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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage