Commons Confidential: Don't let them eat cake

David Cameron's quest for youth, plus the mystery of Ed Miliband's make-up.

Weighty issues burdening David Cameron include a descent into portliness. In a reverse of Marie Antoinette, the Tory toff pleads: “Don’t let them eat cake.” My snout says that Cameron complains whenever Downing Street apparatchiks eat pastries in front of him. Dave, or Fat Dave, as Old Etonian chums know the Prime Muncher, is losing his battle to keep off those pounds. He realises, with some justification, that extra padding with hair loss is a sign of ageing, just when he craves a youthful appeal.

No 10 staffers are desperate for Cameron’s confidante Gabby Bertin to return from maternity leave to resume her bunwatch. Dough Ball Dave prefers breakfast meetings to be food-free – an austerity policy recently objected to by one hungry Liberian emissary who’d just got off a plane from Africa.

I bring you a private encounter illustrating Barack Obama’s widening rift with Cameron over the Euroscepticism of the ConDem coalition’s Con majority. The White House wants Britain to remain part of the European Union, as does Cameron when pressed – though he never misses an opportunity to snipe at the EU.

A favourite target of Tory hostility is Cathy Ashton, the Brussels Brit who is high representative for foreign affairs. Ashton is held in higher regard in the US than in right-whinge circles this side of the Atlantic. During last year’s Nato summit in Chicago, an informant recalls, Cameron opined snidely: “We don’t see much of Cathy these days.” “That,” replied Obama, “is because Cathy’s a world leader.” Obama may not know “Jeff” Osborne but he has Cathy’s number.

The unlikely heart-throb Lord Wood, a Miliband consigliere voted prettier than the Tories’ pin-up Zac Goldsmith by Telegraph online readers, all presumably awaiting cataract operations, is the recipient of an unusual request. Wood met the correspondent’s call to vote for same-sex marriage but a second request is more problematic: “Additionally, if you knew of any male aristocrat that would like to marry me, much appreciated.” Wood wished the chap luck in his quest for an eligible male aristo and, wisely, declined to play matchmaker.

More on those lasagne by Ed “Beefy” Balls auctioned for £8,500 at a Labour fundraiser. The shadow chancellor promised to chuck in a couple of green salads and serve the dishes in a pinny. Mercifully, he assured me, with his trousers on.

Workers of the world united to save the human race at the RMT. A recording of that left-wing anthem, “The Internationale”, was played every morning at the union’s conference in Brighton.

Does Ed Miliband wear make-up? The Labour leader’s face appeared powdered at the New Statesman’s centenary bash. Mili’s abrupt “No” when your columnist asked only served to fuel my suspicions.

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

An artist's impression of Ed Miliband's make-up by Dan Murrell for the New Statesman

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 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

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