Despite it all, they still miss Andy

Downing Street's embarrassment is diminished by nostalgia for Coulson's skill as a spinner.

The default response to news of Andy Coulson's arrest in political commentary and analysis is that it must be a blow to Downing Street and terribly embarrassing for the Prime Minister. Of course it must, up to a point. “PM’s former aide charged with perjury” is never a welcome headline for a government – especially when the aide in question was running Number 10’s communications operation at the time of the alleged offence. First, of course, it must be remembered that Coulson, like anyone else, is entitled to be presumed innocent. Complete vindication is possible.

More to the point, however, I don’t detect much embarrassment or awkwardness around this issue emanating from the centre of government. The assumption, especially among those on the Labour side who plainly want to see Cameron damaged, is that the Tories must be tearing out their hair wondering how on earth the former editor of the News of the World ever found his way into such an important and sensitive role. The appointment is routinely held up as an error of judgment by the PM. Some Tory MPs feel that way but it is not, in my experience, the dominant view.

On the contrary, the strongest sentiment there seems to be towards Coulson around Downing Street is a profound and enduring sense of loss given how effective he was at his job (before, that is, he was forced to resign from it). Top Tories watched Coulson’s testimony before the Leveson inquiry with fond admiration and remembered why he was so effective: the dry humour, the discipline, the calm control. He was valued for his temperament and his news judgement.

It is hard, for many in Downing Street, to avoid noting the contrast with Coulson’s successor, Craig Oliver who has presided over a less felicitous phase in the government communications, otherwise known as “the omnishambles”.  In fairness (and many in government leap to his defence) Oliver cannot be blamed for the bodged budget and other policy problems. A communications director can only work with the material he is given. Oliver’s approach was captured on camera earlier this week – he is seen nagging BBC chief political correspondent Norman Smith about the Corporation’s coverage of the Leveson inquiry. There is nothing too unusual or intemperate about the exchange. But it is damaging because it shows the man who is supposed to be in control of the message whining about the extent to which he is not in control. It would never, goes the Number 10 whisper, have happened to Coulson.

So of course it is bad. Arrests, court appearances, police officers marching a former member of the PM’s inner circle off for questioning – that is never good. But despite it all, the prevailing feeling around Downing Street is still not anger or shame at the long harbouring of Coulson as a liability, but sorrow at his loss as an asset.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear