Henry's henchman: Montage by Dan Murrell
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Commons confidential: Dave’s Cromwell moment at Wolf Hall

While Sam Cam comandeers the disabled loo.

David Cameron isn’t a chap to let a global crisis such as the one in Ukraine get in the way of an evening at the theatre. My eagle-eyed snouts and radar-lugged informants were out in the audience when the Bullingdon boy tipped up with his wife, Samantha, in Stratford-upon-Avon to watch Wolf Hall. Electorally the least successful Tory premier in history, he may be seeking inspiration from Henry VIII’s henchman Thomas Cromwell. And with whom did the Downing Street couple dine in the rooftop restaurant? The City PR Sir Alan Parker, a chum Dave knighted a few months ago, and Parker’s missus, Jane Hardman, a political lobbyist. 

The foursome rubbed along famously. Dave’s bodyguards requested a coat stand be shifted so they could keep an eye on their employer from a discreet distance. The revelry was interrupted by a flunkey appearing at the table with a phone for the PM to take an important call. I trust Sir Alan, part of Dave’s recent posse to China, instantly forgot everything he overheard.

Tittering rippled around the auditorium as Cameron and party were ushered into front-row seats moments before the curtain went up at the Swan Theatre. Sir Alan’s brother Nathaniel “Inspector Lynley” Parker was a fine Henry but the star of the show was Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell. Dave, a snout whispered disapprovingly, was distracted by texts and emails on his own mobile. The PM placed the device on a programme so it appeared as if he was reading the play notes or profiles of the actors. Smart move. Luckily, the phone was on silent. 

Cameron’s security team needed to push its way through the crowded bar to deliver their charge to a private room for interval drinkies. One woman almost spilled a cup of water over him in the melee. Others muttered: “Is it really him?” Yes, it was. A disabled woman tried to gain entry to the room but was turned away, told it was a private party. The queue for the ladies’ was long. Sam Cam and Jane Hardman disappeared into the one disabled loo.

In the second half, the magnificent Miles intentionally aimed Cromwell’s line that “Government should always listen to the voice of the people” at Dave in the front row. It brought the house down. The usually disciplined RSC audience erupted, cheering and applauding. Theatregoers, otherwise known as voters, pointed and laughed at Cameron. The PM just smiled, as did Nathaniel Parker’s Henry VIII.

In the interests of fairness, I feel compelled to record that a fair number in the audience later wanted to shake the PM’s hand. Incidentally, it looks as if Dave’s back on the hair dye.

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 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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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.