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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.