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The bugger, bugged

After a chance meeting with a former News of the World executive who told him his phone had been hacked, Hugh Grant couldn’t resist going back to him – with a hidden tape recorder – to find out if there was more to the story. . .

When I broke down in my midlife crisis car in remotest Kent just before Christmas, a battered white van pulled up on the far carriageway. To help, I thought. But when the driver got out he started taking pictures with a long-lens camera. He came closer to get better shots and I swore at him. Then he offered me a lift the last few miles to my destination. I suspected his motives and swore at him some more. (I'm not entirely sympathetic towards paparazzi.) Then I realised I couldn't get a taxi and was late. So I had to accept the lift.

He turned out to be an ex-News of the World investigative journalist and paparazzo, now running a pub in Dover. He still kept his camera in the car's glove box for just this kind of happy accident.

More than that, he was Paul McMullan, one of two ex-NoW hacks who had blown the whistle (in the Guardian and on Channel 4's Dispatches) on the full extent of phone-hacking at the paper, particularly under its former editor Andy Coulson. This was interesting, as I had been a victim - a fact he confirmed as we drove along. He also had an unusual defence of the practice: that phone-hacking was a price you had to pay for living in a free society. I asked how that worked exactly, but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".

I agreed and the picture duly appeared in the Mail on Sunday that weekend with his creative version of the encounter. He had asked me to drop into his pub some time. So when, some months later, Jemima asked me to write a piece for this paper, it occurred to me it might be interesting to take him up on his invitation.

I wanted to hear more about phone-hacking and the whole business of tabloid journalism. It occurred to me just to interview him straight, as he has, after all, been a whistleblower. But then I thought I might possibly get more, and it might be more fun, if I secretly taped him, The bugger bugged, as it were. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Me So, how's the whistleblowing going?
Him I'm trying to get a book published. I sent it off to a publisher who immediately accepted it and then it got legal and they said, "This is never going to get published."
Me Why? Because it accuses too many people of crime?
Him Yes, as I said to the parliamentary commission, Coulson knew all about it and regularly ordered it . . . He [Coulson] rose quickly to the top; he wanted to cover his tracks all the time. So he wouldn't just write a story about a celeb who'd done something. He'd want to make sure they could never sue, so he wanted us to hear the celeb like you on tape saying, "Hello, darling, we had lovely sex last night." So that's on tape - OK, we've got that and so we can publish . . . Historically, the way it went was, in the early days of mobiles, we all had analogue mobiles and that was an absolute joy. You know, you just . . . sat outside Buckingham Palace with a £59 scanner you bought at Argos and get Prince Charles and everything he said.
Me Is that how the Squidgy tapes [of Diana's phone conversations] came out? Which was put down to radio hams, but was in fact . . .
Him Paps in the back of a van, yes . . . I mean, politicians were dropping like flies in the Nineties because it was so easy to get stuff on them. And, obviously, less easy to justify is celebrities. But yes.
Me And . . . it wasn't just the News of the World. It was , you know - the Mail?
Him Oh absolutely, yeah. When I went freelance in 2004 the biggest payers - you'd have thought it would be the NoW, but actually it was the Daily Mail. If I take a good picture, the first person I go to is - such as in your case - the Mail on Sunday. Did you see that story? The picture of you, breaking down . . . I ought to thank you for that. I got £3,000. Whooo!
Me But would they [the Mail] buy a phone-hacked story?
Him For about four or five years they've absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren't. They were as dirty as anyone . . . They had the most money.
Me So everyone knew? I mean, would Rebekah Wade have known all this stuff was going on?
Him Good question. You're not taping, are you?
Me [slightly shrill voice] No.
Him Well, yeah. Clearly she . . . took over the job of [a journalist] who had a scanner who was trying to sell it to members of his own department. But it wasn't a big crime. [NB: Rebekah Brooks has always denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. The current police investigation is into events that took place after her editorship of the News of the World.]
It started off as fun - you know, it wasn't against the law, so why wouldn't you? And it was only because the MPs who were fiddling their expenses and being generally corrupt kept getting caught so much they changed the law in 2001 to make it illegal to buy and sell a digital scanner. So all we were left with was - you know - finding a blag to get your mobile [records] out of someone at Vodafone. Or, when someone's got it, other people swap things for it.
Me So they all knew? Wade probably knew all about it all?
Him [...] Cameron must have known - that's the bigger scandal. He had to jump into bed with Murdoch as everyone had, starting with Thatcher in the Seventies . . . Tony Blair . . . [tape is hard to hear here] Maggie openly courted Murdoch, saying, you know, "Please support me." So when Cameron, when it came his turn to go to Murdoch via Rebekah Wade . . . Cameron went horse riding regularly with Rebekah. I know, because as well as doorstepping celebrities, I've also doorstepped my ex-boss by hiding in the bushes, waiting for her to come past with Cameron on a horse . . . before the election to show that - you know - Murdoch was backing Cameron.
Me What happened to that story?
Him The Guardian paid for me to do it and I stepped in it and missed them, basically. They'd gone past - not as good as having a picture.
Me Do you think Murdoch knew about phone-hacking?
Him Errr, possibly not. He's a funny bloke given that he owns the Sun and the Screws . . . quite puritanical. Sorry to talk about Divine Brown, but when that came out . . . Murdoch was furious: "What are you putting that on our front page for? You're bringing down the tone of our papers." [Indicating himself] That's what we do over here.
Me Well, it's also because it was his film I was about to come out in.
Him Oh. I see.
Me Yeah. It was a Fox film.
[A pause here while we chat to other customers, and then - ]
Him So anyway, let me finish my story.
Me Murdoch, yes . . .
Him So I was sent to do a feature on Moulin Rouge! at Cannes, which was a great send anyway. Basically my brief was to see who Nicole Kidman was shagging - what she was doing, poking through her bins and get some stuff on her. So Murdoch's paying her five million quid to big up the French and at the same time paying me £5.50 to fuck her up . . . So all hail the master. We're just pawns in his game. How perverse is that?
Me Wow. You reckon he never knew about it?
Him [pause] I don't even think he really worried himself too much about it.
Me What's his son called?
Him James. They're all mates together. They all go horse riding. You've got Jeremy Clarkson lives here [in Oxfordshire]. Cameron lives here, and Rebekah Wade is married to Brooks's son [the former racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks]. Cameron gets dressed up as the Stig to go to Clarkson's 50th birthday party [NB: it was actually to record a video message for the party]. Is that demeaning for a prime minister? It should be the other way round, shouldn't it? So basically, Cameron is very much in debt to Rebekah Wade for helping him not quite win the election . . . So that was my submission to parliament - that Cameron's either a liar or an idiot.
Me But don't you think that all these prime ministers deliberately try to get the police to drag their feet about investigating the whole [phone-hacking] thing because they don't want to upset Murdoch?
Him Yeah. There's that . . . You also work a lot with policemen as well . . . One of the early stories was [and here he names a much-loved TV actress in her sixties] used to be a street walker - whether or not she was, but that's the tip.
Me and Chum MLTVA?!
Me I can't believe it. Oh no!
Chum Really??
Him Yeah. Well, not now . . .
Chum Oh, it'd be so much better if it was now.
Him So I asked a copper to get his hands on the phone files, but because it's only a caution it's not there any more. So that's the tip . . . it's a policeman ringing up a tabloid reporter and asking him for ten grand because this girl had been cautioned right at the start of his career. And then I ask another policemen to go and check the records . . . So that's happening regularly. So the police don't particularly want to investigate.
Me But do you think they're going to have to now?
Him I mean - 20 per cent of the Met has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open up that can of worms? . . . And what's wrong with that, anyway? It doesn't hurt anyone particularly. I mean, it could hurt someone's career - but isn't that the dance with the devil you have to play?
Me Well, I suppose the fact that they're dragging their feet while investigating a mass of phone-hacking - which is a crime - some people would think is a bit depressing about the police.
Him But then - should it be a crime? I mean, scanning never used to be a crime. Why should it be? You're transmitting your thoughts and your voice over the airwaves. How can you not expect someone to just stick up an aerial and listen in?
Me So if someone was on a landline and you had a way of tapping in . . .
Him Much harder to do.
Me But if you could, would you think that was illegal? Do you think that should be illegal?
Him I'd have to say quite possibly, yeah. I'd say that should be illegal.
Me But a mobile phone - a digital phone . . . you'd say it'd be all right to tap that?
Him I'm not sure about that. So we went from a point where anyone could listen in to anything. Like you, me, journalists could listen in to corrupt politicians, and this is why we have a reasonably fair society and a not particularly corrupt or criminal prime minister, whereas other countries have Gaddafi. Do you think it's right the only person with a decent digital scanner these days is the government? Whereas 20 years ago we all had a go? Are you comfortable that the only people who can listen in to you now are - is it MI5 or MI6?
Me I'd rather no one listened in, to be honest. And I might not be alone there. You probably wouldn't want people listening to your conversations.
Him I'm not interesting enough for anyone to want to listen in.
Me Ah . . . I think that was one of the questions asked last week at one of the parliamentary committees. They asked Yates [John Yates, acting deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police] if it was true that he thought that the NoW had been hacking the phones of friends and family of those girls who were murdered . . . the Soham murder and the Milly girl [Milly Dowler].
Him Yeah. Yeah. It's more than likely. Yeah . . . It was quite routine. Yeah - friends and family is something that's not as easy to justify as the other things.
Me But celebrities you would justify because they're rich?
Him Yeah. I mean, if you don't like it, you've just got to get off the stage. It'll do wonders.
Me So I should have given up acting?
Him If you live off your image, you can't really complain about someone . . .
Me I live off my acting. Which is different to living off your image.
Him Yeah, but you're still presenting yourself to the public. And if the public didn't know you -
Me They don't give a shit. I got arrested with a hooker and they still came to my films. They don't give a fuck about your public image. They just care about whether you're in an entertaining film or not.
Him That's true . . . I have terrible difficulty with him [points to pap shot of Johnny Depp]. He's really difficult. You know, I was in Venice and he was a nightmare to do because he walks around looking like Michael Jackson. And the punchline was . . . after leading everyone a merry dance the film was shot on an open balcony - I mean, it was like - he was standing there in public.
Me And you don't see the difference between the two situations?
Chum He was actually working at this time? As opposed to having his own private time?
Him You can't hide all the time.
Me So you're saying, if you're Johnny Depp or me, you don't deserve to have a private life?
Him You make so much more money. You know, most people in Dover take home about £200 and struggle.
Me So how much do you think the families of the Milly and Soham girls make?
Him OK, so there are examples that are poor and you can't justify - and that's clearly one of them.
Me I tell you the thing I still don't get - if you think it was all right to do all that stuff, why blow the whistle on it?
Him Errm . . . Right. That's interesting. I actually blew the whistle when a friend of mine at the Guardian kept hassling me for an interview. I said, "Well if you put the name of the Castle [his pub] on the front page of the Guardian, I'll do anything you like." So that's how it started.
Me So, have you been leant on by the NoW, News International, since you blew the whistle?
Him No, they've kept their distance. I mean, there's people who have much better records - my records are non-existent. There are people who actually have tapes and transcripts they did for Andy Coulson.
Me And where are these tapes and transcripts? Do you think they've been destroyed?
Him No, I'm sure they're saving them till they retire.
Me So did you personally ever listen to my voice messages?
Him No, I didn't personally ever listen to your voice messages. I did quite a lot of stories on you, though. You were a very good earner at times.

