Tories have been ordered to be full of ho, ho, ho this Christmas. Photo: Getty
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Commons Confidential: A shocking secret Santa

Plus: an unexpected gnome.

The Chancer of the Exchequer, George Osborne, is playing Scrooge by threatening permanent austerity, yet word went out from Tory HQ for MPs and candidates to be full of ho, ho, ho. So Andrew Atkinson, the Conservative challenger to Labour’s Ian Lucas in Wrexham, donned the full outfit to play Santa in the Welsh town.

Festivities were moved to the Pentre Gwyn Community Centre after the usual venue, Kingsley Circle, was shut by council cuts. Atkinson is a hard-line deficit slasher so his sack is no doubt full of redundancies, payday loan forms and bedroom tax penalties. The music teacher playing carols nearly fainted with shock at the Tory’s cheek. Lucas needs to buy his wife, for it was her, smelling salts for Christmas.

Lord Palmer’s family pile, Manderston in Berwickshire, boasts the world’s only silver staircase. The convivial aristo, scion of the biscuit family and hereditary peer, is friendly with Labour MPs over the border in Northumberland.

I detect a touch of the Downton in the relationship. The Old Etonian once invited, I hear, Blyth Valley’s rough-hewn Ronnie Campbell to polish the banister. Campbell, an ex-miner, was equally unable to assist when Palmer inquired if the MP knew anybody willing to clean the Edwardian stately home.

The tea room talk is of the strained friendship between Margaret Hodge and Tessa Jowell. The pair were sisters in arms but the London mayoralty has come between them. Jowell’s tossed her hat in the ring while the chair of the public accounts committee hedges her bets. The influential post in the Commons is occupied by an opposition MP, so should Labour win the election, Hodge would be out of one job and free to run for another. Every cloud has a silver lining. For somebody.

Tory, Lib Dem and Labour whips have one thing in common: contempt for the Tory minister Matt Hancock. I hear he’s so despised that the party enforcers share text messages about him. A Tory I’ll decline to identify showed Labour whips a text ordering Tory MPs to huddle around Hancock in the Commons to signal support.

On the edge of Harold Wilson’s grave sits a small, red-hatted gnome. The political editor of the FT, George Parker, spied the garden sentry on a visit to the Isles of Scilly. The figure is, presumably, a tribute to the Labour premier’s dig at the tax-dodging “gnomes of Zürich”, the Swiss bankers. When Cameron shuffles off this mortal coil, a tin of baked beans would be appropriate to commemorate food banks.

What attracted the BBC’s Paul “Are you going to resign, minister?” Lambert to Ukip? There’s the £100,000-plus salary and that’s more than double the money Labour dangled in front of the gobbiest man in TV. 

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 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.