Maybe he's borne with it? Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Commons Confidential: Osborne's powder

A bunny costume, "The Red Flag" and made-up politics.

The launch of the election campaign was, on the whole, underwhelming. Nick Clegg released answers before he’d been asked a single question at his press conference. The BBC’s Norman Smith was hissed at and called a “pillock” by Labour activists. And Ed Miliband appealed in vain for questions from ITV and Sky, neither broadcaster considering his Salford event sufficiently inviting to despatch correspondents.

George Osborne appeared to be wearing more make-up than Theresa May or Nicky Morgan at the Tory event. The powder saved the Chancellor from a red face as sceptical hacks shredded a Conservative report accusing Labour of £21bn of unfunded spending commitments.

To Stroud in Gloucestershire and a Labour lunch, which closed with the party’s leader in the House of Lords, Baroness Janet Royall, leading a rendition of “The Red Flag”. The prospect of Labour’s David Drew winning back the marginal seat he lost by 1,299 votes to the Tory landowner Neil Carmichael are enhanced by a storm in a pint pot. Calamity Carmichael “did a Clegg”: posing for a photo with a “Save our pubs” sign, then voting in parliament against protecting tenant landlords. The MP was banned from the Prince Albert on Rodborough Hill, where the licensee has clipped to a beer pump a picture of Carmichael with a Pinocchio nose.

Eric Pickles’s special adviser Zoe Thorogood’s CV boasted that she had worked for the breakfast telly show GMTV when she left the PR outfit Luther Pendragon to spin for the Communities Secretary. One of her ex-colleagues let slip that Thorogood also toiled on L!VE TV, an ill-starred station run by the former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie. The Whitehall aide, I hear, dressed as the “News Bunny”, a giant rabbit miming behind presenters. It could have been worse – L!VE TV showed Topless Darts.

The minutiae of NHS regulations will never be boring for Andy Burnham. A snout recalled Labour’s health spokesman working on Tank World and Container Management before swapping the noble calling of journalism for the grubby business of politics. I’ll remind him of that should Burnham ever become transport secretary.

Either Conservative candidates are stupid or the party is treating them like fools. Campaign packs contain instructions on how to pose for photographs, including a shot of Robert Jenrick, the Newark by-election victor, sitting up straight for those too daft to work it out.

Terrified of Ukip, David Cameron has upped the Tory anti-migrant rhetoric. Thankfully, it didn’t extend to the charming eastern European ladies collecting coats for the Conservative Party on the 29th floor of Millbank Tower. 

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 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

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

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