Commons Confidential: Help from Blair’s friends

PLUS: A trip to Durham for the 129th Miners' Gala.

Blue Ed’s bashing of the trade unions is opening coffin lids as Blairites rise to offer advice, to the Miliband they opposed, on how to fight a Labour civil war. The prospect of a factional dispute prompted Peter Mandelson to slip quietly into the back of a Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Regulars couldn’t recall when he last tipped up, and likened his presence to a shark scenting blood in the water. Mandy scribbled furiously and said nothing. Miliband, I hear, avoided informing MPs he’d require unionists to opt in to, not out of, a levy to the Labour Party. On the eve of the huge announcement Blue Ed was deliberately vague, several of those present tell me, about the details in order to avoid a hostile reception. The calculated haziness recalled how Tony Blair failed to spell out his Clause Four plan at the 1994 conference, inserting a soft line at the end of his speech on the need to change the constitution, so that most delegates left the hall ignorant of his plan. All very Mandelsonian.

Where is Michael Foot’s walking stick? John Wrobel, the manager of the Gay Hussar eatery in Soho, favoured for decades by the one-time Labour leader, is trying to track it down. Wrobel intends to display the stick on the wall in memory of his old customer, who died in March 2010. The “donkey jacket” that Tory MPs and right-whinge papers claimed Foot wore to the Cenotaph on a Remembrance Sunday, supposedly insulting the war dead, is on display at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. The short overcoat was in fact bought from Harrods by Foot’s wife, Jill Craigie, who insisted the Queen Mother complimented her hubby on his choice of attire. Foot’s stick could double today as a support for MPs leaving the Gay Hussar, mostly unsteady after a long lunch.

To the city of Durham for the 129th Miners’ Gala, where Dave Hopper, chief hewer to the local pitmen, introduced yours truly as a journalist on the Daily Mail. I resisted the temptation to liken his slip to me calling this National Union of Mineworkers veteran of the heroic 1984-85 strike a member of the scabbing Union of Democratic Mineworkers, not least because Hopper’s a big lad. Ed Miliband spoke at last year’s Big Meeting, as Durham people call the local gathering of the coalfield clans, and indicated he’d be delighted to attend next year. The invitation will be issued. It will be interesting to see if the Labour leader accepts, after recent events.

The ex-Paisley Daily Express hack now Glasgow Labour MP Tom Harris is turning Dennis Skinner memorabilia into a nice little earner for his constituency party. Harris collects the Beast of Bolsover’s prayer cards – reservations carrying a name which are slotted into brass holders to bag a spot on the green benches. Skinner signs them for Harris to raffle. The last raised £25. Hardly a hedgefund million or a gift from the unions, but every little helps.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

One PLP meeting regular likened Peter Mandelson showing up to "a shark scenting blood in the water". Montage: Dan Murrell/New Statesman

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 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

Getty
Show Hide image

France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt