Is Boris' trademark blond mop showing a peroxide tinge? Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
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Commons Confidential: Tom and Jerry, the Corbyn effect and rumours of a bottle blond Boris

The Prime Minister’s closest circle accuses his wannabe successor of dyeing his hair.

Rivalry between the Bullingdon Club frenemies David Cameron and Boris Johnson has taken a turn for the worse. The Prime Minister’s closest circle accuses his wannabe successor of dyeing his hair.

The charge is a bit rich, given that this column reported evidence years ago that Dave’s suspiciously grey-free barnet was coloured to retain a youthful air. But a No 10 insider tells me that a “chlorine tinge” was detected in bright light and it’s assumed that Mr Blond Ambition has also turned to the bottle. Johnson’s mop is his trademark and he is prone to peering into a mirror to check that it’s untidy before appearing in public, ruffling his crowning glory with a hand if it’s too neat. Cameron has anointed George Osborne as his successor. The dye is cast for a grubby fight.

The Labour leadership race’s dynamic has shifted to the advantage of Jeremy Corbyn, with the endorsement of Unite, which has both financial and political clout.

Victory for the left-winger remains improbable, though not impossible. A strong showing, with one Labour shadow cabinet member predicting that Corbyn will be the runner-up, would compel the new leader to offer a post to the rebellious candidate of the party’s Syriza wing. Corbyn is aware that Diane Abbott was made a middling public health spokeswoman after the last leadership contest before Ed Miliband sacked her for disloyalty. The anti-Trident Corbyn has mused that he would take the defence post. The race’s fallout could be considerable.

Austerity extends to the ranks of the army. The defence minister HMS Penny Mordaunt admitted to Strangford’s Democratic Unionist MP, Jim Shannon, that the size of an infantry battalion has shrunk under the Tories. In 2010, it was 570 soldiers. Today, it’s 530. The mini-battalions camouflage deeper military cuts.

It’s a coincidence, I’m sure, that, in the year of the Labour contest, all members in Yorkshire and Humberside were invited to the annual garden party held by Yvette Cooper’s Normanton local party and that of the Morley constituency of her election victim hubby, Ed Balls. My snout attended the event, at the couple’s Castleford home, which included a bouncy castle, tug of war and live music. Gastronome Balls took the tongs at the barbecue.

The couple are very popular and the image of Balls as a pantomime villain is one of the great misrepresentations of modern politics. Unlike Cameron, he doesn’t stop flipping burgers when the cameras leave.

The award for the best quip at the Labour hustings goes to Tom Watson. He’d prefer not to be Corbyn’s deputy, to avoid the Tory press mocking them as Tom and Jerry.

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 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage