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Commons Confidential: Eric Pickles’s lightbulb moment

Plus how disgraced PR Max Clifford’s furniture found its way into Ukip’s HQ.

Conservatives from David Cameron down demand cuts to translation services to force Juan and Jola Foreigner to learn English. While Eric Pickles has issued an edict ordering England’s councils to bin multilingual leaflets, Iain Duncan Smith snips welfare booklets. So imagine my snout’s surprise on receiving a Tory election leaflet in ten languages, including Polish and Lithuanian, in IDS’s Chingford and Woodford Green backyard. Conservative double standards require no translation.

Sex attacker Max Clifford is in jail – and his furniture is in Ukip’s HQ. The Faragist Purple Shirts shared a billet in the same Mayfair block as the pervert predator until he received an unwelcome invitation to stay at one of Her Majesty’s guest houses. Tables and chairs from the disgraced PR’s lair have found their way into Nigel Farage’s command centre. The irony isn’t lost on Ukippers Neil and Christine Hamilton, who sued Clifford after he endorsed entirely false accusations that they had sexually assaulted one of his kiss-and-tell clients.

After the comrades spent last August on the beach, Labour leave is to be curtailed this summer to repel Cameron’s Blue Shorts and the Purple Shirts. I was reminded of a private moan by Ed Miliband suggesting that he feels his shadow cabinet doesn’t pull its weight: “I don’t mind them taking off August,” Mili observed. “It’s the rest of the year that worries me.”

Pickles must be tossing and turning after cops demanded that Tory Essex switch back on the street lights in bits of Big Eric’s Brentwood manor following a crime wave. The Communities Secretary welcomed the great turn-off for helping him sleep while saving money. My disgruntled informant with the torch snarled that the larger-than-life Tory would be safe waddling to the local Indian takeaway when the lamps shine again.

The Beast of Bolsover is enjoying fun at the expense of Michael Gove’s bottom lip. Dennis Skinner, the Commons heckler-in-chief, observed that the lower rim of the Education Secretary’s mouth glistens with spittle when he becomes overexcited at the despatch box. Labour MPs on the awkward squad bench discuss the wetness in a stage whisper and giggle when the radar-lugged Mickey wipes it dry with the back of his hand.

Farage’s deputy, the MEP Paul Nuttall, has discovered that politics is a tiring business. Excited by the election results, the Ukipper took a sleeping pill to get 40 winks. By his own admission, the first broadcast interview of the day was a groggy blur. Meanwhile Nick Clegg would dearly love to wake from his Lib Dumb nightmare. 

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 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.