Nick Clegg and David Cameron in Number 10. Photo: STEFAN ROUSSEAU/AFP/Getty Images
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Commons Confidential: Dave and his worst best friend

Nick Clegg caught on mic, Twitter blocking and some squeaky bums.

Squeaky bum time for staffers at the Conservative campaign headquarters. The word is that a cell of David Cameron’s stormtroopers has been speculating which prominent Labour figures could be implicated in allegations of historic child abuse. I hear that an email list has been compiled, should a dirty trick be needed. But electronic messages are dangerous. The compilation of supposed paedophiles was, mutters a snout, inadvertently copied to a Daily Telegraph reporter. Cue panic at CCHQ. This email would make Damian McBride’s notorious memos seem like fraternal greetings.

Caught on microphone on a joint visit to Nottingham in 2011, Nick Clegg’s whisper to David Cameron: “If we keep doing this, we won’t find anything to bloody disagree on in the bloody TV debate.”

Cameron’s response has been to block the possibility of confrontation, yet the worst best friends, Dave and Nick, are ready, I hear, to renew their vows on 8 May to keep Ed Miliband out of No 10 – on new terms. A plugged-in Tory told me that his party is discussing a cut in Lib Dem cabinet seats, with one axed for every dozen MPs lost.

No Labour MP parades his proletarian credentials like John Mann does. The Bassetlaw Bruiser, head of White Van Labour, is an unashamed class warrior. So imagine the surprise when a snout revealed that this horny-handed crusader was privately educated. Mann went to Bradford Grammar, a 467-year-old independent school. His scholarship must lessen the blushes.

While in opposition, Eric Pickles’s spad Sheridan Westlake showered the Department for Communities with Freedom of Information requests, hoping to expose perks and high salaries. Newly released figures show that the coiffed Woody Woodpecker of Whitehall enjoyed a 6.97 per cent raise to £69,000 last year: more than three times the 2.2 per cent of local government workers. Westlake’s parsimony with taxpayers’ cash, it seems, doesn’t extend to his salary.

Still furious with Ed Miliband for involving the police in the Falkirk selection farrago, Unite in Scotland is embarking on a policy journey that might result in the union backing SNP candidates. The crunch will be postponed until after the May general election. Backing rivals triggers expulsion under Labour’s constitution. Miliband’s legacy could yet be the end of the party.

The touchy Tory Lucy Allan is standing for parliament in Telford. The Labour councillor Clive Elliott says she has blocked local Labourites on Twitter. Allan is bankrolled by the shadowy United and Cecil dining club. Who wants debates when you’ve got a fortune to spend? Not Cameron or his candidates. 

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 16 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Jihadis Among Us

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What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Everything you need to know about why Northern Ireland is heading for an early election - and how it all works. 

Northern Irish voters will elect a new government, just seven months after the last election. Here’s what you need to know.

It all starts with something called the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a scheme designed to encourage businesses to switch to renewable sources of heating, by paying them to do so. But the plan had two flaws. Firstly, there was no upper limit to how much you could receive under the scheme and secondly there was no requirement that the new heaters replace the old.

That led to businesses installing biomass boilers to heat rooms that had previously not been heated, including storage rooms and in some cases, empty sheds.

 The cost of the scheme has now run way over budget, and although the door has been closed to new entrants, existing participants in the scheme will continue collecting money for the next 20 years, with the expected bill for the Northern Irish assembly expected to reach £1bn.  

The row is politically contentious because Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the First Minister of Northern Ireland, was head of the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) when the scheme was rolled out, putting her at the heart of the row. Though there is no suggestion that she personally enriched herself or her allies, there are questions about how DETI signed off the scheme without any safeguards and why it took so long for the testimony of whistleblowers to be acted on.

The opposition parties have called for a full inquiry and for Foster to step down while that inquiry takes place, something which she has refused to do. What happened instead is that the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned his post, he said as a result of frustration with the DUP’s instrangience about the scheme.

Under the rules of the devolved assembly (of which, more below), the executive – the ministers tasked with running the government day-to-day must be compromised of politicians drawn from the parties that finish first and second in the vote, otherwise the administration is dissolved.  McGuinesss’ Sinn Fein finished second and their refusal to continue participating in the executive while Foster remains in place automatically triggers fresh elections.

Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV) to elect members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). Under STV, multiple MLAs are elected from a single constituency, to more accurately reflect the votes of the people who live there and, crucially, to prevent a repeat of the pattern of devolved rule under first-past-the-post, when prolonged one-party rule by the Unionist and Protestant majority contributed to a sense of political alienation among the Catholic minority.

Elections are contested across 18 seats, with five MPs elected to every seat. To further ensure that no part of the community is unrepresented in the running of the devolved assembly, the executive, too, is put together with a form of proportional representation. Not only does the executive require a majority in the legislature to pass its business, under a system of “mandatory coalition”, posts on the executive are allocated under the D’Hondt system of proportional representation, with posts on the executive allocated according to how well parties do, with the first party getting first pick, and so on until it comes back to the first party until all the posts are filled.

Although the parties which finish third and lower can opt out of taking their seats on the executive and instead oppose the government, if the first and second party don’t participate in the coalition, there is no government.

As it is highly unlikely that the DUP and Sinn Fein will not occupy the first and second places when the election is over, it is equally unlikely that a second election will do anything other than prolong the chaos and disunity at Stormont. 

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