For Louise Mensch, Corby was nothing more than a stepping stone

Labour are poised to take control of a constituency where voters feel duped and used by their previous MP's time in office.

"If I had to sum up Corby in a single word, pride is the one I would use." So said Louise Bagshawe - now Mensch - in her maiden speech to Parliament. Two years later, with Mensch having left Northamptonshire for New York and a by-election called for this week, that word, pride, is absent when I meet with two young Corbyites to chat about their former MP.

“She was voted in off the back of people demanding change – Phil Hope was caught up in the expenses scandal – but we never saw that,” says Patrick Tierney, a 22-year-old politics graduate born and raised in the town. “From day one, people saw that she wasn’t committed. She seemed distant, and then for her to be so visible in the media, that didn’t go down too well. You’d overhear conversations in the pub or at the bus stop, people saying, ‘What does she think she’s doing? She’s a laughing stock’. She’d use buzzwords on Twitter, talk about Corby’s Scottish heritage, but when it came down to the nitty gritty there wasn’t much of a connection made.”

Liam Keith, a 27-year-old who works at the local video shop in town, agrees. “For a backbench MP that nobody had heard of before, she became very famous, very quickly. She was on Have I Got News For You and embarrassed herself a bit sitting next to Jonny Rotten on Question Time, but there was never any mention of what she was actually doing for Corby,” he says. “I followed her on Twitter. She always talked about ‘Corby Pride’, but she didn’t really understand the people of the town.”

“I never once saw her in the flesh,” he adds. “Most people feel that she was very much only here when she had to be.” This feeling of disconnection runs deep through Corby. One of David Cameron’s A-list candidates, Mensch, Oxford graduate, author of chick lit and prolific user of Twitter, was, you feel, always going to find it hard to fully relate to a working class new town built on heavy industry and hard work. High youth unemployment and yet more job losses at the steelworks this January didn’t help her cause either. Her resignation has aroused suspicions about why she became an MP in the first place. “She used Corby as a stepping stone, used it well to publicise herself,” Liam tells me. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s got a new book out by the end of the year.”

When she resigned from her seat in August, Mensch said she was doing so for family reasons. Yet in a recent interview with The Sunday Times Magazine, her husband, the rock band manager Peter Mensch, said that his wife had stood down because "she thought…she’d get killed in the next election." Mensch has denied this, but the fact remains that she has left a key marginal seat, midway through Parliament, with a slender majority of just 1,951. Labour are ready to pounce. “Ed Miliband was straight over here as soon as she resigned. I’ve had two people canvassing my door in the last week – they were Labour, both times,” says Keith. This push seems to be working – everyone I spoke to in the town said they were going to vote Labour.

The people I spoke to in Corby – proud, hardworking and down to earth – feel duped and used by Mensch’s time in office. They were hoping for a young, dynamic MP who would serve their interests well in parliament. The reality, many feel, was a lot different. On the day news of her resignation was made public, Mensch took to Twitter: "It has been an incredible honour serving the people of #CorbyEN." The feeling, according to Keith, is not mutual. “People wouldn’t miss her now she’s gone.”

 

Louise Mensch. Photograph: Getty Images
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder