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Commons Confidential: When Nigel met Rupert

Farage still harbours hopes of securing the Sun King's blessing.

To adapt the opening sentence of the Communist Manifesto: “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Ukipism.” The pinstriped, one-time Tory City broker Nigel Farage is on a media roll. Invitations to dinner with the supergrass Rupert Murdoch aren’t what they were, now that his media empire is busy shopping sources and hacks to the cops. Yet Farage still harbours hopes of securing the fading Sun King’s blessing at elections for the European Parliament in June next year and – who knows? – the May 2015 general election, too. And he may be on the brink of a breakthrough in his campaign to be treated as an equal of David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg on TV. Sky News will invite all four for a live debate ahead of the Euro elections. Farage, I gather, has already been approached. The other three must decide whether to confront him head-on or put their party leaders in the European Parliament on the box. They’re aware that if they lock horns next year with Farage, it would strengthen his case to be included in any general election debates. If two’s company and three’s a crowd, four’s a nightmare for the established troika.

Security at the recent cockroaches’ convention in Brighton was eccentric, even by Liberal Democrat standards. As my snout was sauntering into the Metropole Hotel, he was stopped by a steward. Was the chap searching for sharp objects or firearms? “Any leaflets in your bag, sir?” asked the steward. Assured that there were none, the snout was waved on his way. Ideas and dissenting views are what Clegg fears most.

Bit of a bust-up in Westminster between Welsh Labour MPs and the First Minister in Cardiff, Carwyn “the Job” Jones. He’s agitating for judicial powers to be devolved to Wales, arguing that it would outflank Plaid Cymru. MPs, who would have fewer Welsh laws to vote on in parliament, disagree. One sceptic muttered that if the Job wanted to outwit Plaid, he should go the whole hog and demand independence for Wales.

Jim Murphy’s “lazy Labour” warning in last week’s New Statesman prompted one of his colleagues to challenge the shadow trooper’s Stakhanovism. Murphy was one of the few Labour MPs, he said, not to campaign for John O’Farrell in the Eastleigh by-election. Things can only get bitter.

The conspiracy theorist turned- transport minister Norman “Barking” Baker doesn’t like to travel these days. He sent a video message to a meeting of passenger transport sorts from Britain’s metropolitan areas, apologising that he couldn’t get to their gathering. The soirée was in the pavilion tent on the terrace of the Mock-Gothic Fun Palace, which is less than half a mile from Baker’s lair. There was a time when Barking would have sniffed a conspiracy in a no-show.

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 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.