Tebbit: "Bercow is no Tory"

A one-time party chairman's tacit Ukip endorsement.

Some of my best friends are Speakers, insisted Norman Tebbit today, before declaring open season on John Bercow and his attempts to keep the UK Independence Party's Nigel Farage at bay.

I paraphrase. Here's what Tebbit actually told BBC1's Politics Show:

I remain a friend of John's and I have been for 20-odd years . . . He did cast himself in my mould, indeed. But he has been reworked in recent years. I don't think he would really be able to describe himself as a Conservative any more, even if he were not the Speaker.

And so to the forthcoming election battle for the Buckingham seat that will see Farage defy convention and take on a sitting speaker. Tebbit, not for the first time putting himself at odds with David Cameron, told the programme:

There is not a Conservative candidate, so they have to look around. And they will make a choice.

I don't think it's any business of the Conservative Party to instruct even its activists and members in who they should vote for in that sense, or indeed campaign for.

As my colleague George Eaton has noted, Bercow is defending the largest Tory majority in the country, so is more than likely to see off Farage, with or without the implied endorsement of a one-time Conservative Party chairman and current star of the blogosphere.

Nor will it do Cameron any harm, in the country at large, to be seen to be in opposition to an "old-school" Tory.

And yet Tebbit's apparent preference for Ukip's man over the modernising Bercow does speak to large sections of the Conservative Party. And not just the grass roots.

For starters -- as our political correspondent James Macintyre reported earlier this year -- there's a small right-wing parliamentary cabal actively plotting to oust Bercow. Moreover, wannabe Conservative MPs remain dogmatically Eurosceptic.

Take this finding from the recent New Statesman/ComRes poll of 101 prospective parliamentary candidates:

Seventy-two per cent agree that as a matter of priority, Britain needs a fundamental renegotiation of its relationship with the European Union.

Despite David Cameron's post-"cast-iron guarantee" words about the Lisbon Treaty, it is fanciful to believe that the Tory leadership shares the view that renegotiation is a "matter of priority".

The grass roots have just scored a notable victory -- Conservative Central HQ has acceded to their wishes and approved strong immigration messages for campaigning in marginal seats.

As the opinion polls narrow, will the calls from Tebbit and co prove equally irresistible?

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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