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.

Daily Mail
Show Hide image

Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle