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The last week has been a disaster. Team Corbyn need to up their game

Corbyn's aides need to shape up or ship out says Tom Mendelsohn.

It has been, even by the Corinthian standards of the leadership’s noble gang of gentleman amateurs, a terrible post-Christmas period for Labour. The political agenda should have been dominated by a gleeful Jeremy Corbyn filling his boots with David Cameron’s unforced errors. We should have seen him waist-deep in flood water bellowing about Tatler Tories and striking junior doctors. What we’ve had, though, has been the customary sullen silence, 72 solid hours of Michael Dugher with his bum in the air, and, consequently, an antsy press corps turning to the devil with an acute case of idle hands. It has been another shambles.

It has been hard to watch the Tories twirl their moustaches and cackle unopposed at the moonlight as they float pernicious housing bills and drop pesky inquiries into banking sectors while the Labour Party punches itself comatose. Now, after the reshuffle, the latest in a series of preventable press feeding fiascos, even the most starry-eyed Corbynistas have to start asking what’s going wrong. Too many of us are still willing to blame Corbyn’s media woes on a hostile media. It is unfriendly, but not solely so – too much of the embarrassing speculation and damaging public criticism can be pinned on team Corbyn’s stony silence.

The media reports, by and large, on what it is given. Because they’re not getting blood out of this particular stone, they’re feeding off what they can find, which has allowed a venal attention-seeker like Dugher to spout his rubbish with total impunity. This has resulted in days of bad headlines for Corbyn, whose press team hasn’t bothered – or worse thought – to get ahead of the reshuffle story.

I’m still hesitant to blame Corbyn for his lack of media slipperiness – he was elected as the sincerity guy, the one who doesn’t think to glad-hand at mucky photocalls. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t need someone to think of basic stuff like this for him. Where is his spin doctor?

He has one, supposedly: Seumas Milne, the ex-Guardian journo so controversially recruited in the summer. From his grim countenance, it’s not hard to see him as a Malcolm Tucker-like figure, in as much as he seems as though he quite likes a shout at people, but he clearly doesn’t have the touch, or even interest, in controlling the news.

Some simple reshuffle good news, or just a good old chop at Dugher’s knees, would have done wonders to mould this week’s front pages. A little bit of meat for the weary press camped outside Corbyn’s office could have prevented Dugher’s allies from painting him like a Yorkshire Jesus, but because they had nothing else to go on, the procession of cowards tweeting coded messages of support was the only thing that got covered.

There are many ways of dealing with the press: a reign of terror or buying them all a doughnut every day. But you have to do something – Milne is clearly not doing enough to cultivate relationships and feed positive stories.

So now we’re stuck with ‘the revenge reshuffle’, which implies Corbyn is small-minded and vindictive, and that the blue Labour partisans in the hills are fighting valiant rearguard action against the encroaching communists. If Milne had done his job – any kind of job – we might have had ‘the people’s reshuffle’ or something, and the irreconcilables might not be poxing up the airwaves and running away with the perception.

We might even not be presented with the kind of scuttlebutt that suggests eight shadow frontbenchers were suddenly willing to fall on swords they hadn’t known they had to stick up for battlin’ Hilary Benn, because a decent head of press would have had them in the room and sewn their mouths shut.

Milne needs to realise that we don’t have a Pravda, no matter how much he wishes we would, and that he has to start playing the game. If he can’t, or won’t, it’s time for him to be disappeared.

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On civil liberties, David Davis has become a complete hypocrite – and I'm not sure he even knows it

The Brexit minster's stance shows a man not overly burdened with self-awareness.

In 2005, David Davis ran for the Tory leadership. He was widely assumed to be the front-runner and, as frontrunners in Tory leadership campaigns have done so enthusiastically throughout modern history, he lost.

The reason I bring up this ancient history is because it gives me an excuse to remind you of this spectacularly ill-judged photoshoot:


“And you're sure this doesn't make me look a bit sexist?”
Image: Getty

Obviously it’s distressing to learn that, as recently as October 2005, an ostensibly serious politician could have thought that drawing attention to someone else’s boobs was a viable electoral strategy. (Going, one assumes, for that all important teenage boy vote.)

But what really strikes me about that photo is quite how pleased with himself Davis looks. Not only is he not thinking to himself, “Is it possible that this whole thing was a bad idea?” You get the distinct impression that he’s never had that thought in his life.

This impression is not dispelled by the interview he gave to the Telegraph‘s Alice Thompson and Rachel Sylvester three months earlier. (Hat tip to Tom Hamilton for bringing it to my attention.) It’s an amazing piece of work – I’ve read it twice, and I’m still not sure if the interviewers are in on the joke – so worth reading in its entirety. But to give you a flavour, here are some highlights:

He has a climbing wall in his barn and an ice-axe leaning against his desk. Next to a drinks tray in his office there is a picture of him jumping out of a helicopter. Although his nose has been broken five times, he still somehow manages to look debonair. (...)

To an aide, he shouts: “Call X - he’ll be at MI5,” then tells us: “You didn’t hear that. I know lots of spooks.” (...)

At 56, he comes – as he puts it – from “an older generation”. He did not change nappies, opting instead to teach his children to ski and scuba-dive to make them brave. (...)

“I make all the important decisions about World War Three, she makes the unimportant ones about where we’re going to live.”

And my personal favourite:

When he was demoted by IDS, he hit back, saying darkly: “If you’re hunting big game, you must make sure you kill with the first shot.”

All this, I think, tells us two things. One is that David Davis is not a man who is overly burdened with self-doubt. The other is that he probably should be once in a while, because bloody hell, he looks ridiculous, and it’s clear no one around him has the heart to tell him.

Which brings us to this week’s mess. On Monday, we learned that those EU citizens who choose to remain in Britain will need to apply for a listing on a new – this is in no way creepy – “settled status” register. The proposals, as reported the Guardian, “could entail an identity card backed up by entry on a Home Office central database or register”. As Brexit secretary, David Davis is the man tasked with negotiating and delivering this exciting new list of the foreign.

This is odd, because Davis has historically been a resolute opponent of this sort of nonsense. Back in June 2008, he resigned from the Tory front bench and forced a by-election in his Haltemprice & Howden constituency, in protest against the Labour government’s creeping authoritarianism.

Three months later, when Labour was pushing ID cards of its own, he warned that the party was creating a database state. Here’s the killer quote:

“It is typical of this government to kickstart their misguided and intrusive ID scheme with students and foreigners – those who have no choice but to accept the cards – and it marks the start of the introduction of compulsory ID cards for all by stealth.”

The David Davis of 2017 better hope that the David Davis of 2008 doesn’t find out what he’s up to, otherwise he’s really for it.

The Brexit secretary has denied, of course, that the government’s plan this week has anything in common with the Labour version he so despised. “It’s not an ID card,” he told the Commons. “What we are talking about here is documentation to prove you have got a right to a job, a right to residence, the rest of it.” To put it another way, this new scheme involves neither an ID card nor the rise of a database state. It’s simply a card, which proves your identity, as registered on a database. Maintained by the state.

Does he realise what he’s doing? Does the man who once quit the front bench to defend the principle of civil liberties not see that he’s now become what he hates the most? That if he continues with this policy – a seemingly inevitable result of the Brexit for which he so enthusiastically campaigned – then he’ll go down in history not as a campaigner for civil liberties, but as a bloody hypocrite?

I doubt he does, somehow. Remember that photoshoot; remember the interview. With any other politician, I’d assume a certain degree of inner turmoil must be underway. But Davis does not strike me as one who is overly prone to that, either.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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