All hail the Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MBE MP. Montage: Dan Murrell/NS
Show Hide image

Commons Confidential: Lunching with a Latin lover

Plus: why has Red Ed turned a lighter shade of pink?

Rebellion is stirring in the Press Gallery after the introduction of Latin grace before formal lunches with politicians. The BBC Old Etonian James Landale, this year’s chair, replaced the usual mumble about being grateful for pan-fried Gressingham duck or whatever with incantations that few understand. And the TV performer summons reluctant hacks to their feet to listen to his Latin. The immediate target in the battle between traditionalists and modernisers isn’t grace, however. It’s the archaic loyal toast to Her Maj at the end of each meal. The head of the mods, Barney Jones, the editor of The Andrew Marr Show, has requested that the gallery committee cease instructing journalists to raise a glass to unelected power. A few of us stage sit-down protests. We all hope this thorny issue will be resolved without a second Leveson inquiry or state regulation.

Red Ed has turned a lighter shade of pink, passing up an opportunity to speak at the Durham Miners’ Gala in July. Miliband hinted that he’d return before the election two years ago, when he was the first Labour leader to address the “Big Meeting” since Neil Kinnock. Tory taunts about resurrecting Old Labour seem to have frightened him away. On the platform with a general council of trade unionists will be Dennis Skinner. The Beast of Bolsover, an ex-miner and gala favourite, shares none of Miliband’s doubts or fears.

I’m told that Con-Dem spats over knives and school places are merely the opening shots in a coalition civil war. Cabinet ministers on both sides, an informant whispered, have amassed documents to unleash a barrage of leaks against their governing partners. Who needs the Freedom of Information Act when you have parties fighting like ferrets in a sack?

There was sniggering at an invitation to sit in the presence of the chair of the public accounts committee. The billing of the soirée as “an audience with Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MBE MP” prompted her colleagues to wonder aloud if applause for bashing tax dodgers is going to her head. “I know she’s grand but this is ridiculous. I wonder if we have to bow?” muttered my snout. It’s been a long march from socialism at Islington Council to social acceptability as a national treasure.

To Ted Heath’s grand old home Arundells, in the shadow of Salisbury Cathedral. In a selfless act of eternal aggrandisement, the Tory premier bequeathed the pile to the nation as a permanent shrine to himself. The House of Heath has reopened to the public. I learned a previous visitor had bridled as a guide recalled how Grocer Ted wouldn’t give the Daily Mail house room. Lady Rothermere, wife of the Mail owner Viscount Rothermere, was evidently very put out.

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 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.