Those are the highlights. As I drove home past the white cliffs, I thought it was interesting - apart from the fact that Paul hates people like me, and I hate people like him, we got on quite well. And, absurdly, I felt a bit guilty for recording him.

And he does have a very nice pub. The Castle Inn, Dover, for the record. There are rooms available, too. He asked me if I'd like to sample the honeymoon suite some time: "I can guarantee your privacy."

-- Listen to the audio now --

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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The A-Z of the political year

2016 was a wild political year. Thank goodness it’s over.

A is for abortive Tory leader race


In the days after the EU referendum – while the mutinous Labour Party still had its nose buried in its impenetrable rulebook – the Conservatives chose a new leader and prime minister within what seemed like hours. After a fortnight of unedifying machinations, in which the “kamikaze candidate”, Michael Gove, destroyed both his own and Boris Johnson’s leadership ambitions (see Y), the competition came down to Theresa May v Andrea Leadsom. Before there could be a final vote, however, Leadsom gave an unflattering interview in the Times in which she said that “being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country”. It felt like a dig at May, who does not have children. May graciously accepted her apology, and the keys to No 10.

 

B is for breaking point


Sore about his exclusion from the official Leave campaign, Nigel Farage (see I) spent the referendum in his usual relentless quest for the oxygen of publicity [Surely “selflessly championing the working man”? – Ed]. The low point came when he unveiled a poster showing a snaking queue of migrants with the legend “BREAKING POINT”. Asked by Robert Peston of ITV if he was stirring up hatred, he replied: “I think I have been a politician who has been a victim of it, to be honest with you. When you challenge the establishment in this country, they come after you, they call you all sorts of things.” What things, sadly, he failed to specify. Perhaps “Pound-shop Enoch Powell” fits the bill?

 

 

C is for chicken coup


In the early hours of Sunday 26 June, the shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn was sacked for saying he had no confidence in the Labour leader. Throughout the morning, a drip-drip-drip of resignations followed. Of the Big Beasts, only Corbyn’s allies Emily Thornberry and Andy Burnham stayed put (the latter with one eye on Manchester’s mayoral primary). The deputy leader, Tom Watson – no stranger to coups – was suspected to be pulling the strings, but was nowhere to be found, having posted a Snapchat photo from a silent disco in Glastonbury just hours earlier. Unfortunately for the rebels, Corbyn refused to resign and it became clear they could not make him do so, which led loyalist bloggers to nickname this a “chicken coup”.

 

 

D is for the Donald


There was a time when Donald Trump’s campaign for president seemed like a joke – the Huffington Post website even announced that it would cover the bid in its “Entertainment” section. But as it turned out, The Donald was deadly serious, and he saw off a slew of rivals to claim the GOP nomination.

His campaign was racist and misogynistic, pledging to build a wall along the border with Mexico. Despite trailing consistently in polling and forecasting models, he won the presidency on 9 November. He secured 306 votes in the US electoral college, helped by support among white, working-class voters in the Midwest, even though Hillary Clinton beat him in the popular vote by more than two million.

 

E is for Ed Balls


Depending on your point of view, the former shadow chancellor’s stint on Strictly Come Dancing was either the best or the worst thing to happen this year.

Let’s not be under any illusions: Ed Balls is no Fred Astaire. During the American Smooth he heaved his partner Katya Jones around like a sack of flour, nearly dropping her. The sultriness of his tango was marred by a tendency to mouth the steps during the routine.

It was the high-tempo dances, though, where Balls came alive. A minute in to his rendition of “Gangnam Style”, he leapt through the air and landed with Katya between his legs, kicking like a horse. “I nearly passed out,” said the Strictly judge Bruno Tonioli. “It’s the best worst dance I’ve seen.” Sadly, on 27 November, “Glitter Balls” was kicked out of the competition.

F is for f***ing expensive food


It’s been a bad year for the back of kitchen cupboards across the nation. Marmite and Toblerone – big brands no one would miss if they’d never existed – became the first symbols of how Brexit will increase living costs. What next, Brain’s faggots?

 

G is for gobstopper


Owen Smith, the MP who challenged Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership, had a formidable record – of uttering gaffes. He once tweeted a picture of gobstoppers, calling them “the perfect present” for Nicola Sturgeon – to shut her up. He wanted to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”, he said; he told Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood that she was on Question Time only because of her gender, and he has described the Lib Dems in coalition as domestic abuse victims. He also compared himself to a “Duracell bunny” when asked about Viagra (he has never needed it, apparently), and joked about the size of his penis. Perhaps it’s Smith himself who could have used the gobstopper.

