Cameron the mafioso

The Tory leader's defence of his shadow cabinet and Andy Coulson reveals a brutal double standard at

Geoffrey Wheatcroft has a fine piece in today's Guardian drawing together a range of concerns over David Cameron. He argues that Cameron's decision to force a number of MPs out over the expenses scandal, while protecting his own shadow cabinet, highlighted a brutal double standard at work:

It was the action of a capo who whacks a few civilians but spares his made men, and it caused considerable, though so far private, resentment on the Tory benches.

Wheatcroft also homes in on the shamefully lenient treatment of Andy Coulson by Tory high command, a man he presciently described two years ago as someone "who makes Alastair Campbell seem a cross between CP Scott and Hugo Young".

The largely muted response to the phone-hacking scandal has been an indictment of our media. To paraphrase Nye Bevan's verdict on Anthony Eden during the Suez crisis, if Coulson did know about the hacking then he's too wicked to be Cameron's aide, if he didnt know then he's too stupid to be Cameron's aide.

Wheatcroft goes on: "Clinging to the Tory team is a whiff of clever-clever cynicism, of game-playing frivolity, of calculation rather than honour."

I would add that there is something spiteful and even sinister about the Tories' increasingly personalised attacks on Gordon Brown, a topic explored by my colleague James Macintyre earlier this month.

As far as I know, George Osborne has never apologised for his description of Brown as "autistic". I recently witnessed another ugly Tory slur when Alan Duncan declared at a private meeting that Brown "looks like he needs a wash". It's hard to avoid the conclusion that such remarks pander to those amused by Jeremy Clarkson's description of Brown as a "one-eyed Scottish idiot".

Unfortunately I can't agree with Wheatcroft's verdict that "the public is repelled" by the Tories' cynicism and frivolity. The supposition that the electorate would welcome Brown as a more substantial and sober figure than Tony Blair has been wholly discredited.

As the politicisation of celebrity and the celebritisation of politics continues, the truth is that the razzmatazz of Cameron will always triumph over the stoicism of Brown.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn ally Diane Abbott argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.