Claws out: five top 'PM under attack' quotes

Politicians say the nastiest things . . . about each other

It would be an absolute effing disaster if Gordon Brown was PM, and I'll do anything in my power to effing stop him.

So said the mystery minister to Nick Robinson in 2006. Now, the former defence secretary John Hutton has admitted that it was he, after intensive questioning on Eddie Mair's radio show. The confession came with the caveat that he has now changed his opinion: "I think he has been a tremendously hard-working man, who has really put his heart and soul into it."

Robinson, on his blog (which also has the full transcript of the Mair interview), says:

This is more than mere historical trivia. Hutton resigned from Brown's cabinet on the same day as James Purnell walked out calling for a change of leadership. Had Hutton backed Purnell's view -- or, indeed, publicly repeated any of his private views -- we would now in all probability have a different man leading the country.

But there is nothing wrong with a bit of historical trivia, I say, so here we go. You'd think politicians would behave with a little diplomacy. But whether it's members of their own party, or other heads of state, they are slating each other all over the place.

Here are my top five quotes about British PMs -- from other politicians. Please do share any other suggestions below.

1. Alas, poor Gordon. In a verbal echo of Hutton's comments, the former home secretary Charles Clarke used an article in the New Statesman last year to say that: "Labour's current course will lead to utter destruction at the next general election". He doesn't mention Brown by name, but in case you were in any doubt, he goes on to describe "a deep and widely shared concern -- which does not derive from ideology -- that Labour is destined to disaster if we go on as we are".

2. "What does she want, this housewife? My balls on a tray?" Jacques Chirac, then prime minister of France, made this delightful comment about our very own Maggie Thatcher during the February 1988 Brussels summit. Misogynistic? Naaah.

3. Although, that said, she's not so lovely herself. "I've got my teeth into him, and I'm not going to let go," said Thatcher of Edward Heath during the Tory leadership contest in 1975. Frightening stuff. She followed it up in 1979 when she was safely ensconced, with the cutting comment: "When I look at him and he looks at me, I don't feel that it is a man looking at a woman. More like a woman being looked at by another woman."

4a. "Yo, Blair." Oh, Dubbya. George W Bush was caught on tape at the G8 conference in 2006 using the casual greeting with Tony Blair -- evidence of that irksome special relationship. Suffice to say that the tabloids were not impressed.

b. On a more serious note, Blair got his fair share of criticism from within the party, too. In 2005, during the dispute over extending the detention of terror suspects to 90 days, Peter Kilfoyle, a former junior defence minister, said:

Any reality check should start at No 10. The Prime Minister is out of touch with his own party and both Houses. He can't keep playing the loyalty card. He said after the May election he had listened and learned. If he listened, he hasn't learned the right lessons.

5. And finally -- turning the tables. In 1993, the then prime minister, John Major, branded three unnamed cabinet ministers (thought to be Michael Portillo, Michael Howard and Peter Lilley) "bastards". Good on him.

 

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a force at least united in name.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will remain a story.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.