West of the Tamar, down Camborne way

As regular readers will know, if there’s one thing I really can’t abide it’s scurrilous gossip. Also, I don’t have much taste for rural intrigue. So it’s something of a puzzle that I’ve taken to reading the excellent Cornish Zetetics blog.

The reason I bring this to your attention is that the admirable Zetetist has a strange and marvellous story to relate. As you’ll be aware, this week there is a by-election coming up in Oldham. This came about after Labour incumbent Phil Woolas squeaked home last May by 103 votes after a particularly nasty race-baiting campaign. However, it wasn’t the racism angle as such that caused a rarely-convened election court to unseat Woolas and bar him from public office. It was the court ruling that Woolas had made factually untrue statements about his Lib Dem opponent, something that is very illegal under electoral law.

Bear with me here. As I say, these election courts are very rare – the Woolas case was, I think, the first time in 99 years an MP had been thusly unseated – but apparently there could easily have been a second one down in Kernow. The Cornish situation revolves around the Camborne and Redruth constituency, and around two specific individuals.

This comely wench is Julia Goldsworthy, who until May was the Lib Dem incumbent for the seat, and the reason for a generation of spotty teenage boys watching Question Time. In a result even closer than that in Oldham East and Saddleworth, Julia was defeated by a mere 66 votes by this bloke:

This is Tory candidate George Eustice, who is an up-and-coming man and a prominent Friend of Dave. So, what was the issue here?

Last May, the Tories successfully broke the Lib Dem monopoly on parliamentary representation for Cornwall, the two parties taking three seats each and even professional Cornishmen Andrew George and Dan Rogerson seeing their majorities slashed. Mainly this was down to a Tory strategy of ruthlessly mining the second-home vote as a counter to the Lib Dems’ flirtation with Cornish particularism. But there were specific features in Camborne and Redruth.

In contests where the results were unexpectedly close in May, you can actually be quite specific about a lot of the reasons why. In Oxford, Evan Harris was defeated for a number of reasons but mainly because he wasn’t a very assiduous constituency MP, preferring to bask in the adulation of the skeptical hobby community in London. In Ashfield, my old friend Gloria de Piero barely scraped home in what should have been a safe Labour seat, thanks to a hyperactive Lib Dem opponent and popular revulsion at her predecessor Geoff “Buff” Hoon. The closest result of all, Michelle Gildernew’s four-vote victory in the Dreary Steeples, needs little explanation.

So what got young Julia into trouble? Possibly appearing on reality TV shows in skin-tight lycra didn’t help, but compared to the celebrity adventures of Lembit Öpik or George Galloway, she didn’t have too much to be embarrassed about. No, I think what did for Julia was her expenses. Some of these were quite interesting, notably her liking for shopping in Habitat, which may not have gone down well with the plebeian masses of Camborne and Redruth.

However, Zetetist reports that apparently the Eustice camp was putting it about that Julia had flipped her home. This was not the case – whatever about her other expenses, Julia was not a flipper. And it seems she was extremely annoyed by this, which could have made the difference in a contest this close. Word is that, following her narrow defeat, Ms Goldsworthy was incandescent with rage and lawyers were consulted.

So why have we heard nothing about this? I draw to your attention, merely as a matter of interest, that while this little spat was brewing down in Cornwall last May, Messrs Cameron and Clegg were hammering out a coalition agreement in Westminster. It would have been terribly inconvenient for them if, so early on in the coalition, Tories and Lib Dems had been tearing lumps out of each other in Cornwall. And either result would have been problematic for Dave and Nick.

Now, I am absolutely not claiming that there was an unadvertised provision in the coalition agreement for la Goldsworthy to be mollified. Not at all. Dave and Nick are honourable men, and I’m certain they would not resort to crude stroke politics, deploying their powers of patronage to solve a political problem. Nonetheless, it can’t have hurt that, purely by coincidence, Julia got a job at the Treasury as political advisor to Danny Alexander at a salary of £74,000 (some ten grand more than her basic salary as an MP) and subsequently was rather less incandescent with rage than she had been.

Isn’t it great when problems can resolve themselves in so convenient a manner, just by the random working out of coincidence? Isn’t life grandy and dandy?

Meet your new overlords

Right, have we settled down? Have we got over the initial reaction to the Cleggeron civil partnership? I think we have, so it’s time to have a look at just what the ConDem government promises. From glancing at the text of the Pact of Blood, there are a number of themes that leap out. I suggest that the Lib Dems played a rather weak hand on their key policies – they haven’t got PR and probably won’t even get AV, which means they’d better hope to God this is a successful and popular coalition if they don’t want to be wiped out – but that both leaders have reason to be happy.

Firstly, let’s backpedal a bit. I always thought Clegg’s personal preference was for a deal with Cameron, but it was never entirely certain that he wouldn’t deal with Labour (especially if Brown vacated the stage) or that his party wouldn’t push him to. In TV interviews during the coalition talks, elder statesmen like Lords Steel and Pantsdown, not to mention ex-MPs Lembit Öpik and Evan Harris (the latter two getting some media gigs while between jobs, of course, although I did wonder where Julia Goldsworthy had got to) conspicuously left that option open. Now, the Lib Dem party line is that Labour wasn’t negotiating seriously, and that the whole thing was scuppered by cranky media appearances from the likes of John Reid and David Blunkett; but I don’t entirely buy that.

Here’s a really good analysis from Julie Hyland of the media shitstorm that followed Brown’s resignation as Labour leader – the key to making a Lib-Lab coalition a possibility. We had a concentrated 24-hour period of absolute fury, not only from the Murdoch and Rothermere media – Adam Boulton’s performance being particularly memorable – with the press banging on about how this was totally illegitimate, and even on the BBC dire warnings about how “the markets” – which is to say the spivs who created the economic crisis – wouldn’t tolerate Cameron not being put into Number 10. It’s clear that the Lib Dems buckled; also that Labour buckled in two different ways.

One way was the Labour leadership giving up the ghost in the negotiations; the other was the hostile response from various Scottish and northern Labour panjandrums on Newsnight. There were a lot of bad reasons for this: they don’t like PR (which would work against Labour in Scotland); they really hated the idea of working with the SNP; they didn’t like Gordon Brown. But the main reason as far as I could see – and remember, this was coming from the über-Blairite faction – was that the ConDem option would be much more efficient at imposing austerity and hammering the working class. Which kind of begs the question as to what exactly Reid and Blunkett are doing in the Labour Party.

But that’s in the past now. What are we looking at for the future?

Firstly, I’d like to repeat my wish that Britain had a genuine party system with a proper socialist party, a proper conservative party and a proper liberal party fighting it out on distinct manifestos, as opposed to a situation where the neocon scum – Blairites, Cameroons, Orange Bookers – control all three big parties. Let the neocons run on their own programme and see how well it fares against real alternatives, say I. But that, unfortunately, is not where we are.

Where we are is a situation where the Tories, in the most propitious of circumstances, still couldn’t get a majority government let alone the landslide they thought they could sleepwalk into not long ago, and where the Lib Dems, having just won support from the electorate on the basis of an essentially anti-Tory campaign, have allowed themselves to be joined at the hip to the Tories for the next five years. This suits both leaders down to the ground. It allows Cameron to nobble the Tory right, who’ve never liked him anyway, and it allows Clegg to nobble the Lib Dem left. Cameron has had to throw a few cabinet jobs the way of the right, but nothing much in the way of policy.

Neither leader dissents from the Friedmanite economic consensus that’s dominated British politics since Thatcher. There are some technical disagreements about how to deal with the crisis, but there’s no disagreement about bailing out piratical spivs and screwing the working class to make it happen. That is, from the left’s point of view, the most important point.

