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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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.