Salmond and the Sun. Montage: Dan Murrell/NS
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Commons Confidential: The Sun sets on Salmond

Plus: Why is Keith Vaz all starry-eyed?

The talk in Scotland’s Yes and No camps is of the Sun setting on Alex Salmond. The word inside News UK is that Rupert Murdoch would love the paper’s Glasgow edition to back independence but in London the Sun’s editor, David Dinsmore, calculates that destroying the UK would be commercially disastrous for his Union Jack-waving tabloid. The snout predicted that Dinsmore, a Tory and product of Strathallan, a pricey Perthshire school, will hold the line in September.

The Scottish Sun backed the SNP’s 2011 Holyrood landslide and the starry-eyed Murdoch once tweeted: “Alex Salmond clearly most brilliant politician in the UK.” Perhaps Murdoch would see Scotland divorcing the rest of Britain as revenge on David Cameron for all the arrests, Leveson and Rebekah Brooks’s trial. Wappingologists will note the loosening of the Sun King’s grip on his second-favourite red top.

Also starry-eyed is Keith Vaz. I hear he is hopeful of securing a part in a Bollywood take on the Bond franchise if it is shot in Westminster. The name’s Vaz, Keith Vaz. The poor man’s Daniel Craig is a busy man. He took time out from holding to account alleged dodgy coppers and pervert politicians to complain to the administration committee that strawberries and cream aren’t served on the terrace.

Ed Miliband is anxious to rebuild bridges with Dennis Skinner after a whipping operation backfired and the Beast of Bolsover was inadvertently voted off Labour’s governing National Executive Committee.

The intended target was the Scouse brickie Steve Rotheram, who had criticised Mili over that Sun photo, but it all went bacon sandwich and Skinner became collateral damage. Mili’s insistence that there was no whipping operation is undermined by the figures. The turnout in the NEC election was unprecedented, with 250 of 257 Labour MPs voting. A few hours later 22 fewer Labour MPs voted against George Osborne’s Budget on the Finance Bill’s third reading.

The source on this is well placed: a prominent MP was called by his local newspaper and asked what he thought about a beauty spot’s growing reputation as a “dogging hot spot”. “Marvellous,” he told the hack. “I’m delighted so many people are enjoying the area.” The reporter spared the MP’s blushes and, sadly, allowed him to change his quote after the unworldly fiftysomething politician was informed the practice involved group sex and voyeurism, rather than people walking their pets.

I’m informed that Nick Clegg believes the ex-Lib Dem MP Mike Hancock, who confessed to “degrading” a vulnerable constituent with mental health issues, deserves to be stripped of a CBE, awarded after he chaired the NSPCC’s southern region.

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 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.