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28 December 2016

What were the best political beefs of 2016?

From the BoGo rivalry to Chris Grayling's fight with anyone travelling to work, here are the fights that defined the past year. 

By Jonn Elledge

What were the best political beefs of 2016? Truly, it has been a vintage year for petty squabbles, base insults, bitter rivalries and flat-out disagreements. Here is our pick of the highlights, or lowlights . . .


George Osborne vs Theresa May

Political deathmatch: two senior Tory politicans enter the ring, only one comes out. Newly minted prime minister Theresa May not only let George Osborne know his services would not be required in her Cabinet; she didn’t even allow him to pretend he’d stood down of his own free will, instead letting it be widely known that she’d sacked him. You’d think it’d be impossible to have a bust-up with George Osborne and come out looking like the mean one, but somehow Mrs May managed it.

It’s a shame, as in some ways they have so much in common. Osborne’s influence on the Tory party, it’s turned out, rested entirely on the assumption he was next in line to the throne: when Cameron went, his career followed. 

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Beef rating: 8/10.


The Labour selectorate vs the Labour electorate

If the last 18 months have taught us anything it’s this: the Labour membership loves Jeremy Corbyn. Not all of them, and not always; but enough for his position to be unassailable.

In this, however, the membership finds itself at odds with many of the voters the party would need to win to have a hope of forming a government at any point before the 2020s are out. Under Corbyn’s leadership the party is falling back in by-elections and its poll ratings have sunk to levels not seen since the year nineteen eighty never.

The standard Corbynista response to anyone pointing out these uncomfortable facts has been to suggest that their services are no longer needed and that they might be happier if they stopped pretending to be left-wing and voted for some other party instead. Many, the polls suggest, have taken this advice to heart.

As a result, after two incredibly fractious leadership contests in 12 months, the energy has rather gone out of this beef. The members have it – but it helps that many of the voters can no longer be bothered to even show up to the fight.

Beef rating: 5/10.


Michael Gove vs Boris Johnson

One minute Boris and Gove were allies – what passed for heavyweights, in the distressingly lightweight, and distressingly successful, Tory Brexit campaign. The next, Gove was doing the dirty, announcing his intention to stand for the Tory leadership mere hours before Boris was to make his own pitch. The former London mayor, gutsy as ever, promptly junked the ambition he’s been cherishing for the last half a century.

Greater love hath no man than to lay down his friend for his life. Sadly for Michael Gove – and showing the deft political instincts that he brought to England’s schools system – he managed to stab Boris in the back, and still come off worse from the encounter. Boris is foreign secretary. Gove is… well, does anyone even know?

Beef rating: 9/10.


Mike Pence vs the cast of Hamilton

In the red corner, the vice-president-elect: a man who, given Donald Trump’s apparent disinterest in doing anything that actually looks like governing, may well be the de facto most powerful man in the world by this time next month. In the blue corner, the cast of a Broadway musical.

Pence never stood a chance, and did a runner the moment one cast member (Brandon Dixon; the one, as it happened, who plays vice president Aaron Burr) actually addressed him. Pence does seem the sort who might be intimidated around angry black men, to be fair – but wetting himself and running away because an actor used the phrase “sharing a story of love” seems a bit much.

Still. As was widely noted at the time, it wasn’t the worst thing to have happened to an American politician at the theatre.

Beef rating: 7/10.


Chris Grayling vs the travelling public

First he blocks plans to devolve more commuter rail services to Transport for London, for no other reason than that he doesn’t want to hand a personal victory to a Labour politician. Then he managed to open the door of his ministerial car into a passing cylist, promptly knocking him off the bike.

It isn’t just that the transport secretary is clumsy: it’s that he has clearly given no thought to the consequences of his actions. Rather than simply apologising to the cyclist, Grayling reportedly went on to lecture him, with no apparent thought on how this might come across when it, inevitably, became public. And by blocking Sadiq Khan’s control over the railways, Grayling is effectively saying that he wants to be held personally responsible for the continuing industrial strife on Southern Rail. (Which, admittedly, is largely his fault.)

Basically what I’m saying is that, as the battle between Chris Grayling and commuters continues into 2017, my money’s on the public.

Beef rating: 6/10.


Philip Davies MP vs anyone who isn’t a middle aged white man who owns a house

Philip, who hurt you?

Beef rating: 5/10.


Andy Burnham vs Andy Burnham

Over the last couple of years Andy Burnham has gone all-out to attack first David Cameron, then Theresa May, for using dog-whistle politics. This month, though, Andy Burnham warned that, “Our reluctance in confronting this [immigration] debate is undermining the cohesion of our communities and the safety of our streets.”

Andy Burnham, it was briefed, was to quit the Labour front bench in protest at Jeremy Corbyn’s failures over Brexit. But, somehow, Andy Burnham persuaded him not to.

In 2015, shadow health secretary Andy Burnham attacked the proposed “devo-Manc deal” on the grounds that health services should not be controlled by cities. In 2016, senior Labour politician Andy Burnham announced he’d be running to be mayor of Greater Manchester.

He should watch out: in 2017, he could yet face a strong challenge from his arch nemesis, Andy Burnham.

Beef rating: 8/10.


Daniel Hannan vs objective reality

He thinks Europe will give Britain the best possible deal because . . . reasons. He thinks the only people say that Brexit has anything to do with immigration were Remain voters. He even, bafflingly, thinks Britain has long been in favour of other countries’ independence, which is a position, I suppose, albeit a position one might struggle to hold if one actually had the slightest familiarity with Britain or its history.

You know, I really wouldn’t mind Hannan’s continuing war against reality, were it not for the fact that, in 2016, it looked very much like reality might be losing.

Beef rating: 7/10.


Leave vs Remain

Indubitably the beef of the year, and one which looks set to continue for the rest of our natural lives. At the start of the year, a few passionate Eurosceptics faced off against even fewer passionate pro-Europeans, while the vast majority of the country rolled its eyes at the lot of them. Now, one referendum later, we’ve got a full-blown US style culture war with people terrified that differing views on whether the UK should remain in the European Customs Union means it’s all going to kick off over the sprouts.

One odd thing about this particular beef is that, ostensibly, it should be over. Leave won, fairly comfortbaly. And yet, it continues – not just the debate about exactly what Brexit should look like, but the recriminations about the referendum and much of the four decades that preceded it.

Leave won: not by a landslide, but by a convincing margin. So why do they all still seem so angry?

Beef rating: 11/10.