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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.