Provocative, entertaining, infuriating: I'm going to miss Louise Mensch

How many British backbenchers are reliably interesting?

So, farewell then, Louise Mensch. I'm going to miss you.

How many backbenchers are reliably provocative, entertaining - and occasionally infuriating? Very few. Our 24-hour news cycle, and the "fishing for gaffes" this inevitably encourages, mean that most junior MPs keep their mouths firmly shut on anything which doesn't directly concern them. (Incidentally, this is why we all fall on the latest story about Boris Johnson whipping Princess Anne with a conger eel or being "ironically" offensive like a man dying of thirst.)

Nowhere was Mensch more effective than on Twitter. Politicians' feeds tend to be a blather of trilling proclamations about their constituency duties, interspersed with solemn attacks on the other side. Not so with Mensch. Every so often, she would toss some chum into the piranha-swamp of lobby correspondents, just for the hell of it. 

Her name change. Her announcement she'd have to be quick at the select committee questioning James Murdoch because she needed to pick up the kids. Her photoshoot for GQ. Her Newsnight appearances. Her alleged facelift. Her mad decision to launch a social network named after her. All these were endlessly pored over, probed for What They Said About Society.

Possibly my favourite Magic Menschment, though, was her admission she'd taken drugs with the violinist Nigel Kennedy. This is how to respond when someone accuses you of getting high in a club in your twenties:

Although I do not remember the specific incident, this sounds highly probable. I thoroughly enjoyed working with Nigel Kennedy, whom I remember with affection. I am not a very good dancer and must apologise to any and all journalists who were forced to watch me dance that night.

Of course, there were plenty of journalists who were ready to dismiss her as a tedious controversialist -- yet this never prevented their papers writing up her latest provocation. (Just a few days ago she stirred up a perfect storm about Labour supporters wishing Margaret Thatcher dead.) 

For all that Mensch was an attention-seeker, the British political press liked having its attention sought. And, presumably, its readers lapped up stories about Mensch even as they loudly proclaimed how much they didn't care about her. Clicks don't lie.

By resigning mid-parliament, in the quiet August recess, Mensch has once again guaranteed herself coverage far out of proportion to her importance. Stand by for articles on whether women can have it all, which will completely ignore the fact that very few women marry someone who lives on a different continent. Brace yourself for pious warbling about her lack of commitment to politics (as if most of our politicians are motivated by nothing but the highest ideals of public service). But most of all, prepare for British politics to get a lot duller. 

We created Louise Mensch: built her up through our desire for someone, somewhere, to say something interesting. And we'll miss her more than she misses us. 

Louise Mensch: so long and thanks for all the LOLs. Photo: Getty

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.