 

H is for hostile (core group)


In March, the Times obtained a list of Labour MPs ranked by loyalty to Jeremy Corbyn. There were just 19 trusties in the “Core Group” on whom Corbyn could rely, plus another 56 in “Core Group Plus” and 71 in “neutral but not hostile”. The remainder, deemed “negative” or “hostile”, included the shadow chief whip Rosie Winterton (since replaced by Nick Brown) and Sadiq Khan, now Mayor of London. David Cameron seized on the list at PMQs, saying his name could be added to the supportive group. “I thought I had problems,” he added.

 

I for Is that Farage again?

Rarely has a man so selflessly heeded the call to public service as Nigel Farage. Whenever, wherever – if there was a TV studio lying empty, he was ready to fill it. And if there was one thing he couldn’t stand, it was the hated political establishment. He couldn’t stand them when wondering whether to run for parliament for the eighth time. He couldn’t stand them when celebrating his 17th year as an MEP. He couldn’t stand them when receiving an award from a political magazine for his career in politics in a room full of politicians and journalists. He couldn’t stand them when he reluctantly stepped in as Ukip acting leader (his third crack at the job). God, what it must have cost this humble servant of the people to accede to having a party thrown for him at the Ritz on 23 November, where he mingled with the hotel’s owners, the twins who own the Daily Telegraph. Perhaps most movingly, Farage demonstrated his hatred of foreigners meddling in domestic politics by campaigning for Donald Trump and nobly offering to be the UK’s ambassador to America. Let’s hope that in 2017 this humble radical can have some peace and quiet at last.

J is for Jo Cox

On 16 June – the same day as Nigel Farage unveiled his “Breaking Point” poster (see B), the Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered in her constituency. Her killer, Thomas Mair, was a white supremacist and terrorist who kept a Nazi eagle in his home, above a bookshelf filled with books about the Second World War. During his first appearance in court, he gave his name as “Death to Traitors, Freedom for Britain”. On 23 November Mair was given a whole-life tariff, meaning he will never be released.

 

K is for Ken Clarke


Ken Clarke had a surprisingly enjoyable year, considering he lost the political battle of his four decades as king of the Europhiles. Comfortable on his “wild elder statesman” stage, he is preparing to be “the only member of the Conservative Party” to vote against Article 50 in parliament. During the Tory leadership race he was recorded off-air calling Theresa May a “bloody difficult woman”. His response to the leaking of the video? That it was an “extremely funny video clip” and three-quarters of colleagues “agreed with every word”. When May entered No 10, Clarke told the New Statesman she didn’t have the “first idea” about Brexit, and called her regime “a government with no policies”.

 

L is for Lords, lots of them


“Will no one rid me of these turbulent lords?” David Cameron might have cried as the upper house insisted on admitting more child refugees (after kiboshing planned tax-credit cuts). At the start of the year, Cameron was talking about cutting back the power of the Lords – after all, as most of the hereditary peers have been removed, the Conservatives are no longer guaranteed a majority there. He left power before accomplishing this, but there is one obvious legacy of the Cameron era – the bloated size of the Lords. The former PM nominated more than 250 people to the chamber, including 13 in his resignation honours. These last included five Downing Street aides – Gabrielle Bertin, Camilla Cavendish, Ed Llewellyn, Liz Sugg and Laura Wyld – as well as Shami Chakrabarti, who had recently completed an “independent” report into anti-Semitism within Labour.

 

M is for Mike Hookem


You know a party is in a bad way when its biggest driving force is nominative determinism. And so it proved in the case of Mike Hookem, the Ukip MEP accused of delivering the punch that changed politics, in an “altercation” with his fellow MEP Steven Woolfe (then the party’s leadership front-runner) in Strasbourg. Woolfe was hospitalised; Hookem denies hitting him. The front-page pictures of Woolfe spreadeagled on the floor provided an accurate metaphor for the state of Ukip by the end of the year: Woolfe is now an independent MEP, as is Diane James, who was Ukip leader for a grand total of 18 days.

 

N is for Nissan

 

Like many other operators in the UK car industry, Nissan Europe has had a tough year. It even threatened to sue Vote Leave for using its logo in its pro-Brexit literature. So it must have been a very persuasive conversation with Business Secretary Greg Clark that led to it keeping its Sunderland plant open. After “support and assurances” from the UK government, the Japanese company will manufacture the new Qashqai and X-Trail 4x4s in the north-eastern constituency whose Brexit vote was an early referendum-night indicator of the final result. Other industries are now hankering after similar red-carpet treatment from the government.

 

O is for Obama


On a visit to London in April, the outgoing US president urged Britons to vote to stay in the EU, in order to avoid going to “the back of the queue” to strike a trade deal with the US in the event of Brexit. His intervention was welcomed by the Remain campaign, but deplored as “elite interference” by many on the Leave side.

 

P is for Panama Papers


It took a year for journalists from 107 media organisations in 80 countries to analyse the Panama Papers: 11.5 million documents leaked by an anonymous whistleblower, which exposed how companies and individuals used the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca to shield their assets from scrutiny (and, often, taxation in their home country). The repercussions were felt around Europe: Iceland’s prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson resigned after it emerged that he had held a stake in one of the country’s bankrupt banks; the former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi and the Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko were named in the papers; and David Cameron faced questions over a trust inherited from his father. Sergei Roldugin, a cellist who is godfather to Vladimir Putin’s elder daughter, was shown to have assets of at least $100m.

 

Q is for quitting


“BRITS DON’T QUIT”, Winston Churchill proclaimed from pro-EU campaign posters plastered around London. These were signed: “Sir Winston Churchill, Founder of the European Union”. As if that wasn’t enough of a stretch, David Cameron condemned Brexiteers as quitters in his infamous pre-referendum speech from a lectern outside No 10 – a move that is now seen as a sign of the Remain campaign’s desperation.

 

R is for reserved seats

 

Of all the political scandals, “Traingate” might be the least glamorous yet. On 16 August, a video showed Jeremy Corbyn sitting in a vestibule on a Virgin train as he outlined the problems with rail privatisation that had led to him not being able to find a seat on the “ram-packed” journey. A week later, Virgin released CCTV footage showing him walking past empty, unreserved seats.

His spokesman said it was “nonsense” to suggest that Corbyn had wanted two seats together, but this line was slightly undermined when the Labour leader told a press conference the next day: “Yes, I did walk through the train. Yes, I did look for two empty seats together, so I could sit down with my wife to talk to her.”

Still, Team Corbyn looked on the bright side: his campaign director, Sam Tarry, said the incident had drawn attention to their stance on privatisation.

 

S is for shortest leadership bid

 

The post of Ukip leader increasingly resembled the role of the Have I Got News for You host, with Nigel Farage’s vacant chair filled variously by Diane James, Paul Nuttall and Nigel Farage, though not in that order. Various bids rose and fell, but none ebbed and flowed as fast as that of Farage’s wingman, Chief Lad of the Banter Squadron Raheem Kassam, who threw his hat in the ring with a promise to “make Ukip great again”. Breitbart UK, which employs Kassam, turned cheerleader for his campaign, celebrating every move that he made. “Leftists triggered over Raheem Kassam leadership bid”, roared one headline. “Raheem Kassam first ‘energised’ candidate since Nigel Farage”, said another. Then there was “Kassam in the Times: I could thrash May, Corbyn, and Sturgeon in head to head debates”. Outside the world of Breitbart headlines, however, he failed to win over Ukip members, and brought his campaign to a close just 26 days after launching it, saying that his path to victory was “too narrow”. Oh, Raheem, we hardly wanted to know ye.

 

T is for three hundred and fifty million

During the EU referendum campaign, Iain Duncan Smith was photographed standing next to the Vote Leave battle bus. “We send the EU £350m a week – let’s fund our NHS instead”, the slogan on it read. Mere weeks later, after the Brexiteers had triumphed, the former work and pensions secretary went on the BBC to claim that the figure was just “an extrapolation”, rather than a firm promise. There was another problem: the figure wasn’t correct. Even without taking into account things such as the UK’s EU budget rebate and the Brussels policies from which we benefit, such as the Common Agricultural Policy, the UK has never sent the EU £350m a week.

 

U is for UB40


It was the most surreal political endorsement since Dappy from N-Dubz backed Norman Lamb for the Liberal Democrat leadership: the pseudo-reggae band UB40 backed Jeremy Corbyn in the second Labour contest. Yes, the 1980s singers wanted Her Majesty’s Opposition to be as red, red as their wine. Still – unlike poor Ant and Dec, whose picture elicited no flicker of recognition from the Labour leader when waved before him – at least Corbyn knew who they were.

 

V is for vandalism


In the weeks following the chicken coup (see C) and before the glorious, gaffe-strewn emergence of Owen Smith (see G), Angela Eagle briefly ran for the Labour leadership. There were two main setbacks: first, her launch was ruined when the big beasts of the lobby ran out halfway through to cover Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal from the Tory race. Second, she faced loud personal abuse, both on social media and in the form of a brick thrown through the window of her constituency office. Worse, internet conspiracy theorists decided that she must be making up the latter, leading to the emergence of this year’s strangest internet nutters, the “Angela Eagle Window Truthers”.

 

W is for Witney

 

In normal times, you would expect a by-election in the former prime minister’s old seat to be a routine affair, particularly with the new PM enjoying a thumping poll lead and at the height of her honeymoon. So no one expected any excitement from the by-election in David Cameron’s seat of Witney, left vacant after he stepped down to spend more time giving highly paid speeches and nursing his resentment. Instead, what happened was a remarkable surge for the Liberal Democrats from fourth place to second, showing that, after the EU referendum, a new battle line – Remain or Leave – is developing, particularly in cities and the affluent south.

 

X is for xenophobia


In July, the month after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Home Office statistics showed that the number of hate crimes reported to police had increased by 41 per cent compared with the same period in 2015. The sharp increase – which wasn’t reflected in other kinds of crime – declined in August, but the level remained much higher than before the referendum. Some 79 per cent of incidents were recorded as being motivated by racial hatred. The anti-immigration rhetoric of the pro-Brexit campaign has been cited as one cause.

The most high-profile attack occurred in Harlow, Essex on 27 August, when Arkadiusz Jówik, a 40-year-old Polish man who worked in a sausage factory, was punched in the head on the street. He died of his injuries two days later. The tragedy prompted Polish politicians to travel to the UK to seek assurances that their compatriots can still live in safety here.

 

Y is for “your stubborn best”

On 29 June, rumours were swirling around which Tories would run for the leadership. A “BoGo” ticket had long been touted, but Michael Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine, was unsure whether Boris Johnson could be trusted. So she emailed her husband before a critical meeting, and told him to emphasise his support from “[Paul] Dacre/[Rupert] Murdoch, who instinctively dislike Boris but trust your ability enough to support a Boris/Gove ticket”. She signed off: “Do not concede any ground. Be your stubborn best. GOOD LUCK.” There was just one problem: she sent the email to a member of the public, who promptly leaked it to Sky News.

As a wry George Osborne later reflected, “. . . with a single email of only a few sentences, Sarah succeeded in switching the support of the Daily Mail, losing the support of Rupert Murdoch, destroying the leadership campaign of Boris Johnson, preparing the way for Theresa May to become the Prime Minister, beginning the leadership campaign of Michael Gove and ending the leadership campaign of Michael Gove.”

 

Z is for Zac Goldsmith


A busy year for the eco-millionaire, who lost the London mayoral election after a dog-whistle campaign against Sadiq Khan and then resigned his Commons seat in protest over the government’s plans for a third runway at Heathrow. But the contest quickly became about Brexit, and the Lib Dems repeated their surge in Witney (see W) to take the seat. Ukip and the Greens did not stand, and the Labour candidate lost his deposit. Though it’s hard to extrapolate very much from the by-election in Richmond – which voted heavily to stay in the EU, while its MP was a Brexiteer – the result cheered Tim Farron’s party. The loss of another blue seat further eroded Theresa May’s slim majority, making 2017 a challenge for her. 

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016