Commons Confidential: Why did David Cameron try and leave Nick Clegg out of the TV debates?

PLUS: Gunfight at the TUC Corral Mk II.

Chumless Nick Clegg will be dismayed to learn that his Conservative line manager, David Cameron, attempted to get him left out of any 2015 TV election debates. I hear that Tory and Labour spinners both suggested excluding Mr Middle Man during initial discussions, Labour on the grounds that the ConDem coalition should have a single representative and the Cons because, well, they don’t like what Lenin might call a useful idiot.

Broadcasters are growing frustrated at the refusal of Westminster’s three largest parties to agree in principle to repeat 2010’s three live debates in 2015. The foot-dragger-inchief is Cameron’s mouthpiece, Craig “Crazy Olive” Oliver. The stroppy ex-BBC man believes Cleggmania cost Cameron a majority, so, I’m told, favours a single TV debate if he can’t pull the plug. Telly bods are mulling over how to break the deadlock. Watch this space.

Crazy Olive’s really a herbivore in the political jungle but strives to emulate Alastair Campbell, a true carnivore red in tooth and claw. A colleague of Olive’s called him Malcolm Tucker without the swearing. The broadcasters – BBC, ITV and Sky – complain that he undermines accountability by wrapping the Prime Minister in cotton wool, offering pooled clips as he shields his chap from interrogatory interviews. Word reaches your correspondent of an unintentionally revealing Olive riposte to those who accuse him of mollycoddling MONTAGE BY DAN MURRELL the people’s toff. “That’s unfair,” he wailed. “Cameron did Test Match Special.”

Na h-Eileanan an Iar’s MP, Angus MacNeil, should get out more in Whitehall, or at least buy an A-Z. The SNP-er was late for a meeting between the Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, and a delegation from the Outer Hebrides on a 1,000-mile round trip to discuss wind turbines. MacNeil, eight years in the job, was forced to ask a policeman the way to the Energy Department and then couldn’t find the right office. His lights were on but there was no one at home.

To the Lib Dumb jamboree in Glasgow. Nick Clegg developed a cult of the non-personality by speaking so often, even he must have been bored by the sound of his voice. The exhibition area was smaller than your average village fete. A party stall flogging badges and magnets of individual MPs struggling to look statesmanlike sold a steady flow of Sarah Teathers. The Member for Desolate Central reminds them of when the party was supposed to care about poor people instead of making people poor.

Ed Miliband will hope to avoid a rerun in Brighton of the gunfight at the TUC Corral along the coast in Bournemouth. The private meeting between him and union leaders was, by all accounts, worse than was first thought. The GMB’s Paul Kenny sustained fire for five minutes with a lecture on the values of solidarity and collective action, with Miliband’s interjections brutally swept aside. Sounds like old times.

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

But come on, Nick looks lovely behind a podium. Photo: Getty

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 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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Where Labour has no chance, hold your nose and vote Lib Dem

May's gamble, MacKenzie's obsession and Wisden obituaries - Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

In 2007 Gordon Brown allowed rumours to circulate that he would call an early general election for the spring of 2008. When he failed to do so, he was considered a coward and a ditherer and never recovered. Theresa May has tried a different strategy. After firmly denying that she would call an early election and killing off speculation about one, she suddenly announced an election after all. Will this work better for her than the opposite worked for Brown?

The Prime Minister risks being seen as a liar and an opportunist. Her demand for “unity” at Westminster is alarming, because it suggests that there is no role for opposition parties on the most important issue of the day. If Labour and the Lib Dems are smart enough to co-operate sufficiently to rally the country against what looks like an attempt to instal an authoritarian, right-wing Tory regime, May, even if she wins the election, could find herself weakened, not strengthened. I never thought I would write this but, in constituencies where Labour has no chance, its supporters should hold their noses and vote Lib Dem.

