Jostling for Geoff Hoon's seat

Candidate confirms he will run for the Notts seat.

No sooner has the news that Geoff Hoon is to step down from the Commons at the next election -- perhaps in the wake of his role in the "coup that never was" last month -- than speculation has kicked off as to who might take up the Labour candidacy in Ashfield, Notts.

Paul Waugh reports:

I'm told the names in the frame are John Knight, the leader of Ashfield District Council, and former Hoon special adviser James Connal.

Connal, a canny lad, raised eyebrows when he rented a flat in Sutton-in-Ashfield. Not the sort of place you'd normally find a suave, London-based lobbyist. But it is smack in the constituency of his former boss.

Mr Connal appears to have been in close contact with some activists locally, particularly as the calls increased for Hoon to be deselected. The fact that he has worked with private equity firms may or may not appeal to the local members.

But another name that is bound to figure on any speculative shortlist is Michael Dugher, another former special adviser to Hoon. Dugher is currently the Prime Minister's Chief Political Spokesman. He grew up in Edlington, a pit village nearby. Could his arm be twisted into quitting No 10 and going for Ashfield?

Interesting. Certainly Michael Dugher is Labour MP material, and rumour has it that he has been promised a seat by the party leadership. He narrowly missed out on his home town of Doncaster to Ed Miliband in 2005.

Having -- paradoxically -- previously worked hard as special adviser for Hoon, who would later emerge as a plotter against Gordon Brown, Dugher has since impressed key people in No 10. Will he go up against his former colleage from Hoon's office, though?

James Connal, when I call following Waugh's blog, confirms to me that he will indeed be standing for the seat, though he is characteristically modest. "I'm going for it, but of course it's up to Labour's NEC as to whether I'm on the shortlist," he says.

But: "I live there. I am an elected member of my local Labour Party branch and have been going up there assiduously for the past year. I know a lot of the party members and I think we need to pull together to beat the Lib Dems and the Conservatives."

Fighting talk from a man who has found himself the subject of an ominous mini-smear campaign in recent days, including being described as "baby-faced" and worse in the gossip columns.

In fact, Connal is an old head on young shoulders, with impressive socially conscious credentials, having run the Save the Children child poverty campaign in the run-up to the Budget, and who now -- post-government -- currently provides advice to the Georgian government.

Doubtless, Dugher deserves a seat, too. But Connal is clearly going to go for it in Ashfield. It would be a shame if room could not be found on Labour's list for both of these rather different, but equally worthy former colleagues and friends.

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James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder