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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.