Johnson vs the London Irish: Mehdi Hasan on Boris's latest blunder

Memo to the Mayor: not all Irish people are members of Sinn Fein.

If you haven't read Jemima Khan's interviews with Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone in this week's New Statesman, you really should. The Livingstone interview hasn't attracted the best of headlines for the Labour candidate - "Ken Livingstone in Tory 'riddled with homosexuals' row" - but it is ludicrous to accuse Ken of being homophobic or bigoted on the basis of a single, ill-advised, badly-phrased comment. On the other hand, it is worth pointing out that his Tory opponent Johnson has, in the past, referred to black people as "piccaninnies" with "watermelon smiles" and declared, in a discussion on 7/7, that "Islam is the problem".

Boris's interview with Jemima also contained a line that some might say was offensive to London's Irish community:

"I'll tell you what makes me angry - lefty crap," he thunders in response. Like? "Well, like spending £20,000 on a dinner at the Dorchester for Sinn Fein!"

Is the mayor referring to the annual St Patrick's Day Gala Dinner, the £150-per-ticket black tie event that ran between 2002 and 2008 and was, ahem, self-financing? The dinner that Boris cancelled in 2009 to save money despite the fact that it was, um, er, self-financing? The dinner that wasn't held "for Sinn Fein" but at the request, and for the sake, of the Irish community of Kilburn, Cricklewood and other parts of the capital?

Now, you can agree or disagree with the idea of a special, sponsored, annual dinner for London's Irish community but to dismiss it, out of hand, as "lefty crap" and "for Sinn Fein" isn't just wrong but offensive. Irish footballers, television stars, singers and politicians from across the spectrum attended the dinner, including, I'm told, Pauline McLynn (from Father Ted), Dermot O'Leary, Bob Geldof, the mayor of Dublin and the Irish ambassador to the UK.

As a spokesman for Ken Livingstone pointed out, when I mentioned the Boris line to him:

To call the annual, self-financing, St Patrick's Day dinner "lefty crap" is both profoundly ill-informed and also an attack on Irish Londoners and their contribution to this city. Irish Londoners came together to celebrate the part they play in the life of London - and Boris Johnson has slapped them in the face. He is out of touch and ignorant of the facts.

I'm not Irish but I am Muslim. I know what it's like to be casually stereotyped - not every British Muslim is an Islamist and not every person of Irish descent is a Provo. The mayor of this great and diverse city should know better.

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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.