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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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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