Comedy: Sand in the underpants of power

A remarkable show which combines activism, journalism and good gags

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I had always imagined that Mark Thomas's shows would have the inbuilt flaw of preaching to the choir. As he tours around the country, however, he seems to be finding a new audience. "I thought he was going to do stand-up comedy," said a bemused young man in front of me, at a show in the Home Counties. "I suppose," said his friend thoughtfully, "it all depends on what you find funny."

Thomas is very funny much of the time, but this has become almost incidental. Even Thomas himself does not know whether he is an activist, an investigative journalist, a comic or an underground informer. But the label doesn't matter - the performer who started out as sand in the underpants of those who thought themselves beyond the law has become a serious force in unmasking corruption on an international scale.

In this show he turns his attention to the arms trade, "the only industry that exists with the specific aim of taking human life". Britain is second only to the US in international exports, but Thomas reserves special ferocity for those who insouciantly flout the present legislation or exploit its loopholes. Gathering around himself a spy network of insiders, "men in black" who tip him off every time a significant breach of the law occurs, Thomas has successfully exposed a number of international companies operating from within the UK. This can place him in a difficult position in relation to his activist friends and fan base: shopping an Israeli company to HM Customs for advertising banned torture equipment at the London arms trade fair, he is told that his name is now on a database of informants. Flush with success (the company is evicted), he reports his triumph to one of his oldest anarchist comrades. "You fucking grass," is the response.

Thomas has the air of your eager mate in the pub who can't wait to tell you about this wicked thing that happened to him and his mates last weekend. Part of his appeal is that he is always Tiggerishly enthusiastic, even when he is being deadly serious. He tends to step quietly to one side of his own anecdotes, pleased to give all the credit and some of the best lines to his friends.

It's the impersonations of the people who cross his path that keep the show lively and make sure the laughs per minute don't drop too far - an achievement for a two-hour show largely concerned with the small print of legislation. And he has some great lines; one politician is "one of those modern Tories who is just a moisturiser away from a monocle and shotgun".

The coup de théâtre is an extraordinary piece of undercover reportage in which Thomas alleges that a company owned by the Hinduja Group is selling trucks - of a type similar to the ones used by the Janjaweed - to the Sudanese government.

Though the report was originally conducted under the aegis of Newsnight, legal threats from the Hindujas persuaded the BBC to pull it two hours before broadcast. Thomas goes on to regret the decision of this magazine not to publish his detailed account of the affair after m'learned friends advised that the potential costs could be ruinous. The story was eventually submitted as a report to a government select committee, which is immune from libel litigation. Though the Sudan deal collapsed, even now Thomas has had to self-publish the report - his publishers refused to include it in his book because the transcripts of the secret interviews are the property of the BBC. Photocopied pamphlets are handed out at the end of the show, as if in a totalitarian regime.

But there are some jolly pranks recounted, too, most involving Thomas's ever more ingenious fun at the expense of the "Brian Haw law", which demands that anyone holding a demonstration in the environs of Parliament Square must apply for a licence. "You want to demonstrate in defence of surrealism?" says the beleaguered Scottish policeman in charge of processing these applications. "I didnae know it was in danger." It's not, as long as it has Mark Thomas on its side.

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This article first appeared in the 16 October 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The war on youth

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.