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.

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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn ally Diane Abbott argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.