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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.