Lord Michael Ashcroft. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
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Commons Confidential: No respect for the Pollfather

UKIP volleys, SNP follies and a dip in Lord Ashcroft's reputation. 

The billionaire Tory donor Michael Ashcroft’s dream of reinventing himself as the Pollfather has suffered a knock. Sky News is excluding the Conservative peer’s regular surveys from its election poll of polls. Lord Ashcroft isn’t a member of the British Polling Council and industry rivals mumble about his transparency, particularly because he generated headlines early this month with a surprisingly big Tory lead and a Green tsunami, rather than a surge.

Few MPs work harder than Dan Jarvis, a former major in the Parachute Regiment, yomping across Britain to fight Labour’s ground war against the Tories. The shadow justice minister, who won the 2011 Barnsley Central by-election, is tipped for great things. Labour comrades remember his baptism of fire on entering Westminster. “Dan served in the special forces in Afghanistan, leading men on deadly missions in the mountains, enduring deprivation and fear for weeks on end,” one colleague recalled, “but nothing prepared him for the indignity of serving in Harriet Harman’s culture team.” They say Hattie’s boot camp was the real making of him.

Ukip is well shot of the MEP Amjad Bashir, who has defected to the Tories. Bashir, sinking in controversy and seemingly forgetting that he was once a member of George Galloway’s left-wing Respect Party, is shaping up to be the worst signing since Chelsea wasted £50m on Fernando Torres. Bashir’s Yorkshire compatriot Jane Collins, however, is an MEP whom Ukip wants to save. The Purple Shirts asked Gavin Millar QC, who defended the Sun successfully in the Plebgate battle with Andrew Mitchell, if he’d represent Collins in a libel action brought by three Labour MPs – Kevin Barron, Sarah Champion and John Healey – after the Ukip MEP claimed that they knew about the Rotherham sex scandal. Millar’s chambers declined. The QC, the brother of Cherie Blair’s one-time adviser Fiona Millar (who in turn is the significant other of the corporate PR Alastair Campbell), had already been hired by the Red Barron and his friends.

Nicola Sturgeon is going up in the world. The eagle-eyed Tory Margot James, no slouch in the height stakes, observed that the SNP’s pocket chieftain was wearing unfeasibly high heels as she tottered into Broadcasting House for an interview with Andrew Marr. The stilettos may double as a handy weapon, should Alex Salmond launch a southern coup in a hung parliament.

A radar-lugged informant overheard staff in the tearoom talking as they sliced a tray of shepherd’s pie into individual pieces. Billy Bunter Tories have been taking double helpings and paying for one. The new dividing line in politics is portion sizes. 

Kevin Maguire is 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 30 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Class Ceiling

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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