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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle