Commons Confidential: When Tory chips are down

Plus: The misfiring Adam Afriyie.

I appreciate the rapidly dwindling Conservative Party – down to half the size when David Cameron was elected leader – is desperate to win new recruits but the latest drive to boost membership is a bit fishy. A snout rang with the tale of an Essex man who went along to a Clacton fish-andchip supper organised by the local MP, Douglas Carswell. The chap paid his £10, enjoyed his cod and then listened to the debate before going home unconvinced by the Tory case on Europe. So imagine his perturbation at a letter from Carswell’s office informing him that his tenner would be converted into membership of the constituency association unless he wrote back renouncing the party. The chap couldn’t be bothered to reply and – hey presto! – an unwanted Tory membership card duly popped through his letter box. It’s no surprise Carswell can boast he’s doubled membership in Clacton when it’s as cheap as chips.

Fun and games are often had behind the Speaker’s chair during Prime Minister’s Questions. If Michael Gove arrives too late to squeeze on to the front bench, the school pugilist stands out of John Bercow’s sight and, rocking back and forth on his heels, deliberately winds up Labour MPs with a stream of sneers. The strapping six-foot two Labour whip Tom Blenkinsop has the job of blocking Gove to minimise altercations, but the language can still be unparliamentary. My informant clutching an order paper swore he heard Dame Margaret Beckett, a former foreign secretary well versed in the art of diplomacy, call Gove a “ducking twit” or some such creature.

Cameron’s pet northerner, Eric Pickles, helps keep Ed Miliband’s children in shoes. The Labour leader’s significant other, the barrister Justine Thornton, fights planning cases on behalf of Big Eric’s Department for Communities. She’s assured friends the work is on the legal cab rank principle. Small worlds, politics and the law.

The misfiring Adam Afriyie is a Tory with a bank account to match his ambition. The multimillionaire wannabe leader is employing the ex-News of the World editor Phil Hall to give him PR advice. Another wealthy Tory, Frank “Zac” Goldsmith, hires the ex-Mailman Ian Monk to burnish his image. Both are thorns in Cameron’s side. A newsman on the payroll is the new must-have accessory for the Westminster elite.

Ivan Lewis, the shadow cabinet minister, is unhappy he’s been banished to Northern Ireland. Lewis, whom Damian McBride admitted smearing during the Big Gordie era, was overheard moaning: “The Brownites finally got me.”

The Tory Tyke Alec Shelbrooke, asked if his Jack Russell-poodle cross, Boris, was a randy pooch, answered bluntly: “No, I chopped his balls off.” A course of action that Mrs Johnson may wish she’d pursued.

Tory membership: cheap as chips. 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 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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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.