What’s equally important is that in terms of culture war politics, both leaders are basically liberal. This is why cultural conservatives like Tebbit, Heffer and Hitchens minor have never liked Cameron, a Macmillanite Whig by inclination, and why those on the left who have convinced themselves that the Tories are gagging to ban abortion and reintroduce Section 28 have got completely the wrong end of the stick. To anyone who’s actually followed the progress of Cameron and his inner circle of louche West London swells, the articles to that effect in the Grauniad op-ed pages or on Liberal Conspiracy have something of the air of surrealism.

The other point to be made is that this ties in nicely with the way the Lib Dems have been moving under Clegg. I referred in the last post to folks not paying attention – the prime example of that would be the coups against first Charlie Kennedy and then Menzies Campbell, and what these signified ideologically. The whole point of the Orange Book project was to dispense with the Kennedy project of left-of-centre liberalism and refashion the Lib Dems into something very much akin to Guido Westerwelle’s FDP in Germany. Clegg, in a very real way, is Westerwelle redux; and the egregious coalitionist bullshitting from the party’s leftist conscience Simon Hughes is an indication of how deep the collapse goes. One might expect no better of Clegg, a former lobbyist, but Hughes’ whole political shtick is based on him being Mr Liberal Principle.

So anyway, the Pact of Blood. What does it say?

  1. There’s going to be an emergency budget aimed at reducing the deficit by crucifying the public sector.
  2. There will be a comprehensive spending review, with an attack on public sector pensions flagged up, but the enormous white elephant that is Trident is sacrosanct. Suck on that, Liberal CNDers.
  3. Personal allowances will go up, which looks like a fiscal loosening directed to the benefit of low earners, but with VAT also going up the net effect will probably still be regressive.
  4. There’s some fairly vague talk about banking reform, but don’t bet on anything that would spook the red-braced spivs. The Bank of England will get back powers over banking regulation, and there won’t be any entry into the euro.
  5. The Tories have got their cap on non-EU immigration, and the Lib Dems haven’t got their earned amnesty. At least, there is a pledge to end detention of children for immigration purposes, which shows how low the system had sunk.
  6. Fixed-term parliaments, a referendum on AV – which may well be lost, especially if the Tories campaign against it – and a very dodgy proposal to make it harder for Parliament to vote a government out of office. There’s also the Cameron proposal for fewer constituencies of a standard size, which could very easily turn out to be another gerrymander. A committee on Lords reform, and some consideration of the devolved settlements. Also the right of citizens to recall MPs, which sounds great in theory, but just wait until Murdoch decides to target some particular MP for recall.
  7. Raising the retirement age and imposing tougher conditions on workfare.
  8. Gove’s “free schools” boondoggle is still in there. There is no mention of the Lib Dems’ crackpot policy of banning faith schools from selecting on grounds of, er, faith, so we may at least have seen that kicked into the long grass. Higher education funding is deferred to the publication of the Browne report, with the proviso that the Tories will get their way and if the Lib Dems disagree with the Tory response they’ll abstain.
  9. On the EU, the standard Tory position of working the EU system while making “sceptical” noises is retained.
  10. The civil liberties bit is what’s got libertarians excited, such is Labour’s atrocious record in this area. At the very least, the scrapping of ID cards and the National Identity Register are a good thing. Extending FOI provisions, restricting DNA databases and the spread of CCTV, libel reform, protection of trial by jury, defending the right to protest all sound pretty good, and this stuff was all in both the Tory and Lib Dem manifestos – it’s instructive that on this, Labour will be attacking the new government from the right. Note, however, that there are caveats there along the lines of “without good reason” – a government can always find a reason, like terrorists or paedophiles, to justify an authoritarian measure.
  11. Most of the environmental section is unexceptional, except to note that on the new construction of nuclear power plants, provision is made for the Lib Dems to speak against any such proposals and then abstain on any vote. This would seem to be a standard mechanism allowing Cameron to get his way, and Clegg to throw a bone to his activists without actually voting against things that his party opposes.

And, er, sin é. Cameron has his way on anything that’s important to him, it doesn’t look as if Clegg has got any of his party’s trademark policies, and the two parties are close enough anyway at leadership level to make it a comfortable mesh. Whether there are strains put on the deal by bolshy MPs or peers or activists we shall see – I’d be surprised if there weren’t – but this gerrymander that says you need a 55% negative vote for the government to lose the confidence of Parliament is presumably aimed at guarding against that.

And so we move on to a brief consideration of who’s going to be implementing all this. Apart from Cameron in the top job and Clegg as his fag, what does the cabinet look like?

Of course, the Tories get all the top jobs. The boy Gideon gets to be Chancellor, which should make us all jittery, and William Jefferson Hague gets the Foreign Office. Given Dave’s track record on foreign policy, this raises the appalling vista of Hague having to be the voice of reason. Meanwhile, Crocodile Shoes has gone to the politicians’ graveyard that is the Home Office. She should at least provide entertainment value. As Cristina Odone points out, neither the left nor the right like Theresa – the PC left despise her for having voted for retaining Section 28 a hundred years ago, notwithstanding her mea culpas since, and for being unsound on abortion, while the unreconstructed right deride her as the Tories’ answer to Harriet Harman. Whatever about that, since her recent predecessors at the Home Office include Mr Brightside and Wacky Jacqui, it’s not like the designer shoes she’ll have to step into are intimidatingly big.

That strange wee man Gove takes education, and will be introducing compulsory Dungeons & Dragons for the kids. At justice we have Fat Ken, presumably to add a bit of gravitas, where I’d really have liked to see the civil libertarian David Davis. For the leftist trainspotters out there, ex-Trotskyist Eric Pickles takes charge of local government. Eric pledges to empower local authorities, which would be a neat reversal of the Thatcherite power grab that did him so well in Bradford. Sayeeda Warsi, the living embodiment of Tracy Flick, is in there as Tory chairman. And Columbo Letwin, who Cameron esteems but doesn’t let out in public very often because of his disturbing propensity to tell the truth, is given a discreet job at the Cabinet Office.

The Lib Dems at cabinet level are very much of a piece, Orange Book neocons to a man. Nice, cuddly Uncle Vince gets the business portfolio, though he’ll have to recuse himself from any discussions of the oil industry. David Laws, former vice-president of JP Morgan, gets the number two slot at the Treasury – that’s right, an investment banker put into the Treasury. Chris Huhne at energy will be in charge of constructing those new nuclear power stations he’s opposed to. And Danny Alexander is the new proconsul for Scotland. Interesting that the job didn’t go to the Lib Dems’ Scottish leader, Alistair Carmichael, but then Carmichael has often made public his disagreements with Orange Book nostrums, so he doesn’t really fit in with the new orthodoxy.

There are a couple of appointments that have me worried. The extremely belligerent Doctor Fox taking defence, and promising to be the second coming of Al Haig, is one. Owen Paterson being made Norn Iron proconsul is to be expected, although his role in trying to broker a revived UUUC prior to the election surely puts a question mark over both his judgement and Dave’s. And I’m not sure about putting Cheryl Gillan in charge of Wales – she does have the advantage of actually being Welsh, so we’re not talking about a return to the John Redwood period, but appointing a Welsh Secretary whose constituency lies outside Wales looks suspiciously like a reversion to an old Thatcher/Major practice. The Tories and Lib Dems between them hold eleven seats in Wales – were none of those MPs considered up to the job?

And then there’s Iain Duncan Donuts, architect-in-chief of Cameron’s Dickensian “Big Society”, running the DWP where his task will be to out-evil James Purnell. This worries me, and it even worries me that Cameron has been talking a lot about “the common good”. Clifford Longley is very excited about this, tracing the roots of the phrase in Catholic social thought, but I seriously doubt if Cameron even knows what Social Catholicism is. The thing about IDS is that he used to be a hardline Thatcherite but says he’s changed his ideas and become concerned about the poor after reading the Catholic bishops’ social manifesto Taxation for the Common Good. Given the Old Labour proclivities of the Bishops’ Conference, and that the “Big Society” seems to owe more to Samuel Smiles than Leo XIII, I’m a little sceptical about this, and more than a little worried about this idea of farming out the functions of the welfare state to the voluntary sector. What’s even more worrying is the Lib Dems’ Steve Webb being IDS’ sidekick – to know why, read Webb’s contribution to the Orange Book, which managed to mix the worst aspects of Cameroonian “Broken Britain” rhetoric and New Labour pettifogging statism into one great melange of silly.

I would further point out that our devolved Department of Social Development doesn’t vary benefits but mirrors what’s decided in London. If I’m worried, Alex Attwood should be terrified, because there are a lot of benefit claimants in his constituency and he’ll have to implement whatever mad scheme comes down the line from DWP.

You know, it’s only a matter of time before people start saying, “Gordon Brown wasn’t that bad, was he?” And given how awful New Labour could be, that’s saying something.

Area man unimpressed by Mr Nicholas Clegg, even less impressed by Lord Snooty

Let’s take a brief look at what’s been happening over in Britland, where the main business of the election is. The first leaders’ debate has taken place and, bafflingly, the public seem to have warmed big time to Mr Nicholas Clegg, propelling the Lib Dems up the polls. I don’t really get it, but then I didn’t get the SuBo thing either.

Conversely, I find myself warming these days to Simon Heffer. This worries me a little. I’m not sure if it’s my advancing years or Hefferlump’s, but I couldn’t stand him when he was a brash young Powellite. Now that he seems to have transmogrified into the Telegraph‘s answer to Victor Meldrew, and in particular is pouring copious scorn on “Dave” Cameron, I find him rather entertaining. So, Simon has an idea about why Clegg did so well:

We now know exactly who Nick Clegg is: he is Mr Integrity, the nation’s sweetheart, the only honest man in politics. I had thought the public were a bit brighter than that, and would see through his pious, sanctimonious, oleaginous, not-me-guv display of cynical self-righteousness: but they didn’t. And for that we can only blame the two inadequates with whom he had the good fortune to go in front of the cameras: for they were shocking.

Quite so. Mr Clegg has positioned himself as the anti-politician, helped along by his party having been out of power for nearly a century. And when the public dislike Brown and aren’t sold on Cameron, there’s an obvious gap in the market that Clegg exploited to the full. Helped along, of course, by the performances of his opponents. Say on, Simon:

Mr Brown’s impersonation of a robot, and his projection of all the charm of a caravan site in February, were pretty predictable: but the place where hair was really being torn out yesterday was around poor old Dave. The attempt by this trust-funded Old Etonian (and Old Bullingdonian) to come over as Mr Ordinary was rather tragic: if we have to hear much more about his children’s state school and his family’s experience of the NHS, some of us will need medical attention of our own.

But where he really failed, as could easily have been predicted, was when the economy came up. Let us remember one fact above all others: that Gordon Brown has presided over the greatest economic catastrophe in our country since 1931. And yet, when this subject was raised, the audience regarded his promises on how to put things right as positive and Dave’s as negative. For Mr Brown to come out on top in this is like the proverbial one-legged man winning the arse-kicking contest. It defies belief. Yet he prevailed because the Tories, who went along with Labour’s dire economic policy (“sharing the proceeds of growth”) until banks started going bust, have absolutely no credibility on economic matters. Their policies are, except in one or two details, identical to those of Labour. And when you have a real thing and an imitation to choose from, you choose the real thing.

Hmm. Food for thought there, while Craig Murray has a theory about Cameron’s failure to get his message across:

Cameron is being coached for the debates by the Hon. Anthony Charles Gordon-Lennox, son of Lord Sir (sic) Nicholas Charles Gordon-Lennox, grandson of the Duke of Richmond. The Hon. Anthony Charles Gordon-Lennox is the Tories’ communications guru. Tax dodger in chief Lord Ashcroft presumably thinks the Hon. Anthony is worth the £322,196 pa the Tories pay him.

The Hon. Anthony is, naturally, an old Etonian. This is no laughing matter. Cameron evidently has a visceral need to be surrounded only by people of precisely his own caste. Do we really need an 18th century government? Hence his obsession with tax breaks for the ultra rich. Hence also his inability to communicate anything to anyone who doesn’t think yes is pronounced yaaah.

The Tory front bench does, as it happens, tend to remind one of the denizens of the Drones Club in one of Wodehouse’s lesser works. (Except for Gideon “George” Osborne, who has an uncanny resemblance to that bloke in The Fast Show who was in love with his gardener.) It’s the return of Macmillanism, only without Macmillan’s substance. And you know, “Dave” can be as free as he likes with the glottal stops, whilst Mrs Cameron (the daughter of a baronet and stepdaughter of a viscount) seems to have picked up a distinct Estuary twang from somewhere, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone in the Tory leadership with a feel for the concerns of the council estate, as opposed to the landed estate. Bring back David Davis, I say.

Finally, the Thunderer takes a rare trip outside the M25 to the Nottinghamshire constituency of Ashfield, where Labour candidate Gloria de Piero continues to draw media attention. To her credit, reporter Camilla Long does seem to realise – in tones that make you wonder how often she gets out of Wapping – that Ashfield is a depressed area with serious problems related to deprivation, as you’d expect from a former coalfield area. There’s a story to be told there, and the candidate may even be keen to talk about that story, but as with previous coverage, our press seem to be fixated on the candidate having massive norks. Yes, we’d noticed them. Gloria’s tits may be hard to miss, but do they really justify so many column inches in the national press? Not for the first time – and yes, I’m looking at you, Ruth Gledhill – I go to read the Times and wonder if I’ve clicked on the Onion by mistake. That paywall can’t come soon enough.

Tarzan’s nuts

Tonight we’re going to pose a serious, high-minded question for all of you serious, high-minded political scientists out there. The question is this: do the Ulster Unionist Party have any fucking cop on at all?

Regular readers will realise that we’re about to take another trip into the wacky world of the Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force. And yea, it is so – but the question is a genuine one. And it may also be fairly aimed at Rankin’ Dave Cameron, who thought allying with the Unionist Party was a good idea in the first place. If David Trimble could con him into the UCUNF boondoggle, perhaps Trimble will next try to sell him a bridge. Perhaps he already has.

Anyway, you know the basic outlines of the story. David Cameron and Reg Empey sign an electoral pact, which gives Cameron a ready-made party in the north – at least one more substantial than the actually existing Ulster Tories, whose 25 years of hard work have enabled them to accumulate around 250 members and scarcely more votes – while Reggie gets a bit of Ashcroft money and a ready-made narrative of pan-UK non-sectarian civic unionism, something to fire up his grassroots (or at least the unionist blogosphere) and distinguish his party from the dominant DUP. However, Reggie and his new mate “Dave” have had a few problems along the way, illustrated by candidate selection, arising both from the pact itself and from Reggie’s difficulty in sticking to the pact – he has had a tendency to let himself be distracted by shiny new electoral pacts, whether with the DUP or even (putatively) with Jim Allister’s Prodiban. Out of our eighteen constituencies, no less than three can give us telling case studies.

North Down: the Lady’s not for UCUNFing
Reggie went into the UCUNF pact with one (1) incumbent MP. That was Lady Sylvia Hermon in North Down. She’s been a capable MP and is popular well beyond the ranks of the Unionist Party; she also had a totemic standing within the party as the woman who had kept a UUP toehold at Westminster when the Dupes were sweeping all before them, and who had defeated Bob “Cream Bun” McCartney in so doing.

If you were looking for a candidate who exemplifies what civic unionism might be – non-sectarian, moderate, outward-looking – you might think Sylvia was the ideal candidate. But you’d be wrong, because, unfortunately for Reggie, Sylvia is a stalwart Labour supporter and refused to stand as a Tory candidate under any circumstances. And while Reggie could easily write off his party’s socialist wing (Roy Garland and Chris McGimpsey) as yesterday’s men who had nowhere else to go, Sylvia’s position and popularity would be more of an obstacle. Despite pressure from the UUP’s Toryboy wing, who’ve been agitating for years to have Sylvia driv out of the party, Reggie played the long game – or procrastinated, if you prefer. This only made the Toryboy element crazier, while Sylvia treated her leader with barely-concealed contempt. During last year’s party conference, not only did she not bother to attend but she ostentatiously allowed herself to be photographed doing something much more important – walking her dogs.

But time waits for no man, and eventually Reggie had to get off the pot. And so it is that Sylvia has departed the party, followed by the North Down constituency chairman and her proxy in the Assembly, Major Alan McFarland (they do love their titles, the North Down voters), both of them decrying the whole UCUNF project as they walked out the door. Sylvia plans to run as an independent; the UCUNF nomination has gone to the affable if lightweight Tory contender, Ian “Not Paisley” Parsley, who was European candidate for the Alliance Party less than a year ago. Whether the depleted and demoralised North Down UUA will break its collective back for Parsley remains to be seen; meanwhile, the DUP, with their unerring sense for a chance to rub Reggie’s nose in it, are standing down in Sylvia’s favour. This observer is willing to have a small flutter on Sylvia beating the crap out of young Parsley on polling day.

The net result is that Reggie has not only deprived himself of his sole sitting MP for a mess of pottage called UCUNF, but he’s managed to look weak and indecisive for putting it off so long. The funny thing is that Fred Cobain, an unreconstructed Labour Unionist, has been given the UCUNF nomination in North Belfast – but then, Fred isn’t going to win.

South Antrim: the bed and breakfast man
We covered this one recently. Basically, the UCUNF selection process called for both component parties to select a candidate, both of whom would then go before a joint committee which would decide which one got to represent the Forza Nuova on the ballot paper. It was a complex and tortuous process, but one which (we were told) would weed out obvious wingnuts, and David McNarry. This would be especially important in South Antrim, the party’s number one target constituency and something of a bellwether. For many years the area was represented by veteran UUP man Clifford Forsythe; on Clifford’s death in 2000, the by-election was narrowly won by the DUP’s Rev William McCrea; in the 2001 general election McCrea was narrowly edged out by the UUP’s David Burnside; in the 2005 DUP landslide McCrea won again, but again only narrowly.

So, something of a cockpit seat, and, given the TUV insurgency and the local unpopularity of Singing Willie, one that should be well within UCUNF’s grasp. But then you factor in candidate selection.

In the UUP selection process, Antrim mayor Adrian Watson was the runaway winner with around 90% of party votes. Antrim unionists love their mayor; the guy has a bit of dynamism about him; and, for what it’s worth, he’s very popular with the flute band community in the Antrim area. The problem is that he’s also the proprietor of a bed and breakfast. And, in connection with that, a few years back he was talking on the wireless to Stephen Nolan and happened to mention that he wasn’t too thrilled with the idea of having gay couples staying the night.

Well, that rang alarm bells with the Tories, who have been frenetically courting the pink vote, and who promptly vetoed Watson – they couldn’t have a candidate with such unfashionable views on Teh Gayz, although his anti-Irish and anti-Traveller views apparently weren’t problematic. What muddied the waters even further was Chris Grayling’s musings on the same subject. (Chekov, in his role as the UUP’s resident Chief Wiggum, argued that the two cases were completely different because Watson had a history of making gormless outbursts and Grayling… um…) But defenestrating Watson carried with it some dangers, such as having to run an anonymous Tory candidate, or the possibility of a thoroughly pissed-off Watson running as an independent. Not what you’d consider ideal in your most realistic target seat.

This is the background to Reggie finally growing a pair and volunteering to take on Singing Willie himself. This is a high-risk strategy for Reggie – if he doesn’t win, that’s the end of his leadership. Not to mention that Reggie himself may have, well, not entirely PC opinions on the bed and breakfast question. It would be a terrible pity if, say, Gay Times were to find out and to give Cameron a hard time about it.

Fermanagh and South Tyrone: the ground zero of the sectarian headcount
One of the conditions of the UCUNF pact was the pledge to stand candidates in all eighteen constituencies. The theory behind this is that everybody in the north should have an opportunity to vote for the next UK government. But that cuts little ice down in Fermanagh, where the sectarian jungle drums have been beating loudly. Since 2001, the abstentionist MP for the area has been Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew; but, though it’s a nationalist-majority seat, unionists (resting on a Protestant population of around 45%) have held it in the past with a split nationalist vote. (And vice versa. As long as both unionist parties ran candidates, Michelle would coast back in.) Such is the sectarian polarisation down in FST that this is where the pressure for a “unionist unity” (that is, pan-Prod) candidate was always going to be strongest. As a result, we’ve had several months of rather wearying megaphone diplomacy between the UUP’s Tom Elliott and the DUP’s Arlene Foster, each challenging the other to stand down for the greater good.

And in the background, the search for a neutral Prod to carry the challenge. First there was an attempt to conscript retired RUC detective Norman Baxter, but Norman declared that, while he would be interested in being a cross-community candidate, he had no interest in being a pan-Prod one. Finally, though, they have got their saviour in the shape of recently retired Fermanagh Council chief executive Rodney Connor, who will run as an independent but take the Tory whip if elected. This in itself isn’t a foregone conclusion – he will need to mobilise a solid bloc of unionist voters while hoping that SDLP-voting Catholics don’t desert their party and rally behind Michelle Gildernew.

What’s important about this is that, despite the figleaf of Rodney Connor promising to take the Tory whip, this makes a liar of David Cameron. It is explicitly a sectarian stitch-up – exactly the sort of thing UCUNF was supposed to be a break from, hence the eighteen-candidate pledge. A couple of Tories and Unionists have smelt a rat, though Chief Wiggum is undeterred – he simply wants Connor to play up his cross-community credentials so as to reassure SDLP-voting Catholics into believing that Connor isn’t the pan-Prod candidate, even though that’s exactly what he is. Evidently the theory is that Fermanagh nationalists are too thick to spot a sectarian stitch-up when they see one, and choose to back their own “unity” candidate no matter whether the SDLP stays in the running.

Interesting, too, was the Tory statement on FST, which described the constituency as being deprived of “democratic representation” – which evinces not a little contempt for the democratic choice of the 18,000 people who voted for Michelle Gildernew, not to mention that anyone who’s had contact with our hyperactive agriculture minister could hardly accuse her of not bothering to represent her constituents. The Tories further argued that this was the only one of the five abstentionist-held constituencies where a pact could alter the outcome – in other words, in West Belfast, West Tyrone, Mid Ulster and Newry/Armagh there just weren’t enough Prods to win. This demonstrates a complete buying into the logic of Prod-counting, and makes a nonsense of the logic of UCUNF.

And now, it’s spreading. Mark Devenport reports that the Orange Order and Royal Black Preceptory in Sandy Row have delivered an ultimatum to Reggie, the gist of which is that if he doesn’t endorse a pan-Prod candidate in South Belfast they will organise a boycott of UCUNF standard-bearer Paula Bradshaw, while the candidate herself is buckling. And this is all about unseating the non-abstentionist, anti-republican, but still inconveniently Catholic, Alasdair McDonnell. David Cameron has walked right into the sectarian morass of Norn Iron politics, and he only has himself to blame.

If you can’t wait for more election coverage here, there’s plenty in the proper media. I draw your attention in particular to Newt on the plus ça change theme; Chris on the dilemmas facing Margaret Ritchie; and Ben Lowry has a fascinating piece on differential turnout.

Orangemen are not the only fruits

See this punter? His name is Adrian Watson, and he’s the mayor of Antrim. Why are we interested in him? Allow me to recap.

So, the Unionist Party has formed an electoral bloc with the British Tories, which goes under the catchy name of the Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force. From “Dave” Cameron’s point of view, the UCUNF arrangement provides him with eighteen candidates in the north at a cut price, and the possibility of one or two Unionist MPs pledged to support him in a hung parliament; from Reg Empey’s point of view, it provides him with a Big Idea (non-sectarian pan-UK civic unionism) and a little Ashcroft money. Since the Big Idea seems mostly to be of interest to four or five Toryboy bloggers, one presumes Reggie is more interested in the bottom line.

There are also minuses on both sides. From Cameron’s point of view, he’s now stuck with the Unionist Party, which as any Tory grandee could tell him is more trouble than it’s worth. From Reggie’s point of view, it means having to give a leg up to the 250 or so Ulster Tories and whatever dingbat candidates they came up with. It also meant a commitment to run in all eighteen constituencies, which ruled out arrangements with the DUP to run pan-Prod candidates in Fermanagh/South Tyrone and South Belfast. (This didn’t, however, stop them playing footsie with the DUP over electoral pacts, and managing as a result to mislay the two Catholics who had been induced to become Tory candidates.) Moreover, there’s been the small matter of the sole Ulster Unionist MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, who unfortunately for Reggie is a Labour supporter and adamantly refused to stand under the Tory banner.

However, despite such small hiccups, the laborious UCUNF candidate selection process has proceeded. A couple of weeks back, the first nine were announced, including TV’s Mike Nesbitt, rugby legend Trevor Ringland, Daphne Trimble and Norn Iron’s top Freddie Mercury impersonator Flash Harry. We were then told the other nine would soon be forthcoming, and yea, we have eight of them. Thereby hangs a tale, but first, who are the eight?

Firstly, in the two seats that have been the subject of megaphone diplomacy with the DUP, Tom Elliott is nominated in Fermanagh and the scarily energetic Paula Bradshaw in South Belfast. That means no pact with the DUP, and both parties can continue tearing lumps out of each other on the subject of who’s most in favour of unionist unity.

Secondly, there are only two Tories, and I’m not sure one of them counts. The completely unknown Irwin Armstrong is a candidate in North Antrim, but that will be fought out between Ian Óg Paisley and Jim Allister, with Irwin a mere supporting attraction. The other, entering a very crowded field in North Down, is local councillor Ian Parsley.

Come on, you remember Ian Parsley. He was a candidate in last year’s Euro-election. For, er, the Alliance Party, who were evidently pitching for the votes of dyslexic DUP supporters who thought Ian Paisley was on the ballot. He did reasonably well. Then a couple of weeks later he defected to the Tories. This was entirely a matter of principle, and had nothing at all to do with him getting a job at Iain Duncan Donuts’ Centre for Social Justice. And now he’s standing in North Down for UCUNF – to be more precise, he’s standing in front of stuff. Indeed, there has been a little joshing at Westminster about young Mr Parsley.

And what of the vacancy? That would be South Antrim, which is a DUP marginal; the sitting MP, Rev Willie McCrea, is not too popular in the area (basically because you can’t dig him out of Magherafelt and get him to visit South Antrim) and a TUV candidacy could hand the seat to UCUNF. So why no candidate? Perhaps this might explain:

Adrian Watson, the mayor of Antrim, has been chosen by his constituency association as its candidate for the UUP in South Antrim this May. He caused outrage within the gay community in Northern Ireland after saying he would not allow gay and lesbian couples to stay in his family-run bed and breakfast.

In 2006 the UUP councillor told a local radio station: “This is a bed and breakfast in a family home with three young children. Common sense has to prevail. There is no difficulty with members of the gay community phoning up and booking a room. The difficulty would arise because of the logistics of the bed and breakfast – if it was a same-sex couple – and because my wife has strong Christian views she felt it was difficult to facilitate that.

“It is difficult because my 14-year-old daughter helps out immensely. And the obvious question: ‘Why are two men, or why are two women, in a double room?'”

Watson has also been accused of racism towards Ireland’s Traveller community. A year before his remarks about gay couples, he described Travellers at a local halting point in the Antrim area as “scumbags” and “scum of the earth”.

Now, this is very much out of step with “Dave” Cameron’s resprayed Tories, who have been ferociously courting the pink vote and trumpeting their gay candidates. (Nobody seems to have objected too strongly to Mr Watson’s views on Travellers.) And so, the rumour has it, Tory HQ has put the kibosh on Watson, as someone who might be a bit of an embarrassment on the campaign trail. Furthermore, national treasure Peter Tatchell has spoken out, and you really don’t want Peter dogging your footsteps during an election. Best to neutralise the Tatch by getting rid of the candidate.

But the Lord loves a trier, and Mr Watson is not giving up. He’s not the first local politician to say something incautious on Stephen Nolan, and learning from the example of Iris Robinson, he has rushed to say that his original argument was purely hypothetical, and anyway, it was his wife who had the problem:

“I have a completely live-and-let-live attitude to gays and I know that many gay people support our party [I am not sure that Steven King and Jeff Dudgeon count as “many”, but we’ll let that go] which has a far more tolerant view than the DUP, which has been tainted with homophobia through the interventions of the First Minister’s wife, the then MP and MLA, Iris Robinson.

“I would never discriminate against gay people and, if elected as the MP for South Antrim, I can honestly say that I would work for my gay constituents as energetically as for any other constituent. The gay community has absolutely nothing to fear from me.”

Well, perhaps. As a B&B owner, Mr Watson might also be aware that under New Labour’s Sexual Orientation Regulations, that sort of thing can get you into trouble. Indeed, from now on, holding an opinion deemed unfashionable by Mr Ben Summerskill could get you into quite serious legal difficulties. I suppose, if you wanted to mount an entirely grudging and half-hearted defence of Mr Watson, he’s probably more progressive on such matters than Willie McCrea.

But here’s an interesting point. Over recent months, the Tories have been taking a little heat about their exotic allies in the European Parliament – Czech climate change deniers, Belgian flat-taxers, and those wacky Latvian SS veterans. One of the lightning rods has been one Michał Kamiński, a Polish MEP who – weirdly enough – looks like Johann Hari’s evil twin, and who belongs to the Law and Justice Party. There has been a lot of argument about exactly what Mr Kamiński may or may not have said about the Jews at various points in his past; what’s not seriously disputed is that Law and Justice takes a line on Teh Gayz that would not be wildly out of place in the north.

