Commons Confidential: Carry on up the lobby

Featuring Ed Miliband's accidental coup, MPs in the nude, and flying too close to the <em>Sun</em>.

Ed Miliband’s accidental coup against David Cameron – and, by extension, Barack Obama – was as much cock-up as conspiracy. The Prime Minister’s strategic amateurism led him to recall parliament before victory was assured on the Syria vote. Miliband, on the other hand, is no peacenik. His line hardened when Labour whips found that half the parliamentary party was against war, with front-bench resignations likely to fill a minibus. The whips were instructed to inform MPs resolutely opposed to missile strikes that they had permission to miss the vote. The tactic backfired. Told he could remain on holiday, the Blaydon anti-bomber Dave Anderson defied orders and waved goodbye to the Hebrides for Westminster. Carl von Clausewitz would have recognised the unpredictability of war in parliament.
 
By the way, the government source quoted anonymously in the Times dissing Miliband as “a f***ing c*** and a copper-bottomed shit” was, I gather, an uncivil servant in the Foreign Office and not a Downing Street politico. The misogynistic deployment of the C-word was particularly undiplomatic. I’ve heard a name and so, presumably, has William Hague.
 
Tom Harris and Iain Wright are the Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau of British politics. A snout overheard Harris, the Glasgow South MP, complaining to Hartlepool’s Wright: “I have now seen both you and your dad naked.” Further inquiries established that the Labour odd couple share a London flat. Buy some towels, boys.
 
The Sun man Graeme Wilson exchanging Wapping for Cameron’s Downing Street should liven up the 7.03am train from Kingston to London Waterloo. Dave’s new press secretary has a house near Miliband’s director of communications, the former Mirror man Bob Roberts. Harry Hill would know how to judge the battle of the tabloid titans: “Which is better? There’s only one way to find out – fight!”
 
Feminist MPs are devising a new tactic to cover up page three topless models in the Sun. The plan is to slap “No More Page 3” stickers on the exposed chests of women in any copies in the House of Commons library. Not quite Emily Wilding Davison hiding in a broom cupboard on the night of the 1911 census or Marjory Hume chaining herself to a statue in St Stephen’s Hall but suffragettes would recognise this as “deeds not words”.
 
The pull of TV prompted 40 newspaper hacks, including at least one Fleet Street political editor, to apply to be number six on the Sky News lobby team. Because of the scramble, it would have been simpler if those political scribblers uninterested in the job had ruled themselves out. And before anybody asks, no, this journalist did not apply. 
 
Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror
 
 
Westminster. Photo: Getty

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 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle