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4 July 2013

Table-dancing MPs, Rihanna’s revenge and why Ed Miliband really needs a “thing”

Helen Lewis's "First Thoughts" column.

By Helen Lewis

Every politician should have a “thing”. An offbeat yet innocuous hobby or quirk that they can deploy in small talk with civilians, and that lazy journalists can use to provide “colour” in profiles. It’s a short cut to indicating you have a personality, without actually giving anything private away.

So: Theresa May has her kitten heels. Ed Balls loves to barbecue. Stella Creasy will bow to no one in her knowledge of obscure 1990s indie music. Vince Cable and Jeremy Hunt both like to boogie, though Vince prefers ballroom while Jeremy has a sprung dance floor at home where he can practise the lambada (this is actually true). Tracey Crouch is a football referee, Michael Gove leaks to friendly journalists and writes snarky letters to Stephen Twigg, and Tom Watson, greedily, enjoys karaoke and video games.

If you don’t have a “thing”, the danger is that you have one thrust upon you and you then have to spend the rest of your political career smiling through gritted teeth and pretending to enjoy jokes about chillaxing with Fruit Ninja or how Barack Obama thought you were called Jeffrey.

So, with two years to go until the next general election, that’s the only useful advice I can offer to Ed Miliband: get a “thing”. I suggest rock-climbing or Abba.

Blow your whistle

After the reports that the Metropolitan Police had infiltrated environmental protest groups – and had sex with unsuspecting women while undercover – it was harrowing to hear the experiences of those affected, on Dispatches on 24 June. One woman, Jacqui, said she felt “raped by the state” after getting pregnant by a man who, she now knows, already had a wife and two children. It was also revealed that police had spied on the family of Stephen Lawrence.

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It’s become fashionable to bash whistleblowers – see the monstering of Edward Snowden as a “traitor” – but there are no words for the bravery of the ex-SDS (Special Demonstration Squad) officer Peter Francis, who agreed to go on the record despite receiving threats and suffering a nervous breakdown in 2001. The same goes for those who tried to expose the cover-up at the Care Quality Commission over failings at Furness hospital. The “whistleblowers’ charters” aren’t worth the paper they’re written on but we need whistleblowers more than ever.

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Special treatment

In Peter Francis’s online Q&A with the Guardian, he made a comment that I doubt will be widely reported: “People who are now mainstream politicians were, at their start of their political careers, deemed to be subversive by the Special Branch – to name one: Jack Straw. I read Mr Straw’s rather large file . . . The same for Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn.” In other words: left-wingers.

Bone of contention

At the weekend, I had the dubious pleasure of appearing on the BBC’s Sunday Politics with the Tory backbencher Peter Bone, architect of the “Alternative Queen’s Speech” (aka the Daily Express website commenters’ manifesto). He and three other MPs camped out for several days in a committee room to table 42 private members’ bills for the next parliamentary session. These would do everything from bringing back the death penalty to renaming the August bank holiday “Margaret Thatcher Day” (I mildly suggested that if the idea was to annoy the left, they should have gone instead for “Tony Blair Day”.)

Obviously, none of the Tory Taliban’s bills will get passed but it does support my colleague Raf’s thesis that there is a significant section of the Tory back benches that, even though we have a Conservative prime minister, feels like it’s in opposition.

Ri and Ms Jones

Forget Leveson. A new terror stalks journalists: celebrities striking back. After Hugh Grant went undercover to bug the buggers, and Katherine Jenkins used Twitter to take issue with Jan Moir suggesting she looked too glamorous at the marathon, Rihanna has joined the fray. Responding to Liz Jones’s accusation that she was a “toxic role model”, she posted an unflattering picture of Jones on Instagram, opining: “That s*** ain’t journalism! That’s a sad sloppy menopausal mess!!” Being half of a celebrity feud should keep Jones in columns until at least 2018.

Party of the century

On 20 June, the NS hosted a centenary party at One Great George Street, Westminster, for our contributors. Our guest speaker, Ed Miliband, told the audience that “a thriving political culture and a thriving New Statesman go together”. (He also pointed out that Jason will have to remain editor until 2038 to beat Kingsley Martin’s record.) As the celebrations of our 100th birthday continue – we’re publishing a 250-page archive special issue next month – I wanted to add: thank you for reading. The New Statesman really is thriving and it’s down to you.

Yeah, not that thing . . .

PS: Remember what I said about having a “thing”? This report from the BBC shows how not to do it. “Conservative MP Mark Harper has fallen off a table while dancing in a bar in Soho and broken his foot. ‘My wife Margaret was with me but thankfully she’s a far better dancer so didn’t fall off,’ Mr Harper said.” How will he ever live that down?