Perhaps Mr Cameron could explain why what’s unacceptable in Antrim is perfectly all right in Warsaw. But don’t hold your breath.

Area woman tries valiantly to make husband look more human

Not for the first time, I find myself agreeing with Cristina Odone. Cris writes:

I’m sick of the feminisation of politics. If it means having to meet Dave’s mum, Gordon’s auntie and Nick’s granny, give me macho politics any time.

Politicians once needed to prove their trustworthiness, efficiency, authority. Apparently these days they need an emotional hinterland to appeal to voters. The quickest way to achieve this is a picture op with a woman they love (wife, mum, sis, anything but mistress will do).

This is apropos of Sir Trevor McDonald’s unchallenging profile of “Dave” Cameron the other night, itself a transparent balancing act on ITV’s part after Gordon Brown’s unchallenging interview with Piers Moron. Two things immediately came to my mind on seeing the programme. The first was, presumably this means Mr Nicholas Clegg will have to be found a teevee vehicle befitting his dignity – perhaps an appearance on Loose Women. The other was, could we possibly have Trev back in a new series of News Knight?

But what captured the headlines was the deployment of SamCam, as the rather dishy Mrs C was pressed into service in her first TV interview.[1] One one level, I agree with Justin that:

If you are the sort of person who approves of, or allows their voting preference to be swayed even a little by, the interventions in our electoral process by the wives of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, you are a moron who should be interned until after the general election.

And further:

Insulting the country’s intelligence by wheeling out the wife seems to be a political tactic for all scenarios. Gordon Brown is seen as too serious by voters so the solution is to push out his wife to say nice things about him. David Cameron is seen as not serious enough by voters so the solution is to push out his wife to say nice things about him. The meagre amounts of dignity and self-respect on display are such you wouldn’t be surprised to see the two leaders being dropped off at the televised election debates by their mums.

Well, quite, but this is not without features of interest. For instance, Cris derides politicians for attempting to appeal to the Mumsnet audience. I don’t actually find this outrageous, because Mumsnet has a very big audience. It also holds out the prospect of politicians coming a cropper, because they don’t realise these mums are a highly demanding audience, and assume they can be fobbed off with talk of your favourite woolly jumper or what biscuits you like to dunk in your tea. The politician patronises those mums at his peril.

And yes, it is dispiriting that instead of “Hello, I’ve got a policy,” the party leaders are offering the electorate “Hello, have you met my wife?” In some ways it must be a function of the political spectrum having narrowed so incredibly, that a personality-driven beauty contest has largely displaced argument over policy. But even so, the sheer vapidity of the exercise is depressing.

Exhibit A: The Trevor McDonald profile followed hot on the heels of another unchallenging profile of Cameron, this time from Andrew Yawnsley, who doubtless has figured out which side his bread is buttered. To the extent that this made headlines, it was due to Tory frontbencher and occasional Wright Stuff panellist Mr Edward Vaizey speculating that at some point in the past Samantha might have voted Labour. That a Tory spokesman denied this is to miss the point. Why do the media assume that the politician’s spouse is under an obligation to agree with him about everything? In the more grown-up age of the 1940s, it was common knowledge that Violet Attlee was a Tory and Clementine Churchill was a Liberal. The sky didn’t fall in. We elect the politician, not the wife. When the wife seeks office in her own right then her opinions come into it, which is why the media’s headscratching over Sally Bercow being a Labour supporter is so silly.

Exhibit B: We actually aren’t talking about demure housewives here, although you’d think we were. Sarah Macaulay was known as one of the best PRs in London before giving it up to be a political wife. Samantha Sheffield has a successful career as a designer – of what, I’m not entirely certain, but I know it’s expensive stuff for a posh clientele. In any case, Sam’s business career is a good deal more impressive than Dave’s brief stint as a PR for Carlton TV.[2] Would you think, from following political coverage in either the broadcast or print media, that these were smart, successful, professional women in their own right? Not for a second. Their political role is to be pretty, well-dressed and usually mute, as if the political class was living in an episode of Mad Men. Perhaps it’s a backlash after the pushy, grasping excesses of Cherie Blair.

Exhibit C: Even when they do speak, invariably on the subject of their husbands’ characters, they don’t get to say anything interesting. If you were a biographer looking for a narrative, you might note that both Brown and Cameron are, coincidentally, bereaved fathers, and both have experience of raising a disabled child. That’s the sort of thing that might tell us something about their characters and outlook on the world. On the negative side, Brown’s volcanic temper is the stuff of legend, and Cameron’s Grocer-like rudeness is becoming so. But from the political wives – and I suppose their loyalty is commendable – the most colour you get is “He’s messy in the kitchen” or “He hogs the remote”. It’s not very illuminating. I’m not a huge fan of the confessional interview genre, but confessional interviews with nothing juicy just look like a waste of time.

God help me, I was never a fan of Iris Robinson, but you couldn’t ever accuse her of not being her own woman. For substantial modern women to transform themselves into props for their husbands, because that’s what the sexist assumptions of the political-media game require… that’s actually even more depressing than desperate husbands pressing the wives into service.

One final thought, on the issue of class. Mrs Cameron is, as we know, much posher than her other half. Dave may have been to Eton, but he’s still the son of a stockbroker, and I think (without consulting Noblesse Oblige) that’s still very non-U. Sam, on the other hand, was not only privately educated (Marlborough) but is the daughter of a baronet, the stepdaughter of a viscount and grew up on a 300-acre Lincolnshire estate. Not only that, but her business clientele is very posh too. Her teenage goth period notwithstanding, you’re talking actual aristocracy there. I can buy the idea that she keeps Dave grounded in an emotional sense, but I find slightly disturbing Mr Vaizey’s idea that he relies on her insight as a sort of woman in the street. Woman on the country estate, perhaps – for the woman on the street, you’d do better to poll Mumsnet readers. And where exactly did a Marlborough girl pick up that distinct Estuary twang?

Rud eile: Congratulations to Naomh Gall. Nice to see Belfast win something for a change.

[1] Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I find it difficult to hear a reference to “Sam and Dave” without thinking of two entirely different people. Hold on, I’m comin’!

[2] Carlton’s programming arm was notoriously pisspoor, but it managed to sustain an enormous corporate headquarters that seemed to function mostly as a halfway house for unemployed Etonians. These two aspects of the company may not be entirely unconnected.

Mike, Fearghal and the rise of celebrity candidates

I have a confession to make. You’ll find this deeply shocking, but I am not a member of the Ulster Unionist Party. I have, in fact, never been a member of the Ulster Unionist Party, nor do I feel the slightest desire to join the Ulster Unionist Party. Now, if Reg Empey is to be believed, that makes me the ideal Ulster Unionist candidate.

As we approach the Westminster election, candidacies are coming thick and fast. Yesterday there was an announcement from the South Down and Londonderry Party, which I’ll get to presently. The DUP association in Strangford also selected gun-toting Ulster-Scots speaker Jim Shannon to succeed Iris Robinson. But what I want to concentrate on is the snappily named Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force.

The laborious process of UCUNF candidate selection has still not concluded, but joint candidates are in place for nine of the eighteen constituencies. North Down is of course a straggler due to the Sylvia Problem, but there are a number of other strategic areas that haven’t been decided yet. Of those that have, all are from the Unionist side of the Forza Nuova, and are an interesting mix of time-servers and newish faces. For instance, party deputy leader Danny Kennedy once again runs in Newry/Armagh. Danny is widely reckoned to be one of the Unionists’ more substantial figures, and he might do well in a winnable seat, but down in Newry his only function will be to have the crap knocked out of him by Conor Murphy. And in Lagan Valley we have a familiar face though a new electoral contender in Daphne Trimble, wife of David. Daphne is universally acknowledged to be by far the more personable half of the Trimble partnership, and she has the added bonus of really having it in for turncoat Jeffrey Donaldson, though barring an unforeseen mishap it’s hard to see Jeffrey Boy’s majority being troubled.

