Why is Phil Woolas back on Labour's frontbench?

The Labour MP, currently the subject of a court action, has been named Home Office minister.

There's much to welcome in Ed Miliband's final set of shadow ministerial appointments. Some of Labour's best new MPs, including Rachel Reeves (work and pensions), Rushanara Ali (international development) and Gloria del Piero (culture), have been swiftly promoted onto the frontbench and Miliband has retained the talents of figures such as Karen Buck (work and pensions) and Andy Slaughter (justice).

The one sore point is the bizarre decision to hand Phil Woolas the post of Home Office minister. Having run one of the most disgraceful election campaigns in recent history, Woolas is currently fighting an attempt to have his victory overturned by his Lib Dem opponent on the grounds of "corrupt practices". He has consistently denied breaking electoral law to secure his seat and said it would have been "political suicide" to do so.

Below is the demagogic leaflet published by Woolas's campaign, which, according to his defeated opponent, Elwyn Watkins, suggested that the Lib Dems were courting support from Islamist extremists.The text reads:

Extremists are trying to hijack this election. They want you to vote Lib Dem to punish Phil for being strong on immigration. The Lib Dems plan to give hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants the right to stay. It is up to you? Do you want the extremists to win?


Legal documents submitted to the High Court argue that there was a calculated attempt by the Woolas campaign to whip up racial tensions in a bid to get the "white vote" behind him.

An email by Woolas's election agent, Joseph Fitzpatrick, to the candidate declared: "we need ... to explain to the white community how the Asians will take him out ... If we don't get the white vote angry he's gone." Another from Fitzpatrick to Steve Green, the MP's campaign adviser, said: "we need to go strong on the militant Moslem (sic) angle" and proposed the headline "Militant Moslems (sic) target Woolas."

A verdict on the case is expected on 5 November and defeat for Woolas would see him expelled from Parliament and a by-election held in the highly marginal seat of Oldham East and Saddleworth. Regardless of the morality of his appointment, the pragmatic case against appointing an MP currently subject to a court action is clear. The court may yet find in Woolas's favour, but his presence on Labour's frontbench is hard to see as anything but a serious mistake.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

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.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage