Run, David, run. Photo: WPA Pool / Getty Images
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Commons Confidential: Alan Johnson’s ball skills

Plus, Alastair Campbell's acting career.

David Cameron’s competitive spirit makes him the butt of many jokes. Spain’s former Socialist leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero recalls jogging with the Tory premier at a G20 summit in Seoul. It was supposed to be a friendly run with no publicity, but after a few kilometres Zapatero spied a photographer lurking in the bushes. Suspicions were aroused when Cameron sprinted so as to be snapped in the lead. Speedy Zapatero enjoyed the last laugh, though, finishing ahead of the chubby PM, who was exhausted by the mid-route dart. Ed Miliband should take heart: an election is a marathon, not a sprint.

Alan Johnson, ageing mod, is one of the biggest draws on the campaign circuit. The one-time postie gives a persuasive account of the last Labour government. He’s also entertaining. In Cardiff he recalled delivering letters in a Berkshire village, an aggressive dog yapping at his ankles. The lady of the house leaned out of the window and in a posh voice trilled, “Kick his balls, kick his balls!” Al duly booted the canine’s testicles. “No, no, you silly little man,” she shrieked: “the plastic balls on the lawn.”

Perhaps the only bigger draw is Dennis Skinner. In Lincolnshire to support David “Son of John” Prescott, the Beast predicted that Two Jags, Jr could pull off a Portillo moment. Hope burns eternal . . . The Tory MP Edward Leigh’s majority in Gainsborough is 10,559. Portillo was sitting on an, ahem, 15,563 cushion. It couldn’t happen, could it?

The Scouse bruiser Ricky Tomlinson and the Tory smoothie Daniel Kawczynski are an unlikely pairing. The two will host a meeting in the MP’s constituency to support the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign. Tomlinson – a flying picket jailed on trumped-up charges after the 1972 building workers’ strike, before he found fame in Brookside Close – established a rapport with Kawczynski over a Commons brew. Forget cash from Chinese companies; consorting with trade unionists is treasonable in the eyes of Lynton Crosby.

Alastair Campbell’s early days as a hack were perfect training for playing Cameron in TV debate rehearsals with Red Ed. It isn’t the first time he’s pretended to be somebody else. A former landlord of the Peter Tavy Inn in Devon, where a young Campbell once drank, giggled that the middle-class Comical Ali posed, for street cred, as a horny-handed son of toil. His dad was a vet.

It might not be the Tories’ Black and White Ball, but Emily Thornberry is hosting a £95-a-head fundraiser with Yvette Cooper and the Harriet Harman lookalike Grayson Perry. At that price, for every ticket sold, she could hire a white Ford Transit for two days or buy four large flags of St George to drape from the restaurant’s windows.

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

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 27 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Russia vs the west

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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