, he’s not said yes and he’s not said no to promising RAF fighter jets to the conflict, raging for almost a year now.

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It’s also been reported that the UK is to start training Ukrainian forces to fly Nato-standard planes, and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace is investigating what aircraft we could potentially offer to Ukraine.

Lee Anderson is the new deputy chairman of the Conservative Party.Lee Anderson is the new deputy chairman of the Conservative Party.
Lee Anderson is the new deputy chairman of the Conservative Party.

Downing Street however stresses that this is a “long-term solution” and that training pilots could take years.

The message is clear though. It is one thing to lend moral support, quite another to promise military hardware. Mr Sunak should tread very carefully.

The history of modern British Prime Ministers being seduced by overseas leaders into committing armed forces to a war on foreign soil is not a happy one.

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He should need no reminder of what happened to Tony Blair, who sabotaged not only his own legacy as Prime Minister, but in many eyes, tainted all the good that New Labour ever did, when he opted to support US President George W. Bush in Iraq in 2003.

In the end, this particular crusade, predicated on a mission to disarm Iraq of suspected weapons of mass destruction, end Saddam Hussein's support for terrorism, and free the Iraqi people, did the opposite of covering the British leader in glory.

It's 20 years ago, but people have long memories, especially the military families who lost loved ones in Iraq and also Afghanistan, as the UK committed its forces to supporting America’s quest to eradicate those who committed terrorism on its own soil.

However, as Downing Street stressed, any further involvement in Ukraine will not be an imminent thing.

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More immediately unnerving perhaps is Mr Sunak’s decision to appoint a Red Wall Tory wildcard, Lee Anderson, as the deputy chairman of his party.

The struggle to sort out the tricky balancing act involved in deciding who runs the party in the run-up to local elections in May, followed by the General Election looming on the horizon in 2024, has been well-documented.

And you can see the logic; Mr Anderson, a former coal miner and Labour Party councillor, who became MP for Ashfield in 2019, is known for straight-talking and has presumably been selected because he will appeal to working-class voters in the Midlands and the North, who turned blue for the first time and helped him and other ‘Red Wall’ Tories gain their seats.

And this supporter of capital punishment will serve as an earthy counterpoint to urbane Chelsea and Kensington MP Greg Hands, Mr Zahawi’s replacement as Tory chairman, who worked in derivatives in the City after studying at Cambridge and voted remain in the Brexit referendum.

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Mr Anderson’s genuine ‘man of the people’ reputation puts him in good stead against prime manipulator Boris Johnson, who simply pretended to be one of the lads to win votes.

In this respect, he will be an asset for a campaigning Conservative party come the elections, especially in regions outside London and the South East.

Presumably, his appointment is intended to signal that the government has not given up on former Labour seats in the North and Midlands won in 2019, in places where people really are feeling ‘left behind’.

However, Mr Sunak, who has already been obliged to distance himself from Mr Anderson’s views on capital punishment, will now have a senior Tory who publicly claims that food banks are largely unnecessary because the ingredients for a nutritious meal at home can be bought for 30p, and that travellers are more likely to steal your lawnmower than tell your fortune.

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The new deputy chairman has also suggested that civil servants trying to block the government’s immigration plans could be guilty of treason, likening his party’s management of the issue to the band on the Titanic.

The problem with ‘personalities’ in politics is that they play to their own rules, as we already know to our cost. It will be interesting to see how this sits with Mr Sunak’s steady, technocratic hand on the tiller.