Taken for granted

I wonder if May, before she took her decision, looked at the precedents of prime ministers who called unnecessary elections when they already had comfortable parliamentary majorities. In 1974, after three and a half years in office, Edward Heath, with a Tory majority of 30, called a “Who runs Britain?” election during a prolonged dispute with the miners. He lost. In 1923, Stanley Baldwin, a new Tory leader sitting on a majority of 75 obtained by his predecessor just a year earlier, called an election because he wished to introduce tariffs, an issue strikingly similar to the one raised by Brexit. He also lost. The lesson, I think (and hope), is that prime ministers take the electorate for granted at their peril.

China’s long game

Commentators compare the crisis ­involving North Korea and the US with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. It doesn’t feel that way to me. For several days that year, nuclear war seemed, to my 17-year-old mind, all but inevitable. I went to the cinema one afternoon and felt surprise when I emerged three hours later to find the world – or, at least, the city of Leicester – going about its business as normal. Two nuclear powers were in direct confrontation. The US threatened to invade communist Cuba to remove Soviet missiles and blockaded the island to prevent deliveries of more weapons. Soviet ships sailed towards the US navy. It wasn’t easy to imagine a compromise, or who would broker one. Nobody doubted that the two sides’ weapons would work. The Soviet Union had carried out nearly 200 nuclear tests. North Korea has claimed just five.

For all the talk of intercontinental missiles, North Korea at present isn’t a credible threat to anybody except possibly its neighbours, and certainly not to the US or Britain. It is in no sense a geopolitical or economic rival to the US. Donald Trump, who, like everybody else, finds the Middle East infernally complicated, is looking for an easy, short-term victory. The Chinese will probably arrange one for him. With 3,500 years of civilisation behind them, they are accustomed to playing the long game.

Mussel pains

Whenever I read Kelvin MacKenzie’s columns in the Sun, I find him complaining about the size of mussels served by the Loch Fyne chain, a subject on which he happens to be right, though one wonders why he doesn’t just order something else. Otherwise, he writes badly and unfunnily, often aiming abuse at vulnerable people such as benefit claimants. It’s a new departure, however, to insult someone because they were on the receiving end of what MacKenzie calls “a nasty right-hander”, apparently unprovoked, in a Liverpool nightclub. He called the victim, the Everton and England footballer Ross Barkley, who has a Nigerian grandfather, “one of our dimmest footballers” and likened him to “a gorilla at the zoo”.
The paper has suspended MacKenzie, a former Sun editor, and Merseyside Police is investigating him for racism, though he claims he didn’t know of Barkley’s ancestry.

Several commentators express amazement that Sun editors allowed such tripe to be published. It was not, I think, a mistake. Britain has no equivalent of America’s successful alt-right Breitbart website, disruptively flinging insults at all and sundry and testing the boundaries of what it calls “political correctness”, because our alt right is already established in the Sun, Express and Mail. To defend their position, those papers will continue to be as nasty as it takes.

Over and out

Easter is the time to read the cricket annual Wisden and, as usual, I turn first to the obituaries. Unlike newspaper obituaries, they record failures as well as successes – those who managed just a few undistinguished performances in first-class cricket and, most poignantly, some who promised much but died early. We learn of a 22-year-old Indian who, during demonstrations against the alleged molestation of a schoolgirl, was shot dead by police and whose grieving mother (invoking the name of one of India’s greatest batsmen) cried, “Bring my Gavaskar back!” In England, two young men drowned, having played one first-class match each, and a 22-year-old Sussex fast bowler, described as “roguish” and “enormously popular”, fell off a roof while celebrating New Year with friends in Scotland. In South Africa, a young batsman was among five municipal employees killed when their truck crashed; the local mayor fled the funeral as his workmates “chanted menacingly” about unpaid wages.

Among the better-known deaths is that of Martin Crowe, probably New Zealand’s best batsman. In a Test match, he once got out on 299 and reckoned the near-miss contributed to the cancer that killed him at 53. “It tore at me like a vulture pecking dead flesh,” he said. Cricket can do that kind of thing to you. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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