My sense of humour failure over "woman on the left"

Why didn't I find the Twitter flutter as entertaining as everyone else?

Do I have meme fatigue? Have I become unbearably pious? Have I just lost my sense of humour?

Yesterday afternoon, Twitter was in paroxysms of delight over a lawyer at the Leveson Inquiry, who was supposedly "flirting" with Hugh Grant as he gave his evidence. Sitting to the left of the counsel for the inquiry, she was swiftly christened "#womanontheleft" and the witticisms began to flow.

So far, so Twitter. I didn't really see it, myself, but I'm at least self-aware enough to understand that sometimes other people find things funny that I don't, and that doesn't necessarily mean that they're bad people, or that I possess a superior sense of comedy to them.

But then it got a bit weird. Someone found out her name. Someone else posted a link to her profile at the chambers where she works. Someone, with the deadening inevitability of a joke about Gazza, chicken and fishing rods, photoshopped her into a scene from one of Grant's films.

Poor woman, I thought. She spent years training as a lawyer and now all anyone thinks is that she's a dippy bint mooning over a famous actor. But, following my newly minted "Liz Jones" policy, I thought: ignore it. Engaging is just adding to the problem. It'll be a one-day wonder.

Only then, something awful happened. Sky News ran a "news story" about her. Yes, a news story. About a Twitter trend. (Full credit to them for trying to dance around the irony of this level of exposure happening to someone at an inquiry into privacy by straight-on reporting it, though). She also got a mention as a "woman lawyer" - because you know, lawyer is a male noun - by Michael White in the Guardian. The paper also ran a panel on page 15 of the paper on her.

The thing that really gets me about this whole kerfuffle is that the male lawyers involved were FAR more swoony over Grant. Watch the first few minutes of the afternoon session yesterday, as the counsel to the inquiry, Richard Jay, tells the actor:

"Everybody, of course, probably knows all about your career, but you made it big, if I can so describe it, with a film in 1994, "Four Weddings and a Funeral", but although you don't say so yourself, you did rather well, I think, with another film which some of us enjoyed in 1987 called "Maurice", so it wasn't as if it's a one-off. You career then took off thereafter."

Puh-lease. It was excruciating to watch.

Still, perhaps I'm being, as fellow NS blogger (and generally sensible type) Guy Walters suggested, a bit pious about all this. Maybe a male lawyer will be memed to death for gazing dreamily at Sienna Miller later in the week. In the meantime, the "woman on the left" was back in the Inquiry room this morning, quizzing Garry Flitcroft. Good on her.

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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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.