On the starrier end, which is what we’re getting to, East Belfast will be contested by rugby legend Trevor Ringland, who dipped his toe into politics a while back by fronting an ill-fated campaign to try and persuade Catholics to become small-u unionists, although that does make him a decent fit for UCUNF. Meanwhile Upper Bann, as predicted, will be contested by Flash Harry, Norn Iron’s leading Freddie Mercury impersonator. He’ll save every one of us! And finally in Strangford you have former UTV news anchor turned victims’ commissioner Mike Nesbitt, who isn’t AFAIK a member of the Unionist Party, though presumably he’ll join if elected. This also means that the duly selected UU candidate for Strangford, Phil Smith, who’s a party officer and fancied his chances, is rather pissed off at a parachutist arriving ahead of him.

Well, it does make a sort of sense, in that TV Mike is the kind of postmodern candidate we haven’t really had here before (if you discount Rainbow George) and his candidacy fits in with the logic of UCUNF. He’s stressing personality, running virtually as an independent with only a nominal party branding. Who knows, it might work.

However, this is not to say that the inherent contradictions of the UCUNF project have gone away. This is the problematic of why the British Tories would ally with the Unionists, who they must know are more trouble than they’re worth; and why the UUs would want to form an alliance with the minuscule Ulster Tories, many of whom are disgruntled defectors from their own party.

There are a number of aspects to this. The political justification is pan-UK non-sectarian civic unionism, something that’s greatly excited the Toryboy wing of the UU blogosphere. More prosaically, Reg Empey has got some material backup as well as a workable idea – something his party has never been big on – while “Dave” Cameron may have a couple of unionist seats he can count on in a hung parliament (then again, he may not). The Tories, although their Norn Iron organisation doesn’t amount to much, also held out the prospect of one or two Catholic candidates to underline UCUNF’s non-sectarian credentials. They also extracted from Reggie the promise that there would be a UCUNF candidate in every constituency, the rationale for which was that every elector should have the opportunity to vote for the next UK

Now then. The big problem is that non-sectarianism doesn’t sit easily with the Unionist psyche, and those jungle drums are mighty tempting. The secondary problem is a certain lack of tactic finesse both on Tory and Unionist parts. There was a time, when the Iris Robinson scandal was at its height, that Reggie could really have seized the initiative and put the DUP under serious pressure. Instead he chose to fart around in “unionist unity” talks that didn’t really go very far but did let the Dupes off the hook. In doing so, he managed to mislay the two Catholic Tories who had been induced to stand for UCUNF, Peter McCann and Sheila Davidson, although rumour has it that there are efforts to get them to unresign.

Ground zero for this is Fermanagh/South Tyrone, where rural intrigue around unity candidates has a long history, and where local unionists are hellbent on getting rid of the sitting PSF MP, Michelle Gildernew. To be blunt, neither the DUP’s Arlene Foster nor the UUP’s Tom Elliott stand a chance without a unity candidacy, but neither will stand down for the other and so the search is on for a compromise candidate. The word was that retired RUC detective Norman Baxter was in the frame, but Norman has stated that, while he’d be interested in being a cross-community candidate, he’s definitely not interested in being the pan-Prod candidate. Yet that’s what Fermanagh unionists want.

Even so, the maths are tricky. The last election ended up like this:

Gildernew (PSF)       18,638  38.2%
Foster (DUP)            14,056  28.8%
Elliott (UUP)            8,869   18.2%
Gallagher (SDLP)      7,230   14.8%

So in theory a unionist unity candidate should be able to win… but it’s not that simple in practice. In the first place, Michelle’s effective performance as agriculture minister – and there are an awful lot of farmers in the constituency – would tend to boost her standing. Secondly, a unionist unity candidate would need to be able to turn out virtually a solid unionist vote to get up to around that 47% mark. And even then, look at all those juicy SDLP votes ripe for the squeezing. For a unionist unity victory you would need the SDLP vote to stay substantial, or at least not to fall below the 6% mark. However, such are the sectarian dynamics of the area that even the sniff of a pan-Prod candidacy would send local nationalists rallying behind Michelle and put a severe squeeze on the SDLP. So even if you got it, the plan may not work.

Not to mention that a pan-Prod candidacy – even if the candidate entered into the sectarian headcount has a UCUNF branding – completely undermines the “non-sectarian civic unionism” shtick of the Forza Nuova. In Fermanagh/South Tyrone, you can be non-sectarian or you can be unionist, but nobody has yet discovered how to be both.

Sticking with Fermanagh/South Tyrone, there’s that dramatic announcement from the SDLP. We had all assumed that veteran party standard-bearer Tommy Gallagher would be getting yet another run, but he hasn’t been very successful in the past and now Margaret Ritchie has acquired a Mike Nesbitt of her very own. Yes, it’s former UTV political correspondent Fearghal McKinney! (Cue wild cheering from broad masses.)

Whether this does any good in terms of reviving the SDLP in the west remains to be seen. Fearghal is an articulate enough fellow and wouldn’t be unattractive as a candidate, but I have the sneaking suspicion he’s on a hiding to nothing here. Then again, given the job losses and straitened financial circumstances at UTV, perhaps Mike and Fearghal are starting a trend. Will we see a Frank Mitchell candidacy in South Down? Which party will be imaginative enough to stand Adrian Logan, Tina Campbell or Julian Simmons? You know, if the people of Nottinghamshire get Gloria de Piero as an MP, I think they may have the better deal of it than we have.

Then again, there’s also the occupational hazard of celebrity candidates. Not having spent years toiling away on district councils sorting out people’s housing benefit, they tend to get very impatient when things don’t go their way. Just look at George Lee.

More thoughts on this from Mark.

Rud eile: Apropos of this occasional discussion we have about how it’s not just what you do but how you do it that matters, I found this interesting. It’s from the wacky world of atheism, but leftists should find some familiar traits, especially when it comes to bad behaviour online.

Rud eile fós: B16’s weekly General Audiences are interesting enough in their own right, being essentially a seminar from one of the most distinguished theologians alive, but it’s important to watch out for those casual asides. Rocco identifies a classic zinger in this week’s talk.

Parachutes ahoy!

My word, isn’t Murder In Suburbia a load of cobblers? Entertaining and strangely addictive cobblers though, much in the Midsomer vein.

But now to more serious matters. There being an election coming up, candidates are being selected all over the place. There are selections of interest here, of course, but I’d like to turn to politics over in Britland for the moment. Since the Labour Party, as is normal in these pre-election periods, is having the odd outbreak of dissent over parachutism, then as the 27th most influential Labour blogger (according to Total Politics) it’s incumbent on me to cover this.

As is the way of these spats in this age of new media, accusations are pinging their way around the Labour blogosphere. National treasure Paul Flynn MP smells a stitch-up in Pontypridd. Meanwhile, Peter Kenyon has been banging on at some length about party selection procedures and the need to avoid even the appearance of stitch-ups. This in turn has provoked Luke Akehurst into performing his standard role as the Labour blogosphere’s resident Chief Wiggum, telling the broad masses, “Move along folks, nothing to see here.”

