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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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.