Sophy Ridge: My Friday with George, off-message tweets and life as a woman in the lobby

Anyone for caulking, weekend chats with George Osborne, or treks out to Eastleigh? Who ever said life in TV was glamorous? Sophy Ridge writes the diary.

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Moody’s blues

Working weekends can either be intermin­ably quiet or ridiculously busy. When the ratings agency Moody’s announced that the UK economy had been downgraded from triple-A status, I knew it would be the latter. Moments later, I was swept inside No 11 to interview George Osborne for Sky News. Making announcements late on a Friday night might suit the markets but it does nothing for the social life of journalists.

Then, any thoughts of a quieter Sunday were quickly dashed when the papers were full of stories about the Lib Dem peer Chris Rennard. He is facing allegations of sexual harassment, which he strongly denies. Once again, I found myself being whisked into a room to interview the key player. This time, it was Nick Clegg, who angrily denied knowing about “these allegations” but admitted that he had been made aware of “indirect and non-specific concerns”. What exactly is the difference? Somehow a story about serious allegations had turned into an argument about semantics.

Juggling act

Writing of the allegations against Lord Rennard, I can’t help but feel that the Lib Dems would benefit from having a few more women on the airwaves.

They are hampered by having a meagre seven female MPs – and it’s not just the Lib Dems with that problem. Images of fusty gentlemen drinking whisky in smoky corridors are wide of the mark but, in some aspects, Westminster can still feel like an old boys’ club.

One high-profile female Labour frontben­cher told me that when she went to pick up a “spouse pass” for her other half, the parliamentary official simpered: “You must be so proud of your husband.”

This attitude can also sadly be found further up the Westminster food chain. I know of a current member of the cabinet who told a colleague that he didn’t believe working mums could successfully juggle top jobs in government with having a family. “They just can’t do it,” he said, implying that they were struggling to keep up with their male counterparts at work.

Suits you

Not that a political journalist can throw stones – the number of women in the lobby is an embarrassment. I remember being introduced to an MP by a male colleague when I had recently joined the lobby as a newspaper hack. “Nice to meet you,” he said, sticking out his hand. “Do you work for the fashion pages?”

I was dressed in a suit and was walking through Portcullis House with a lobby pass. Most people would have thought these were pretty good hints as to my job description.

Earnest of Eastleigh

The Rennard allegations are a row that the party could do without before the Eastleigh by-election, which pitted the two sides of the coalition against each other for the first time.

I’m at a slight disadvantage because by the time this appears in the magazine, the result will be old news. What I can say for sure is that this was the Lib Dems’ contest to lose. They have an impressive local base, with 40 of the 44 councillors who represent wards in the constituency. The party’s well-oiled by-election machine – masterminded by none other than Lord Rennard – was in overdrive at the time of writing.

The Conservatives were also desperate to win because it’s a test of David Cameron’s election strategy. The consensus is that if he is to win a majority in 2015, he needs to take about 20 seats off his coalition partners/ri­vals. If he can’t do it in seats such as Eastleigh, his party will become more agitated about its prospects in two years’ time.

A steady stream of Conservative MPs have jumped on the train from Waterloo or driven up the M3 to the old railway town – all determined to stick it to the Lib Dems.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, however. I was out campaigning with Eric Pickles when a man holding a young child opened the door. “How old is your daughter?” the secretary of state asked cheerfully. “He’s a boy,” was the rather less happy reply.

Coalicious cycle

The best thing about the Eastleigh by-election, however, has been the Conservative MP Michael Fabricant’s tweets.

This is one politician who was truly wasted in the government – ever since he left the whips’ office, his quirky sense of humour has been unleashed. “Just spotted Vince Cable in #Eastleigh looking like a war criminal with hat pulled over face #indisguise Lol,” he wrote, followed swiftly by: “My last tweet was distinctly not very #Coalicious!!”

He has also been tweeting the various notices pinned on people’s doors that show just how enamoured residents are of the political attention.

One read: “All political parties campaigning for the Eastleigh by-election, please do not knock on my door, please just **** off!” Another threatened to shoot campaigning politicians on sight. Who would want to live in a marginal constituency?

Caulking and talking

I was hoping to be able to drop some impressive-sounding cultural exhibition into this diary – but, alas, it hasn’t happened.

This is largely because I’ve recently bought a house and most of my days off are spent liaising with plumbers or making mad dashes to Ikea.

I’m now an expert in all manner of brain-numbingly boring things and have learned a lexicon that I didn’t realise existed until now: caulking, rising damp, olives that are parts of radiators rather than something you eat. At a party this weekend, rather than discussing the latest trendy gigs or hot gossip, I found myself in a heated debate with a friend about the merits of feature walls.

Taking a step back, I couldn’t help thinking: I’ve spent my Friday night with George Osborne and my Saturday night discussing DIY – who said TV was glamorous?

Sophy Ridge is political correspondent for Sky News. She tweets as @SophyRidgeSky

A bookmakers' odds for the Eastleigh by-election. Photograph: Getty Images

Sophy Ridge is a political correspondent for Sky News.

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle