Commons Confidential: Fox flinches and Crow crows

Just why does Bob Crow give Ed Miliband's office the heebie-jeebies?

Call Me Dave’s northern pet, Eric Pickles, is forever lecturing cash-strapped councils on the importance of belt-tightening in his fatwa on local government. Yet Big Eric’s own girth appears to be expanding alarmingly. Near his office in the Commons is a lift. The elevator often takes three people or, at a squash, four. Recently, an MP told my snout, the thing stopped and the door opened. Inside, filling the lift, was the single, brooding figure of Pickles.

I discovered that Colonel Patrick Mercer is the keeper of a Gladstone axe. The Tory MP for Newark possesses a chopper swung by his illustrious predecessor before Gladstone quit his seat and the Conservatives for the Liberals and four stints in Downing Street. Mercer insists it is of sentimental rather than financial value. Apparently there are sufficient Gladstone axes in circulation to fell Sherwood Forest. Gladstone was an enthusiastic woodworker when he wasn’t saving fallen women. A world away from Cameron’s Angry Birds.

Liam Fox, the former defence secretary, is a Tory trooper capable of remaining cool under fire. A hack in a bar introduced himself to the neocon and then announced: “You touched my mother’s breasts.” In many a watering hole such an opening gambit would be the cue for a fight. I nearly dropped my pint, though I noticed Fox didn’t flinch. From the tenor of the ensuing conversation, I gathered that Dr Fox had been the woman’s GP, and the aforementioned event an NHS medical examination. Former patients and their extended families reminding Fox of his past profession is apparently an occupational hazard, hence the frozen face.

It’s an old local newspaper trick on a quiet news day, but Bernard Jenkin may well have winced when a survey by the Harwich and Manningtree Standard found only 6 per cent of constituents stopped on the street identified him as the Conservative MP for their corner of Essex. Boris Johnson may dream of a recognition level so low, now 99 per cent of Britain know he’s an untrustworthy, calculating blob of unlimited blond ambition after his leadership bicycle was punctured by Eddie Mair. Jenkin should console himself that anonymity is better than antipathy.

Ed Miliband informed the Durham miners he’ll speak at the 2014 gala after he was tickled by an enthusiastic reception in 2012. He was the first Labour leader to address the brass-bands-and-banners Big Meeting since Neil Kinnock in 1989. Miliband declined this year’s invitation, as he did in 2011, to avoid sharing a stage with the RMT’s trainstopper Bob Crow, whose outspokenness gives the leader’s office the heebie-jeebies. Your correspondent has no such qualms and shall speak alongside Mr Crowbar and Unite’s “Red Len” McCluskey on 13 July.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Just why does Bob Crow give Ed Miliband's office the heebie-jeebies? Photograph: Getty Images

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war