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

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.