Geert Wilders, Ukip and me

My row with the next leader of the UK Independence Party

This morning I engaged in a so-called "red-line" debate on Sky News about whether or not the right-wing Dutch Islamophobe and professional controversialist Geert Wilders is "welcome" in the UK. He is not. How can a man who views the faith of nearly two million British citizens and residents as a "totalitarian ideology" and a "retarded, dangerous one", and claims that "there is no such thing as 'moderate Islam'", be welcome in our multicultural, multiracial, multi-faith nation?

But what surrpised me was that the man I was debating -- who also happens to be the British parliamentarian who extended the original invitation to Wilders -- turned out to be Lord Pearson of Rannoch, the Ukip peer, and front-runner to succeed Nigel Farage as leader of the party. Pearson is an odious and reactionary Little Englander with Islamophobic leanings. He described, on air, "the problem with Islam", proclaimed his "fear" of Islam and claimed Islam was responsible for all the terrorism in the world.

And yet, regardless of that, I can't help but wonder what Pearson gets out of all this. Has Ukip gone from being a party of "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, mostly" (to quote David Cameron), obsessed only with the European Union and issues of sovereignty and parliamentary democracy, to suddenly leading the neoconservative (and BNP-backed) campaign against the alleged "Islamisation" of Europe? Its endorsement of Wilders by extending an official invitation to him through its next leader is both strange and unpleasant.

On a side note, may I point out the most ridiculous part of the whole Wilders debate? It's the idea that this man is a champion of free speech and that allowing him entry into the UK exemplifies our commitment to free speech. Sorry. No. That's nonsense. This is a man who not only abuses free speech but also makes a mockery of it in his home country of Holland, where he has advocated the banning and outlawing of the Quran, which he ludicrously considers to be a "fascist" book. This is the man who hides his anti-Islamic bigotry behind the notion of free speech -- and campaigns against Muslims' own right to free speech by advocating the outlawing of the Muslim holy book. How ironic. And disgusting.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The Liberal Democrats are back - and the Tories should be worried

A Liberal revival could do Theresa May real damage in the south.

There's life in the Liberal Democrats yet. The Conservative majority in Witney has been slashed, with lawyer and nominative determinism case study Robert Courts elected, but with a much reduced majority.

It's down in both absolute terms, from 25,155 to 5,702, but it's never wise to worry too much about raw numbers in by-elections. The percentages tell us a lot more, and there's considerable cause for alarm in the Tory camp as far as they are concerned: the Conservative vote down from 60 per cent to 45 per cent.

(On a side note, I wouldn’t read much of anything into the fact that Labour slipped to third. It has never been a happy hunting ground for them and their vote was squeezed less by the Liberal Democrats than you’d perhaps expect.)

And what about those Liberal Democrats, eh? They've surged from fourth place to second, a 23.5 per cent increase in their vote, a 19.3 swing from Conservative to Liberal, the biggest towards that party in two decades.

One thing is clear: the "Liberal Democrat fightback" is not just a hashtag. The party has been doing particularly well in affluent Conservative areas that voted to stay in the European Union. (It's worth noting that one seat that very much fits that profile is Theresa May's own stomping ground of Maidenhead.)

It means that if, as looks likely, Zac Goldsmith triggers a by-election over Heathrow, the Liberal Democrats will consider themselves favourites if they can find a top-tier candidate with decent local connections. They also start with their by-election machine having done very well indeed out of what you might call its “open beta” in Witney. The county council elections next year, too, should be low hanging fruit for 

As Sam Coates reports in the Times this morning, there are growing calls from MPs and ministers that May should go to the country while the going's good, calls that will only be intensified by the going-over that the PM got in Brussels last night. And now, for marginal Conservatives in the south-west especially, it's just just the pressure points of the Brexit talks that should worry them - it's that with every day between now and the next election, the Liberal Democrats may have another day to get their feet back under the table.

This originally appeared in Morning Call, my daily guide to what's going on in politics and the papers. It's free, and you can subscribe here. 

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