Commons Confidential: Cameron's comb-over and Ed Miliband's jacket

News from the political grapevine.

Yvette Cooper delivers a nice line in self-deprecating humour, taking politics seriously but not herself. As a consequence, Labour’s shadow home secretary is much in demand as a speaker and she agreed to do the honours at a fundraiser in London for the perky grassroots website LabourList. Happy to make herself the butt of an anecdote, Cooper recounted how, sitting next to a royal protection officer at a monarchical event, she discovered the copper didn’t have a clue who she was. The invisibility, said Cooper, wasn’t a great verdict on her performance. She’s also happy to tell glorious tales at the expense of her insignificant other, Ed Balls. The protection officer, Cooper continued, enquired who else was present from the Labour Party. She pointed out the shadow chancellor. “Ah,” the relieved officer observed, “I wondered what Nick Griffin was doing here.” The physical resemblance must be uncomfortable for Balls, particularly as a snap exists of him as a young man in Nazi uniform during a dressing-up night at Oxford University.

Subsequent to this column disclosing that Ed Miliband has been instructed to keep his jacket on after a focus group found that female voters prefer him formally attired, I gather he’s also adopted a new handshake. MPs had likened physical exchanges of greetings with the Labour leader to grabbing a wet halibut. No longer. A visitor found the wannabe premier has developed a firmer handshake, squeezing tightly any proffered mitt to assert authority. One courtier handily posited this as evidence that Miliband goes from strength to strength.

Over in the Tory camp, the worry is Dave’s disappearing barnet. Despite an increasingly elaborate Cameron comb-over, the expanding white pate is visible from the press gallery. The PM’s cover-up is both strategic and vain. My snout whispered the bald fact is that the Lizard of Oz, Lynton Crosby, would find it trickier to portray a visibly ageing Cameron as the future.

The imminent sale and potential closure of that lefty canteen, the Gay Hussar in Soho, may happen before its manager, John Wrobel, busy cooking up a staff buyout, tracks down Michael Foot’s walking stick. Since this column reported that the gaffer yearned to hang on the wall the prop of its best-known patron, a cane purportedly used by Footie was presented by a diner but was rejected by Wrobel, who doubted its provenance. The stick would be useful should regulars mount the barricades to repel property speculators or – far worse – nouvelle cuisine.

Another Tory snout muttered that Boris Johnson has retained a large family home in the Henley constituency he vacated five years ago. I pass this on without further comment as the London Mayor seeks a Commons perch.

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

Image: Montage by Dan Murrell

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 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era