Commons Confidential: Whose gag is it anyway?

Let's see who wants to line up and claim Ed Miliband's “Is there anything he can organise in a brewery?” PMQs zinger as their own work.

Tristram Hunt, the man about town, suave historian and Labour MP for the Potteries, is evidently considered worth three of his party colleagues. The Zac Goldsmith lookalike pulled out of a seminar in London on employee ownership, organised by the right-leaning Social Market Foundation. Chi Onwurah, a shadow business minister, told the assembled policy wonkers that she was standing in for Hunt. What a coincidence, muttered John Woodcock, on sabbatical from the Labour front bench to recover from a fall: he’d been asked to cover for him, too. Most odd, piped up Ian Murray, also in Labour’s business team; the leader’s office had asked him to pop along in Hunt’s place as well.

What had detained Hunt, requiring three substitutes? I trust he wasn’t writing his nice little earner on the poorly Queen that appeared in the next morning’s Times . . .

The Sun’s front page, which channelled Winston Churchill to oppose statutory press regulation, triggered an outbreak of spluttering in the Commons tearoom. Contact details of Churchill’s grandson Nicholas Soames, the Tory MP for Mid Sussex, were found, I am reliably informed, in the files of News International’s hired hacker Glenn Mulcaire. Fatty is chummy with the Prince of Wales. My snout imagined the doubly outraged wartime leader didn’t know which way to spin in his grave.

Tuckerman, the posh, London-based estate agents, emailed MPs details of a Victorian pad in St James’s, a few minutes’ walk from parliament. The flat has a spacious reception, double bedroom, fitted kitchen and bathroom. “The property is advertised for £390 per week,” Tuckerman said, “but the landlord would take an offer to fall in line with the parliamentary allowance.”

The limit MPs can claim is £335. The housing benefit ceiling for a one-bedroom place is £250. Shouldn’t the cap on MPs’ second homes be in line with that of first homes for the electorate?

Every good gag is claimed by many parents. I was knocked down by the rush of Tony Blair’s staff boasting that they’d come up with his line, “I don’t have to worry about Cherie running off with the bloke next door,” at the expense of Gordon Brown. To avoid impostors stealing the credit for Ed Miliband’s “Is there anything he can organise in a brewery?” zinger that destroyed Cameron at PMQs, I can reveal that the gagmeister was the research star Tom Hamilton. Fraudulent claimants, please form an orderly queue.

Michael Fabricant’s blond weave makes the tweeting Tory look like a poor man’s Boris Johnson. The comparison is cosmetic. A right-whinger swears Mickey, a party vice-chair, appeared to be wearing make-up when he bumped into him in Westminster. The Lichfield Lip hadn’t, I ascertained, come hot-faced from a TV studio. Very hug-a-husky Cameroonism.

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

Ed Miliband. 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 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

Photo: Reuters
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Murder by numbers: the legacy of the Grenfell Tower fire

It is difficult to refute the reality of suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned.

How do we measure human malice? Sometimes it’s all too easy. This summer, British cities are struggling through the aftermath of successive terrorist attacks and hate crimes. The Manchester bombing. The Westminster Bridge murders. The London Bridge atrocity. The attack on people outside the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London and on other mosques. The unidentified young men who are still at large in the capital after spraying acid in the faces of passers-by, mutilating them.

In Britain, we are commendably resilient about these things. Returning to London after some time away, I found my spirits lifted by an issue of the London Evening Standard magazine that celebrated the ordinary people who stepped in to help after these atrocities. The paramedics who worked through the night. The Romanian chef who offered shelter in his bakery. The football fan who took on the London Bridge terrorists, screaming, “Fuck you, I’m Millwall!” The student housing co-ordinator who rushed to organise board for the victims of the inferno at the Grenfell Tower and their families.

Wait. Hold on a second. One of these things is not like the others. The Grenfell Tower disaster, in which at least 80 people died, was not a terrorist or malicious attack. It was the result of years of callous council decisions and underinvestment in social housing. On 14 June, entire families burned alive in their homes partly because, it is alleged, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea would not pay the extra £5,000 or so for fire-resistant cladding. Nor could it find the cash, despite a budget surplus, to instal proper sprinkler systems on the rotting interior of the building.

Kensington and Chelsea is a Tory borough that, in cash terms, cares very little for poorer citizens who are unlikely to vote the right way. In 2014, while the Grenfell Tower residents were refused basic maintenance, the council handed out £100 rebates to its top-rate taxpayers, boasting of its record of “consistently delivering greater efficiencies while improving services”. Some of those efficiencies had names, and parents, and children.

This is a different sort of depravity altogether. It’s depravity with plausible deniability, right up until the point at which deniability goes up in flames. Borrowing from Friedrich Engels, John McDonnell described the Grenfell Tower disaster as “social murder”. The shadow chancellor and sometime Jack Russell of the parliamentary left has never been known for his delicate phrasing.

Naturally, the Tory press queued up to condemn McDonnell – not because he was wrong but because he was indiscreet. “There’s a long history in this country of the concept of social murder,” he said, “where decisions are made with no regard to the consequences… and as a result of that people have suffered.”

It is difficult to refute the reality of that suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned from the towering tombstone that now blights the west London skyline.” As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Market austerity is no less brutal for being bloodless, calculating, an ideology of measuring human worth in pennies and making cuts that only indirectly slice into skin and bone. Redistributing large sums of money from the poor to the rich is not simply an abstract moral infraction: it kills. It shortens lives and blights millions more. Usually, it does so in a monstrously phlegmatic manner: the pensioners who die early of preventable diseases, the teenagers who drop out of education, the disabled people left to suffer the symptoms of physical and mental illness with nobody to care for them, the thousands who have died on the waiting lists for state benefits that they are perfectly entitled to, the parents whose pride disintegrates as they watch their children go to school hungry.

We are not encouraged to measure the human cost of austerity in this way, even though there are many people in back offices making exactly these sorts of calculations. This year, when researchers from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine claimed that “relentless cuts” to the health service could explain as many as 30,000 “excess deaths” in England and Wales in 2015, the government denounced this as “a triumph of personal bias over research”, which, however you slice it, is a callous prep school debater’s response to the reality of 30,000 fresh graves.

There is a species of evil in which an individual allows the dark and yammering corners of his mind to direct him to put a blade in a bystander’s belly, or a bomb in a bustling crowd of teenage girls. That sort of monstrosity is as easy to identify as it is mercifully rare, though frighteningly less rare than it was in less febrile times. But there is another sort of evil that seldom makes the headlines. This comes about when someone sits down with a calculator and works out how much it will cost to protect and nurture human life, deducts that from the cost of a tax rebate for local landowners or a nice night at the opera, then comes up with a figure. It’s an ordinary sort of evil, and it has become routine and automated in the austerity years. It is a sort of evil, in the words of Terry Pratchett, that “begins when you begin to treat people as things”. 

The Grenfell Tower disaster was the hellish evidence of the consequences of fiscal ruthlessness that nobody could look away from. Claims that it could not have been predicted were shot down by the victims. The residents’ association wrote on its campaign website after years of begging the council to improve living conditions: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

That catastrophic event has happened, and the ordinary British response to tragedy – brave, mannered dignity – is inappropriate. When the Grenfell inquiry launches next month, it is incumbent on every citizen to call for answers and to call this kind of travesty by its name: murder by numbers.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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