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Commons Confidential: Strong wind batters No 10

Surely, a farting competition didn't take place right outside the PM's house?

Guarding the gates of Downing Street is so dull that the armed cops are forced to play silly games to break the boredom. This is why a female member of the No 10 staff, strolling nearby, heard three officers indulging in what I’m assured sounded like a farting competition. Either that, or baked beans should be scrapped from the canteen menu. Andrew Mitchell could have saved himself a lot of trouble if he’d offered to break wind when asked to move to the right with his bicycle.

Tongues were bitten when Cherie Blair announced she has a Chinese sister-in-law. Thoughts turned instantly to the former Mrs Rupert Murdoch, Wendi Deng, a great admirer of Cherie’s hubby and mother of one of Mr Blair’s godchildren. At the Chinese for Labour bash, Cherie was in fact referring to Katy Tse, the Hong Konger wife of Tony’s brother, Bill. You’ve got to admire Cherie’s chutzpah. Or lack of self-awareness.

Jokes about the lovestruck Wendi’s mooning (“Oh, sh*t, oh, sh*t. Whatever why I’m so missing Tony … He has such good body and he has really really good legs Butt … And he is slim tall”) are compulsory on the Labour fundraising circuit under the party’s unofficial constitution. The shadow cabinet minister Owen Smith, MCing a London gig for the Cardiff candidates Jo Stevens and Mari Williams, quipped: “There’s been a terrible misunderstanding – Wendi was writing about me, not Tony.” In your dreams, son.

The banker Kwasi Kwarteng, one of Dave’s brigade of Old Etonians, often goes AWOL when the work and pensions committee grills a Tory minister. The Spelthorne MP dodged Lord Freud after skipping Iain Duncan Smith the previous week. While colleagues interrogated IDS, Kwarteng was spied sipping coffee in Portcullis House a floor below. Dock that MP’s pay for failing to turn up for interviews.

Work started during the Commons recess to convert the members’ centre in Portcullis into a members’ lounge. The computers and desks are to be replaced by easy chairs and sofas, so that MPs can entertain guests in private instead of sitting at tables in public. Lobbyists should form an orderly queue.

There’s been griping in the members’ tearoom over a large neon sign advertising opening times and the like. My snout overheard a table of Tory MPs moaning that it “commercialised” the tea-and-crumpets bolt-hole. Isn’t that what right-whingers want to do to public services?

Flood woes left Ed Miliband out of his depth as water lapped over the top of his wellies and Nigel Farage forced a smile in his waders. The rubber trousers leaked; the Ukip leader was as wet as any mainstream politician.

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 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

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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.