Boris v Paxo: the oddest political interview ever?

<i>Newsnight</i>'s creaky encounter was a lowlight of the conference season.

Last night's Newsnight was real watch-through-your-fingers stuff. It began with a package on "Catgate", which started with a reference to Theresa May's kitten heels; and ended with a group of Tory female activists asking Jeremy Paxman why no men had been asked on the "women's special edition" of the programme.

But the undoubted highlight -- or lowlight, depending on your perspective -- was Boris Johnson's interview with Paxman. The tone was set by Paxman describing his guest as the "hairdresser's despair Boris Johnson" and things only got worse from there.

During the course of the encounter, all the following things happened:

  • Boris Johnson poked Paxman quite hard in the chest.
  • The word "piffle" was used.
  • In a discussion over whether Britain was "broken", Johnson used the camera as an example; leading Paxman to ask him incredulously, "Bits of Britain are scuffed?" (this discussion lasted about a minute).
  • Paxman asked Johnson whether he considered himself the intellectual inferior of David Cameron. "INFERIOR?" chortled Johnson.
  • "I'm trying to help you," said Paxman to Johnson at one point, as if this were the worst therapy session ever.
  • Johnson joked that Cameron was thick because he did PPE (politics, philosophy and economics) at Oxford, rather than Classics.
  • Asked how he differed from Cameron, Johnson replied: "I'm older, I'm heavier . . . I beat him at tennis the other day." When pressed further, he added: "This is a really good 'when did you stop beating your wife?' question."
  • Boris went into an extended rant about how he would volunteer to be Paxman's campaign manager in a run for the Tory leadership.

None of this was helped by the fact that the set creaked ominously throughout, like a galleon in Hornblower. I suspect it might have been straining to get away. Plenty of viewers certainly must have been.

No wonder this encounter was described by Tim Jonze as "the Frost/Nixon we deserve". You can watch it in full here.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.