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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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.