Ed Miliband's team has been consulting on how much of the leader's suit he should wear at any one time. Montage: Dan Murrell/NS
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Commons Confidential: Labour’s great big cover-up

Plus: the Women's Institute gets political.

I have discovered that Ed Miliband is involved in a major Labour cover-up. The party’s leader, an advocate of greater transparency in British politics, is mainly keeping his jacket on in public these days. The era of shirtsleeves is largely over. A mole disclosed that a focus group was consulted on the vitally important issue of whether Red Ed should be seen in or out of the top half of his £750 Spencer Hart suit. Men weren’t especially bothered either way but, muttered the Labour insider, women voters thought the young Milibrother looked more prime ministerial in a jacket. He’s all nicely decked out in knotted pastelcoloured ties, too. The Labour leader’s office calls it smart politics.

October’s edition of WI News, the official organ of the Women’s Institute, found its way to your correspondent via a Labour MP who sheepishly confessed that his mother is a stalwart of the jam-and-Jerusalem movement. The newsletter includes an account from Bicton & Oxon WI of an ill-starred visit to the historic Upton Cressett Hall, home for 40 years to the Tory anti-Europe bore Bill Cash and now the pride and joy of his son William. The WI is upset that Cash the Younger confused their august organisation with the Townswomen’s Guild, a rival group with Suffragette roots, in his own account of the fateful day for the Daily Mail.

Upton Cressett resembled Fawlty Towers on the day in question and I’ll let the WI correspondent recount several sorry episodes: “His [Cash the Younger’s] public toilets were locked and he did not have the key, and disaster struck when a desperate lady from the Townswomen’s Guild used the house toilet and shut the front door, locking out Mr Cash and his staff. After he lost his temper and threatened to call off the visit, he got in through a window and tea and a tour of the house followed.”

Strangers’ Bar in the House of Commons has reopened after a £15,000 makeover. The width of the green bar was doubled to put staff more than punching distance from MPs. The new panoramic mirror cracked after the first Westminster preening and a replacement was fitted.

Strangers’ is now included in Cask Marque, the scheme identifying watering holes for real-ale devotees. The listing is superfluous when members of the public, otherwise known as electors, are barred from popping in to enjoy a £2.85 pint of Midnight Walk.

Labour MPs still giggle after Nadine Dorries’s Scouse broadened as she pitched for opposition support in her failed bid for a deputy speakership and £36,360 subvention. My snout with the finely tuned accent detector thought the Tory from Liverpool, an endangered species if ever there was one, sounded like a cross between Cilla Black and Ricky Tomlinson. I reckon Esther McVey has honed her Scouse, too, since Dave Cameron appointed her to shout about strivers and skivers.

The Townswomen’s Guild’s brush with the keeper of Upton Cressett, by the way, ended badly. The WI correspondent reported: “While we were then looking at the garden he [Cash the Younger again] totally lost his temper again with ladies from the other group and frogmarched them off the premises.”

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 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt