Follow that rabbit, Monsieur Sarkozy!

Despite all the gloom, there’s still humour to be found in the WikiLeaks revelations.

As the WikiLeaks storm continues, much focus is on the negative aspects of such a colossal breach of security. Secret cables revealing human rights abuses or the possibility of violence in North Korea (to give two examples) reinforce the narrative that the whole world is a dreadful place teetering on the brink of chaos.

Why can't we just, for once, enjoy the ridiculous and the absurd? Thanks to the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy – subject of a number of US embassy cables – we can. The revelations range from the mundane (the Saudis thought he was badly mannered) to the sinister (he apparently was an authoritarian who struck fear into his own advisers). One cable, however, that stood out above all the others was the despatch that featured this passage:

Sarkozy was clearly happy – and proud – to be in the company of his young son [Louis] and seemed tickled to be able to introduce him to "the ambassador of the United States". Louis appeared at the threshold with a small dog at his feet and a large rabbit in his arms. To shake hands with the ambassador, Louis put down the rabbit – and the dog started chasing the rabbit through Sarkozy's office, which led to the unforgettable sight of Sarkozy, bent over, chasing the dog through the anteroom to his office as the dog chased the rabbit.

Is that not the most ludicrously amusing image? You can practically hear the music of Benny Hill accompanying such a fiasco. "Allons-y, lapin!"

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.