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.

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496