Montage: Dan Murrell
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Commons Confidential: Maggie’s bitter suite endings

Her rooms at the Ritz for hire again.

The unintended consequence of Ed Miliband’s party upheaval may be to turn Labour into a wholly owned subsidiary of Unison. The 450,000 members of the public services union who have ticked boxes allocating their political levy to the party are deemed to comply with new opt-in rules. Given that Unite, GMB, Usdaw and the rest fear they will struggle to persuade trade unionists to enlist in Mili’s New Model Army, Unison’s Dave Prentis could find himself Il Capo dei Capi. Strains over the direction the party and unions are travelling have prompted a red light from Aslef, with the train drivers postponing their required ten-yearly ballot on their political fund. Miliband and Labour aren’t union vote-winners at the moment.

There was grumbling in the Royal British Legion after Jacob Rees-Mogg, the MP for Fogey Central, failed to stand a round. The Moggster popped into the Legion club in my home town of South Shields with a Channel 4 crew. He was on Tyneside to discover why people hate the Tories, visiting the constituency that is the only seat in Britain created in the Great Reform Act of 1832 never to have elected a Conservative MP. If he’d rung I could have saved him a trip: not buying the local people a drink set back his cause another century. The Moggster called the bingo – “Cameron’s House, No 10. Burlington Bertie, No 30” – with the aid of a cue card. Is it a job for the Moggster after politics? “Put it this way,” the club secretary replied dourly, “he wouldn’t make a living out of it.”

The suite at the Ritz where Maggie Thatcher died is for hire. One Tory MP, a devotee of the Rusted Lady, considered booking the pad for a pilgrimage but couldn’t bring himself to go, fearing he would be overcome by emotion. Thatcher stayed as a guest of the Barclay brothers, who own the plush hotel and, incidentally, the Daily Torygraph. But busloads of miners tipping up for “Thatcher death parties” are, I imagine, likely to be banned.

The shadow floods minister, beefy Barry Gardiner, was upset to be splashed over the front and four inside pages of the Mail on Sunday, snapped bare-chested in a swimming pool on a junket to Mexico. His discomfort tickled Westminster’s great unwashed. Disapproving colleagues mutter that high-living Gardiner was one of the first MPs to redesignate interns as volunteers to avoid paying them.

Cameron tweeting in Wales that there will be more money available for English flood victims without offering the sodden Welsh an extra penny understandably didn’t go down well west of Offa’s Dyke. It was noted disapprovingly in Cardiff that between Wales and the Somerset Levels the PM had posed with a Tory campaign mug. Dodgy Dave never lets a crisis go to waste. 

The biggest jeers during Theatre Royal Stratford East’s performances of Oh, What a Lovely War! are generated by a photograph of Michael Gove after a line about lions led by donkeys. Braying audiences evidently think the Education Secretary is an ass.

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

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 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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