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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Theresa May defies the right by maintaining 0.7% aid pledge

The Prime Minister offers rare continuity with David Cameron but vows to re-examine how the money is spent. 

From the moment Theresa May became Prime Minister, there was speculation that she would abandon the UK's 0.7 per cent aid pledge. She appointed Priti Patel, a previous opponent of the target, as International Development Secretary and repeatedly refused to extend the commitment beyond this parliament. When an early general election was called, the assumption was that 0.7 per cent would not make the manifesto.

But at a campaign event in her Maidenhead constituency, May announced that it would. "Let’s be clear – the 0.7 per cent commitment remains, and will remain," she said in response to a question from the Daily Telegraph's Kate McCann. But she added: "What we need to do, though, is to look at how that money will be spent, and make sure that we are able to spend that money in the most effective way." May has left open the possibility that the UK could abandon the OECD definition of aid and potentially reclassify defence spending for this purpose.

Yet by maintaining the 0.7 per cent pledge, May has faced down her party's right and title such as the Sun and the Daily Mail. On grammar schools, climate change and Brexit, Tory MPs have cheered the Prime Minister's stances but she has now upheld a key component of David Cameron's legacy. George Osborne was one of the first to praise May's decision, tweeting: "Recommitment to 0.7% aid target very welcome. Morally right, strengthens UK influence & was key to creating modern compassionate Conservatives".

A Conservative aide told me that the announcement reflected May's personal commitment to international development, pointing to her recent speech to International Development staff. 

But another Cameron-era target - the state pension "triple lock" - appears less secure. Asked whether the government would continue to raise pensions every year, May pointed to the Tories' record, rather than making any future commitment. The triple lock, which ensures pensions rise in line with average earnings, CPI inflation or by 2.5 per cent (whichever is highest), has long been regarded by some Conservatives as unaffordable. 

Meanwhile, Philip Hammond has hinted that the Tories' "tax lock", which bars increases in income tax, VAT and National Insurance, could be similarly dropped. He said: "I’m a Conservative. I have no ideological desire to to raise taxes. But we need to manage the economy sensibly and sustainably. We need to get the fiscal accounts back into shape.

"It was self evidently clear that the commitments that were made in the 2015 manifesto did and do today constrain the ability to manage the economy flexibly."

May's short speech to workers at a GlaxoSmithKline factory was most notable for her emphasis that "the result is not certain" (the same message delivered by Jeremy Corbyn yesterday). As I reported on Wednesday, the Tories fear that the belief that Labour cannot win could reduce their lead as voters conclude there is no need to turn out. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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