Margaret Beckett by Dan Murrell
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Commons Confidential: Margaret Beckett’s naked truth

“I can’t speak to you now. I’m getting picked up in ten minutes and I have no clothes on.” Plus the price of Axelrod. 

Parliament’s bar staff are under orders to ply MPs and peers with more alcohol. They have been instructed in new booklets to implement what is known in the trade as “upselling”. So, when an MP asks for a glass of wine, the correct response is to offer a large one. The peer in need of a livener will be nudged into buying a double gin and tonic. The authorities had discussed instilling a spirit of temperance after an inebriated Eric “Rambo” Joyce headbutted and punched Tories in Strangers’ Bar. That’s gone out of the window in an effort to cash in on thirsty politicians.

The Beast of Bolsover was unhappy to find only the front wheel of his bike chained to a cycle rack in parliament. The other two-thirds had been nicked. The great bike theft was carried out 20 yards from a police box. Dennis Skinner’s mood wasn’t improved by an official notice affixed to the remaining wheel – telling him it was parked in the wrong place.

The Tory election strategist-cum-Chancellor, “Sir” George Osborne, the Lizard of Oz, Lynton Crosby, and the No 10 spinner Craig “Crazy Olive” Oliver were spied by an eagle-eyed snout outside Mail on Sunday Towers with the paper’s Old Etonian editor, Geordie Greig. It’s a safe bet the Tory campaign cell wasn’t in Kensington to discuss Nigella Lawson’s recipes or fashion shoots in You magazine. Ed Miliband should avoid bacon butties in public. The Conservatives are banking on the right-wing press in the election.

Sticking with Miliband, the Labour leader was thrilled to chat with the Royal Navy veteran Mark Radley, 89, who had served on HMS Hilary with his father. The vessel was the command ship for Juno Beach on D-Day. Labour spin doctors privately acknowledged that it was a shame Mr Radley had never met Miliband Sr.

As an excuse, the former foreign secretary Margaret Beckett told the naked truth. Called by a young reporter seeking a quote on the death sentence passed in Sudan onMeriam Yehya Ibrahim for refusing to renounce her Christian faith, Beckett answered: “I can’t speak to you now. I’m getting picked up in ten minutes and I have no clothes on.” Mercifully, the call was by phone, not Skype.

Labour’s general secretary, Iain McNicol, refused point-blank to let the party’s NEC know how much it is wasting – sorry, spending – on Obama’s former adviser David Axelrod. Could it be higher than the mooted £250,000 to £300,000?

My informant was insistent, so his claim that the Mail fuddy-duddy Simon Heffer allegedly once lay on the floor to minimise his flabby chin in a photograph taken for a newspaper picture byline falls firmly into the category of stories too good to check.

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 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.