Hold your nose. Montage: Dan Murrell/NS
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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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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.