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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.