Marr's unfinest hour

Andrew Marr should realise the danger of giving voice to internet smears

Guest Post

Pressure is mounting on the BBC journalist Andrew Marr to apologise after he asked the Prime Minister whether he had been taking any "prescription painkillers and pills" under stress.

I can exclusively reveal that, in addition to widespread condemnation, several Labour ministers and hopefuls have declared their intention to boycott the show until he apologies.

Marr has come in for heavy criticism because he has been seen as legitimising, as Peter Mandelson said, internet smears and rumours by "extreme right-wing people". The narrative that Brown is "bonkers" or "mental" and therefore unfit to lead the country uses prejudice against mentally ill people to take down the Prime Minister through character assassination.

At the Labour party conference fury at Marr's question was everywhere. Jon Cruddas, a leading lefty, described it as "absolutely disgraceful" and said he would happily boycott the show until Marr apologised.

David Lammy, the minister for higher education, joined the chorus of boycotters, saying he was disgusted by the breach of professionalism. Ian Martin, another minister, also put his name to the list. He had earlier been snapped engaging in an angry exchange with Marr. The Labour PPC for Streatham, Chuka Umunna, also intends to boycott the show, we can reveal.

Peter Mandelson only said he "would consider" the idea of a boycott, but condemned Marr in very strong terms.

What is unprecedented about the backlash is that so many journalists have also chosen to criticise the BBC interviewer.

David Hencke, the former Guardian Westminster correspondent who is now at Tribune, said it was "below the belt". Cathy Newman, political correspondent for Channel 4 News, said: "Journalists should be dealing in facts, not rumours."

Adam Boulton of Sky News argued that Brown had already been asked whether he was taking any pills by lobby journalists, and a denial made it difficult to justify further questions without new evidence.

On the principal point as to "Should interviewers be able to ask questions about the physical state or health of the Prime Minister?" I think they should. So in that sense I don't think it's gratuitous. My personal view is that on that specific point, I felt, and I think most of us working at Westminster felt, that question had been asked and answered, and we all felt that on [the grounds] that it had been denied, and on the level of evidence we had, there was no basis to take that further.

The most stinging rebuke came from a former colleague of Marr's at the BBC, Nick Assinder, who has worked in the press lobby and across the media industry covering politics. He said:

So, here is a classic example of a dark, unsubstantiated rumour about the Prime Minister's personal life that owes its existence entirely to a single blog. The fact that it fitted the narrative about Brown's character only ensured it gained even greater exposure . . . No one is suggesting this was a deliberate plot like Smeargate. If anything, it shows such co-ordinated campaigns are unnecessary: a single blog posting can do the trick. Nonetheless, Damian McBride would have been proud.

The Spectator magazine's political editor, James Forsyth, also called it an "inappropriate question".

In his defence, Andrew Marr told the Guardian: "It was a tough question and I clearly thought carefully before asking it. I decided it was a fair question to ask or I wouldn't have asked it."

He said he had no intention of apologising, particularly as no one from the government had registered a complaint.

But his question, asked abruptly, clearly surprised Gordon Brown, who said: "No. I think this is the sort of questioning which is all too often entering the lexicon of British politics."

But with more than a hundred complaints from viewers to the BBC over the incident, a growing chorus of MPs joining a boycott, and disgust from across the media, Marr may yet realise that giving voice to unsubstantiated internet smears was perhaps not his finest hour.

Sunny Hundal is the editor of Liberal Conspiracy and Pickled Politics

Sunny Hundal is editor of Liberal Conspiracy.

Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.