Commons Confidential: Campbell gets souped up

PLUS: Eric Joyce vs Jim Sheridan.

Major Eric Joyce the Torybeater is in trouble again, this time for unparliamentary manoeuvres against Scottish Labour’s Jim Sheridan. Joyce was witnessed in the “No” lobby issuing a high-decibel “Let’s go outside for a chat” invitation as he pushed his face, eyes reportedly bulging, into the face of the older man.

Sheridan, 60, declined and as he departed Joyce yelled uncomradely greetings banned on the floor of the chamber. Sheridan reported Joyce, who was previously fined £3,000 and handed a 12-month community order after headbutting and punching Conservative MPs in Strangers’ Bar, to the Serjeant at Arms. Sheridan is seeking to have Joyce banned from the Houses of Parliament on health and safety grounds until he undergoes counselling.

The explosion was triggered by Sheridan, chair of the Unite MPs, telling Joyce he was wrong to hold the union solely responsible for the Grangemouth refinery row. Joyce, who blames Unite for ousting him in Falkirk, evidently thought otherwise.

Gateshead’s Ian Mearns is a handy man in a crisis. The Geordie Labourite remembered his first aid when an elderly man collapsed on the upper committee corridor. Mearns put the unfortunate chap into the recovery position to await the nurse. He stayed cool when a visitor shrieked that the bloke’s hand was deadly cold and there was no pulse. Trained to deal with emergencies, eagle-eyed Mearns spotted that it was a prosthetic limb.

Political hacks on the popular newspapers went nuclear when the Sir Humphrey at the Energy Department, Stephen Lovegrove, invited only former broadsheets with low circulations to question his minister, Ed Davey, on EDF’s money-spinning Hinkley deal. When asked by a colleague of mine at the Mirror, the John Le Mesurier-like Jason Beattie, why no tabloid lobby reporter had been called to the press conference, Lovegrove gave a response that was classic Whitehall farce material.

“I don’t know you,” he said disdainfully, “from a bar of soap.” Lofty Lovegrove sounds ripe for promotion to the diplomatic service.

Therese Coffey, bag carrier to the biz minister, Michael Fallon, has reached the end of the road. Or, more accurately, her beloved, British-built Toyota Avensis has. The broken motor with 210,000 miles on the clock is marooned beyond economical repair in parliament’s underground garage. It’s not only MPs that are clapped out in Westminster.

The corporate PR and professional self-publicist Alastair Campbell is unsettling Ed Miliband’s inner circle by informing any news outlet that will listen that he, Tony Blair’s former weapon of mass disinformation, will play a prominent Labour role in the election. Milibites fear Campbell will make it all about himself in 2015. I think they can bet on that.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Ed Miliband and Alastair Campbell. Montage: Dan Murrell

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.