Grant Shapps's woes grow as he faces investigation

Tory chairman accused of misleading the public with false name will be investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority.

In his capacity as Conservative chairman, Grant Shapps will welcome the media to his party's conference in Birmingham this weekend, so it's unfortunate that he's increasingly a figure of ridicule. As Ed Miliband caustically observed in his conference speech:

We’ve got a Party Chairman who writes books about how to beat the recession, under a false name. Really, I’m not making this up; I’m really not making this up. I mean I have to say if I was Chairman of the Conservative Party, I’d have a false name too.

That false name was "Michael Green" (and/or "Sebastian Fox") and, following a complaint by blogger The Plashing Vole, Shapps is now under investigation by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The ASA will respond to claims that Shapps's website, HowToCorp (which now exists only as a help page for existing users), misled the public by implying that  "Sebastian Fox" or "Michael Green" were "real people", and that the glowing testimonies they attracted were "genuine".

Green was presented as a successful businessman with a personal fortune of $28 million (£17 million) who could make customers "$20,000 in 20 days" through the software package, TrafficPaymaster (while also providing a Partridge-esque guide on how to "bounce back" from recession), or offer them their money back. An ASA spokesman told the Vole:

We intend to deal with your complaint under our formal investigations procedure, which means that we will ask HowToCorp to comment on the complaint that the ad misleadingly implies Sebastian Fox or Michael Green are real people, and that the testimonies are not genuine, and to send evidence to support the claims. We will then draft a recommendation and refer your complaint to the ASA council for adjudication.

A spokesman for Shapps, who stepped down from the company in 2008, said: "Mr Shapps hasn't been involved with this company for four and a half years. These websites are no longer online and any blogger can make a spurious complaint about any website, which then has to be investigated. This is in the hands of the ASA."

In the absence of Andrew Mitchell, who has elected to stay away from the Tory gathering, it is Shapps who will be the media's prime target. Of the former, David Davis observed that it would be "very, very difficult" for him to do his job. Could the same now be said of Shapps?

Conservative chairman Grant Shapps adopted the alias "Michael Green" for his internet business HowToCorp. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The trouble with a second Brexit referendum

A new vote risks coming too soon for Remainers. But there is an alternative. 

In any given week, a senior political figure will call for a second Brexit referendum (the most recent being David Miliband). It's not hard to see why. EU withdrawal risks proving an act of political and economic self-harm and Leave's victory was narrow (52-48). Had Remain won by a similar margin, the Brexiteers would have immediately demanded a re-run. 

But the obstacles to another vote are significant. Though only 52 per cent backed Brexit, a far larger number (c. 65 per cent) believe the result should be respected. No major party currently supports a second referendum and time is short.

Even if Remainers succeed in securing a vote, it risks being lost. As Theresa May learned to her cost, electorates have a habit of punishing those who force them to polls. "It would simply be too risky," a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Were a second referendum lost, any hope of blocking Brexit, or even softening it, would be ended. 

The vote, as some Remainers note, would also come at the wrong moment. By 2018/19, the UK will, at best, have finalised its divorce terms. A new trade agreement with the EU will take far longer to conclude. Thus, the Brexiteers would be free to paint a false picture of the UK's future relationship. "It would be another half-baked, ill-informed campaign," a Labour MP told me. 

For this reason, as I write in my column this week, an increasing number of Remainers are attracted to an alternative strategy. After a lengthy transition, they argue, voters should be offered a choice between a new EU trade deal and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be a distant memory. The proviso, they add, is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms (rather than ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). 

Rather than publicly proposing this plan, MPs are wisely keeping their counsel. As they know, those who hope to overturn the Brexit result must first be seen to respect it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.