Rachel Reeves speaks at the Labour conference earlier this year in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Rachel Reeves: Tory MPs apologised to me over "incredibly rude" Duncan Smith

Shadow work and pensions secretary says Conservative MPs apologised to her over Duncan Smith's claim that she had not bothered to vote. 

Relations between Rachel Reeves and Iain Duncan Smith recently reached a new low when the Work and Pensions Secretary refused to apologise for accusing his shadow of not bothering to turn up for a vote. 

Reeves said: "The Secretary of State criticised me for not turning up to vote on an Opposition day motion last week. He knows nothing of why I was not able to attend last week. I kindly ask him to withdraw his criticism and apologise for the aspersion that I could not be bothered to turn up to vote in the House of Commons." (Her absence was due to illness.) 

But Duncan Smith refused to do so, declaring: "I simply made the point that it was good to see the hon. Lady here because she did not turn up to vote in the last debate. I understand that she retweeted that she was Rochester at the time. She was not put down as a signatory to the motion. Those are the points that I made." 

Reeves replied: "Thank you, Mr Speaker. I was not in Rochester last week. I will give the Secretary of State one last opportunity to withdraw the aspersion and apologise. He knows nothing of the reason why I was not here last week, so I ask him to withdraw the aspersion and apologise." But Duncan Smith was unrepentant: "I stand by my assertion that the hon. Lady did not vote and that her name was not on the Order Paper."

Now, in an interview with me in this week's New Statesman, Reeves has revealed that "a number of Tory MPs" came up to her afterwards to apologise for Duncan Smith's behaviour. She told me:

I think that he’s an incredibly rude man and I think that anybody else would have apologised. And, actually, the number of MPs from the Conservative Party came up to me afterwards and said that they thought that Iain Duncan Smith behaved very badly and wanted to apologise on his behalf, which was very nice of them, but they don’t need to apologise on his behalf, he’s quite capable of apologising for himself. 

When I asked Reeves whether she was surprised that Duncan Smith had remained in his job despite multiple policy failures, she replied: "Well, I expect that people like Michael Gove and Owen Paterson, when they were summarily dismissed from their jobs at the last reshuffle must have wondered why the axe came for them but not for Iain Duncan Smith who has presided over £25bn of Tory welfare waste in additional spending compared to what they set out, Universal Credit which has been a huge failure, the bedroom tax, which is probably the cruellest and nastiest policy that we’ve had from this government, devised by Iain Duncan Smith. I think there’s probably a lot of people, not just in the Labour Party, but in the Tory Party and across the country who wonder why someone like that is in his job." 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser