Inside story

The accumulated knowledge of two lobby hacks can't enliven a Westminster farce.

It was the Sun wot wrote it! Or in this case, the Sun's Whitehall editor, Clodagh Hartley, with her accomplice John Higginson, of Metro, who have scripted a "riotous satire" for the Tabard Theatre in Chiswick.

The journalists from these two mighty organs -- sorry, it's catching -- have constructed a light Westminster farce about the expenses scandal, that could have been nicely timed to lob a "plague on both your houses" sort of hex just in time for the election (for the purposes of this play, the Lib Dems don't exist). As things stand, however, I think the politicians can sleep easy in their beds. About this matter, at least.

Now, imagine the most riotous satire, in your experience: Swift's A Modest Proposal perhaps, or in recent times, anything by Chris Morris. Now take everything that is riotous or indeed satirical out of it. Replace Iannucci with innuendo, if you will. The toothless inanity you are left with might be quite like Stiffed!

To be fair, the play is supposed to be featherweight. The cast list sets up a fanciful Restoration comedy mood: Paula Stiff (matron!) and George Moore-Lys (fnarr, fnarr!) are the Chancellor and her Shadow respectively, and both about to be embarrassed by the revelations of honest Sally Pauper, the journalist who is, of course, the heroine of this tale. Christopher Hone's set aptly underlines the play's flimsiness, as it appears to be made out of paper, with wiggly lines drawn on in felt-tip, like a pop-up book. The Commons is quite literally a House of Card, with neat pull-out sections enabling a seat here, a bar there. It positively invites a slick, Feydeau farce-style use of its many doors; a hysterical vortex of entrances and exits.

But Dan Herd's direction never delivers this sort of drive, which would have been a welcome shot in the arm to an anaemic script. The only actor to push into the realms of physical grotesquerie is Mark Wall as the Daily Telegraph editor, and he just ends up looking like he's in the wrong show, and head-butting innocent bystanders.

It all started promisingly enough, with the actors wandering on informally and looking about them. Unfortunately, on the night I was there, four latecomers also wandered on informally, looking about them, and I had high hopes for some time that they were part of the show and about to do something spectacular to save it. Disappointingly they weren't, and didn't.

One problem that soon becomes apparent is that the story to be satirised is itself so preposterous -- a real case of truth being stranger than fiction -- that the exaggeration typical of satirical swipes is left with nowhere to go. There is little more ludicrous than taking public money to build your ducks a house, so the play's equivalent, the statue of Churchill designed to ward off the foxes, grows pale and uninteresting by comparison.

The actors, though competent, are under-used. There are glimmers: Laura Evelyn's Sally Pauper is a pleasing straight woman, who, when drunk, has a kooky habit of speaking journalistic cant in heavily flagged quotation marks. Brendan Murphy, as Tory new boy Quentin Dellaware, has a Rob Brydon vibe going on, and also appears to speak in jittery inverted commas. There are inchoate hints here about the sound bite habit that bedevils both poacher and gamekeeper. Both characters' promising biographical details (she: lonely and loveless, he: gay) are picked up and then simply thrown out, however.

The atmosphere perks up somewhat when the auditorium is co-opted into the House of Commons, and we audience members are courted by the frontbenchers as they stand up and sound off like wheedling mountebanks: I can understand the apparent need of backbenchers to heckle like rowdy schoolchildren at a pantomime. Michael Martin is represented by a tiny puppet, subject to the tweaks and pulls of strings on both sides, and this reduction of Speaker to a plaintively screeching homunculus is where the satire suddenly grows teeth.

Considering this was written by "insiders" and supposedly reveals the "inner workings of parliament, the press and politicians" (sic) there is nothing here we didn't already know. We know when we've been stiffed, all right.

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Why Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain