Montage: Dan Murrell
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Commons Confidential: Ed, the vet, Yvette and Harriet

Harriet Harperson misunderstands her MP hubby Jack Dromey after the couple acquire a kitten called Otis.

The workers are revolting. Staff at United Utilities complain they were duped into forming an audience for David Cameron to deliver Tory propaganda. The water company, keen to board the fracking bandwagon, told employees to be at its Warrington HQ to receive “very important information”. The press-ganged staff were informed they were required to sit, smile and applaud Cameron blowing his Tory trumpet.

 

Two summer observations on Ed Miliband after talking in recent months to his office and Labour’s shadow cabinet: the first is that he swears more than he did. “Fucking” is the leader’s curse of choice. The second is his sensitivity to the merest hint of criticism of election maestro Douglas Alexander’s strategy. One Mili loyalist who had received a tongue-lashing told me that Sweary Ed uses the former whenever he detects the latter.

 

Veterans of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign report gazebo wars between the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party. The rival Trots apparently compete for the best plots to pitch tents on at Gaza protests and brag about who handed out the most placards. It might be funny if Palestinians weren’t being slaughtered.

 

I overlooked the grand digs that come with the Italian job should Cameron reward Old Etonian retainer Ed Llewellyn by appointing him our man in Rome. The Villa Wolkonsky is perhaps the grandest residence of any British ambassador, originally owned by a Russian princess and a Nazi hangout when Mussolini and Hitler were partners in crime. The Foreign Office bought the pile after the war. It was recently cased by a parliamentary delegation, including Charlie Elphicke, Chloe Smith and Stephen Pound. I’m assured that the bedrooms are vast and the swimming pool large enough to host a regatta. Cameron and Llewellyn would be in it together.

 

Fur is flying in Devon after ex-strawberry farmer George Eustice, a one-time Ukip candidate-turned-Tory environment minister, opposed building new homes for beavers. His excuse is that much has changed in the 500 years since the beavers left the river, before returning a few years ago. Surely he doesn’t fear that if the government built lodges for beavers Iain Duncan Smith would count occupants to impose the bedroom tax?

 

Harriet Harman was guilty of everyday sexism at a TUC dinner when she announced football gags could be dropped now that Frances O’Grady is the unions’ general secretary. Harperson’s stereotyping led her to believe, wrongly, that only blokes like footie. Sister O’Grady is a fanatical Arsenal fan. That faux pas aside, Hattie tells a nice joke. Her latest is misunderstanding her MP hubby, Jack Dromey, after the couple acquired Otis, a kitten. When Dromey shouted, “Call the vet, his balls have to go!” Harman claims she heard: “Call Yvette, Balls has to go!” My informant muttered that some in the audience preferred the misheard statement. 

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 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

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A year on from the Brexit vote it’s striking how little we know about where it will lead

So many questions, so few answers.

One year one. Anyone who hoped we’d know what Brexit might look like or even, heaven, forbid, that we’d be inhabiting a post-EU UK by now, must be thoroughly disappointed. Even those with more modest expectations are feeling slightly uncomfortable. Because, a year on, we don’t know that much more about what Brexit means  than we did on 23 June last year (well, we know it means Brexit, I suppose).  

We do know some things. First, that divorce talks are preceding trade talks, as the EU insisted – and David Davies denied – all along. Second what the European Union wants in the initial negotiations is crystal clear and indeed on their website, if you’re interested.

Third, the government, for the moment, remains committed to the kind of hard Brexit it has laid out since the Conservative Party conference. Nothing that has been said or done since the election indicates a softening of that position.

That’s it. That’s essentially all we have to show for the last year. This isn’t to say that stuff hasn’t been done. Both the European Commission and the British civil service have been beavering away on the Brexit issue. Papers have been written, careful, detailed analysis carried out. In fact Brexit has dominated the work of Whitehall since the fateful vote.

But for all this work, it’s striking how little we know about where this process will lead. The government’s commitment to a hard Brexit might not survive. Whether it does so or not will depend on what happens with the things we don’t know. The known unknowns, to coin (well, quote) a phrase.

First, we don’t know how long the prime minister will remain in post. This is obviously important, not least given Theresa May herself has seemingly singlehandedly been defining the kind of Brexit Britain should seek. Yet there is more to it than that. A leadership election would take time, and eat up yet more of the two years stipulated by the EU for the Article 50 process. It would also open the rift within the Conservative party over Brexit. Always a good spectator sport. Never a recipe for effective government.

Second, we don’t know how parliament will behave. Much has been made of the "soft Brexit majority" in the Palace of Westminster. But remember last June? When the significant majority of pro-remain MPs were expected to kick up a fight over Brexit? The same MPs who nodded the triggering of article 50 through with hardly a glance? We just do not know yet how MPs will behave.

And their behaviour will be shaped by both inter and intra-party dynamics. Both the large parties are internally divided over Brexit. The Labour leadership seems happy to leave the single market. Many Labour MPs, in contrast, are fundamentally, and publicly, opposed to the idea. Whether loyalty (not least given the prospect of another election) triumphs over opinions on the EU remains to be seen.

As it does for the Tories. I imagine the phrase "do you really want to risk a Corbyn government" will soon trip off the tongue of every government whip. Whether this threat will prove effective is anyone’s guess. Tory Remainers certainly seemed to rein in their criticism of the prime minister following the "chocolate trousers" affair. Maybe this was simply a case of keeping their powder dry until the legislation needed to make Brexit work hits parliament in the autumn. We’re about to find out. And it will matter much more now the Tories have lost their majority.  Indeed, I think this, more than anything else, is why the prime minister called the election in the first place.

One crucial determinant of how MPs behave will be what public opinion does. Regular polling by YouGov since the referendum has, until recently, shown virtually no movement in attitudes towards Brexit. Around 52 per cent think it was a good idea, and around 48 per cent a bad one. Sound familiar? There has in recent weeks been what could best be described as a slight wobble. What we don’t know is what will happen in the weeks to come. Should the polls show a swing away from Brexit, might politicians swing with it, increasing the pressure on the PM to modify and soften her stance?

Turning from Westminster to Whitehall, will a government with no majority adopt a different style to a government with a small one? This matters, particularly when it comes to business. The May Government before the election was notable for the way it put politics above economics, focusing on the need to ‘take back control’ even if this meant the potential for real economic damage. A number of business leaders report getting short shrift when they visited ministers to voice their concerns.

But can a weak government be so dismissive? We know what most businesses want – certainly the kinds of business that get to knock on ministerial doors. They want single market and customs union membership. They want, in other words, a soft Brexit. Chancellor Philip Hammond, it would seem, has been listening to them from the start. Will his colleagues now start to do so too?

And if government policy does start to shift, this in turn will open up a whole host of new unknowns. Most importantly, might the EU be open to some sort of deal whereby we limit free movement but get some kind of single market membership? That discussion has simply not happened, because of the way in which Theresa May closed it off by stipulating a hard Brexit.

Most EU observers think a compromise is unlikely in the extreme. Yet while the EU won’t be more generous to a non-member state than to a member state, there is no reason a non-member state should buy into all of core EU principles entirely, so there might be some room for compromise. Again, we don’t know. And we won’t unless we decide to ask.

So many questions, so few answers. That is the story of Brexit to date. One year on, and those answers are about to get clearer.

Anand Menon is the director of The UK in a Changing Europe. Read their report: EU referendum: one year on to find out more.

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