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Diane Abbott’s police gaffe shows why aides like to keep their politicians quiet

From Gordon Brown to Theresa May, politicians' doorstep encounters are stage managed. But it’s hard to ensure that “ordinary people” stay on-message.

By Peter Wilby

In every election campaign, with promises of tax cuts and increased spending flying back and forth, at least one leading politician stumbles embarrassingly over the figures. Perhaps Labour should be thankful that Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, questioned by Nick Ferrari on LBC radio about how Labour would fund 10,000 extra police officers, talked arithmetical gibberish with more than a month still left before polling day. Like most history graduates, Abbott is not strong on numbers.

Everybody deplores the robotic way in which politicians repeat approved soundbites and fail to give direct answers to straightforward questions. Abbott’s fate shows why aides put them on a tight leash during campaigns, insisting they learn their lines and stay on-message. They are, after all, trying to win the public’s confidence that they can govern competently.

However, those in charge of Labour’s campaign believe that Labour can flourish as a party of good intentions and mass protest. They are not interested in anything so mundane as correct arithmetic, or running a government department.

Stable hand

Most aides also like to keep politicians off the streets. Theresa May, excusing her refusal to take part in television debates, said in her ITV interview with Robert Peston: “I want to get out into the community to meet some ordinary people.” In a “row” contrived for a credulous press, she reportedly told her aide Fiona Hill that “I am a doorstep campaigner”.

As May well knows, aides will ensure she meets hand-picked Tory voters. The extent to which politicians’ ventures on to the streets are stage-managed was revealed in Gordon Brown’s encounter with Gillian Duffy (that “bigoted woman”, he called her) in Rochdale in 2010. She was indeed a Labour voter. What Brown’s minders didn’t pick up was her concern about immigration. But it’s hard to ensure that “ordinary people” stay on-message – “Ooh, you’re so strong and stable,” May will want to hear – and that is why aides prefer to hustle party leaders on to planes or into cars.

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Juncker debunker

“We do not recognise this account,” says a government spokesman of a report that, after a disastrous dinner, Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, told Theresa May he was leaving Downing Street feeling “ten times more sceptical than I was before” about a successful Brexit negotiation. This increasingly common form of non-denial denial uses “not recognise” in the same sense that China does “not recognise” Taiwan or Arab states do “not recognise” Israel. It means: we have an alternative reality and we’re sticking to it.

Tory toadies

King Charles III, a mock-Shakespearean play that begins with the Queen’s death and ends with Charles’s abdication and the coronation of William and Kate, played in London and elsewhere in 2014-15 to warm reviews and packed houses. Nobody raised the slightest objection. But now BBC TV is broadcasting an adaptation and the usual rent-a-quote Tory MPs line up to protest.

Andrew Bridgen (North-West Leicestershire) says the play “denigrates and undermines our royal family”. Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) accuses it of “ascribing . . . base motives” to Kate Middleton, who appears as a Lady Macbeth figure goading William to overthrow his father.

I know MPs make such comments at the request of right-wing papers, and the BBC itself wants to stir up controversy. But I find it astonishing that in 2017 such Tories still exist, providing quotes that might have been in our This England column in the 1950s.

Bridge of sighs

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has rightly pulled the plug on plans for a garden bridge across the Thames. Costing taxpayers £37m even without being built, the project was launched by Khan’s predecessor Boris Johnson with approval from the then chancellor, George Osborne. Since it would have helped neither vehicles nor pedestrians in crossing the river, the only people who wanted it were corporate lobbyists who would have held champagne-guzzling promotional events while the proles gazed, humbly and admiringly, from the riverbank.

The idea came from Joanna Lumley, who has a genius for persuading politicians to adopt foolish schemes. After an emotional campaign in 2009, she persuaded ministers to give long-retired Gurkhas, Nepalese soldiers who fought in the British army, UK rights of settlement. Now some 10,000 elderly men live in the Aldershot area, many of them miserable, cold and lonely. They struggle on military pensions that, while more than adequate in Nepal, cannot cover British costs of housing, fuel and food. Unlike almost any other migrant community, they make disproportionate demands on GP surgeries and hospitals.

No free lunch

Diesel fuels, once subsidised because they were thought kinder to the climate than petrol but now shown to cause thousands of deaths from air pollution, are the latest in a long line of “green” technologies that turned out to have downsides. Biofuels, wood pellets, anaerobic digesters and nuclear, wind and tidal power are other examples. The answer is not, as some suggest, that we should continue burning traditional fossil fuels such as oil and coal, but that we should curb our energy use and stop trying to get something for nothing.

Yet getting something for nothing has become the default setting of public policy. Politicians tell us we can leave the EU and escape its rules while still trading as though we were full members; have a “world-class” health service, free at the point of use, without higher taxation; save the planet without inconveniencing ourselves at all. They should recall that the free-market economist Milton Friedman warned that there was no such thing as a free lunch.

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This article appears in the 03 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution