Commons Confidential

Hoon's unexploding underpants

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Pauline Neville-Jones, a figure straight out of a Bond movie -- although think Judi Dench rather than Eva Green -- has spooked the Tory hardmen Chris Grayling and Liam Fox. The shadow home and defence spokesmen forced David Cameron to deny his national security adviser her promised cabinet-level post. The baroness, once chair of Whitehall's Joint Intelligence Committee, will be tucked away in the Home Office if the Cons win in May. Fighting terrorism seems to have taken a back seat to Tory infighting.

The Labour plotter Geoff "Buff" Hoon is still suffering Talibrown recriminations. One party loyalist spat that the Very Rubbish Coup fell flat when Hoon's underpants failed to explode. Another argued that they detonated but, like the Christmas Day bomber, Hoon only scorched his own privates. More sinisterly, a minister recalled Hoon moaning of mistreatment by Tony Blair, exclaiming: "After all the lies I've told for him!" What could Hoon have meant?

Andrew Mitchell is following in the tyre tracks of the Tory Lycra louts David Cameron and Boris Johnson. The banker-cum-overseas aid spokesman narrowly missed the heavily pregnant ITV hackette Alex Forrest on a Westminster pedestrian crossing. She protested loudly as Mitchell sped off into the dark without stopping. The frontbencher later rang to congratulate feisty Forrest on her impending motherhood -- but curiously offered no apology.

The Bible-quoting blogger Alastair "Now We Do God" Campbell fancies himself as a new Piers Morgan but TV isn't so keen, a producer whispered. Nor is Comical Ali's pride in the Iraq war likely to land him the newspaper column he covets. Meanwhile the onetime spinner's nemesis, Andrew Gilligan, has been busy. A snout muttered that round at Boris Johnson's London pad, Gilligan had been enlisted to help pull down a summer house in the garden.

The US shock jock Michael Savage, banned from Britain, wants the ban lifted so he can visit plants donated to Kew Gardens 40 years ago in his given name, Weiner. Kew has no record of them, and is in no hurry, I hear, to get to the root of the problem.

Tessa Jowell is recuperating after a knee op. A colleague wondered if she had worn out the joint with all those years of bending it to Blair.

Kevin Maguire is associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.