The thing is that, even if Luke is correct on all the facts, the optics are still problematic. And Luke does, as he always does even when he’s defending the indefensible, put up a spirited argument. From the left’s point of view, it is nice to see John Cryer getting the Leyton and Wanstead nomination, and NUM president Ian Lavery getting the nod for Wansbeck – that should be two more warm bodies for the Campaign Group, and both have I believe been sympathetic to the LRC. Since, with a quarter of Labour MPs retiring, there are an enormous number of new candidates who are largely unheard of, it’s hard for anyone not an obsessive Labour Party nerd to get a sense of who they are. Many, though, do seem to be long-serving local councillors.

Set against that, I’ve no doubt whatsoever that there are seats being squared away for well-connected greasy pole ascenders. Countervailing tendencies are that Labour’s dire straits might put off some of the weaker-willed careerists, and since the Georgia Gould fiasco in Erith the leadership seem to have trod a little more carefully when it comes to managing CLPs. There’s also a question of the sheer volume of new candidates, and of a much more ramshackle Labour organisation than in Mr Tony’s heyday. There are, though, a few cases that are exercising the commentariat.

The selection of Jack Dromey, aka Mr Harriet Harman, to contest Birmingham Erdington may actually be more defensible than some. Dromey, as we know, has been a prominent labour movement figure in his own right for decades. He’s replacing Siôn Simon, who isn’t exactly a horny-handed son of toil and was himself a notorious parachutist of a previous generation. And, what with Erdington being an area that still has some manufacturing jobs, some people might like the idea of being represented by an experienced union official who knows something about manufacturing. Nonetheless, as Peter Kenyon says, it would make sense to reassure local members that there is no stitch-up, doubly so with such a high-profile selection.

The Mail, which loves a celeb angle on politics, has splashed on speculation that glamorous GMTV political editor Gloria de Piero, who has relinquished her broadcasting career to help out an ailing Labour Party, may be lined up for Buff Hoon’s Ashfield seat. This will be a blow to viewers who used to enjoy waking up to Gloria’s ample journalistic talents, but their loss is Labour’s gain. Actually, I do remember Gorgeous Gloria from, oh, it must be fifteen years ago when she was a bright young NOLS activist. She seemed quite nice, which was an achievement in itself back in the days when Jim Murphy bestrode NOLS like a colossus. So she’s smart, articulate, a formidable networker and popular with the lobby – those are qualities that would recommend her to the national party. In Nottinghamshire, she would need to stress long years of Labour activism, a working-class background and a strong Yorkshire accent. Not being Geoff Hoon is an advantage in itself, but it would be up to her to prove that she’s not just another media luvvie. The existence of Caroline Flint-style fuck-me photoshoots may or may not help her cause.

As for Luciana Berger in Liverpool Wavertree, she may well make a good MP some day – when she’s a bit older and has held down a paying job for a few years – but I suggest that somewhere with as strong a sense of place as Liverpool is probably not the best place to parachute in a metropolitan wunderkind. Although, since Scousers still have the donkey-with-a-red-rosette mentality, they’ll doubtless get away with it.

On the other hand, this is a problem “Dave” Cameron seems to be having on a bigger scale. New Labour went through this period of Stalinoid micromanagement of selections with the aim of producing a parliamentary party in Mr Tony’s image – something it was largely successful in – and the helping hand of the All Women Shortlist can’t be underestimated in this. This is how we saw the entirely laudable aim of improving the gender balance in parliament being yoked to the more arguable aim of politically homogenising the party in a Blairite direction.

And so it is with “Dave”. In his case, a more visibly diverse party – even if, as with the US Republicans, the only ethnic faces are on the platform – is a crucial part of detoxifying the Tory brand. I’ve mentioned before the importance of Shaun Bailey as a talismanic figure – it’s not that “Dave” actually thinks Shaun will win over legions of black Londoners to the Tory cause (though if he did, that would be fine), it’s more that Shaun helps prove to middle-class white folks of liberal disposition that the Tories aren’t racist any more. Likewise, I think you’d have to be a very strange gay man to vote Tory because Alan Duncan is in the shadow cabinet, but Alan serves to blunt the charge of homophobia.

Tie this in to the fact that “Dave” doesn’t really like his party very much. He’s been ruthless in using the expenses scandal to rid himself of those Sir Bufton Tufton types whom he doesn’t like and who don’t like him. And to fill in the gaps, you have the Cameroonian A-List, which does not mean that Mr T will be a Tory candidate, but which is a device to shoehorn female and ethnic candidates into winnable seats. That these candidates are fanatical supporters of “Dave” and his agenda for the party is purely coincidental. There have already been grumblings from certain recalcitrant constituency associations, which have a habit of jealously guarding their independence, but by and large the Cameroons have kept a lid on things.

The trouble is that the Tory grassroots, to the extent they still exist, are elderly, almost exclusively white, and with political priorities roughly identical to those of the Daily Mail op-ed pages. They are not in instinctive sympathy with the Cameroon project – though they’ll support “Dave” as long as he looks a winner – and the current modernisation scheme aims to make the parliamentary party, well perhaps more representative of the population, but much less representative of the voluntary party. Presumably “Dave” hopes the makeover will, by osmosis, lead to a different makeup of the party ranks in the future. I would say that’s a pretty big punt.

Apostles of Empire find romance… pity about the wife and kids…

This is too delicious to miss:

The internationally celebrated historian and TV presenter Niall Ferguson has broken up with his wife of 16 years after a string of adulterous affairs.

The 45-year-old Harvard professor has left former newspaper editor Susan Douglas, with whom he has three children, for his mistress, the Somalian-born feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

At which point Ms Douglas may be thinking hard thoughts about the nature of sisterhood.

Professor Ferguson, whose books, television programmes and work with financial hedge funds earn an estimated £5million a year, is understood to have been in a relationship with Ms Hirsi Ali since last summer.

Today, The Mail on Sunday can reveal how Ferguson’s philandering behaviour – described by one confidante as ‘more akin to a Premiership footballer’s louche ways than an esteemed professor’s’ – wrecked his marriage to Ms Douglas, one of Tory leader David Cameron’s closest friends, a leading member of the Tory ‘A-list’ of potential parliamentary candidates and a former Fleet Street editor.

Will Dave include this in his list of examples of Broken Britain? Or why it’s necessary to bolster the institution of marriage? I doubt it.

The British historian Sir Alistair Horne, with whom he is currently writing the authorised biography of Henry Kissinger, is said to know about the affair, as does Mr Kissinger. However a spokesman for the statesman declined to comment yesterday.

‘It’s rather awkward because both Sue and Niall know Henry and his wife Nancy, neither of whom can understand why Niall has been bringing women other than his wife to private dinners,’ said a source.

Allowing Kissinger the moral high ground would be quite a feat…

He is seen as a contentious figure in literary circles, prompting one rival historian to declare: ‘He has the kind of face you want to punch.’

Indeed so. Which is why this has me roaring my leg off. Get the whole story in your super soaraway Mail.

The master tactician

I’m not going to write anything about the current discussions at Hillsborough until something emerges – and even when something does, it’s likely to be a holding operation. Rather, I want to focus on these secret Tory-Unionist talks two Sundays back.

There were two things that immediately struck me about the Hatfield House talks. One was to ask, “Why on earth would the Tories and Unionists hold a top-secret summit in a pub on the Ormeau Road?” Then I realised the reference was in fact to Lord Cranborne’s stately pile. The second thing was that it was a bit cheeky of the DUP to tell the Shinners they wanted a break from the policing and justice negotiations, on the grounds that they didn’t negotiate on the Sabbath, only to head off to a get-together with Reg Empey and Owen Paterson.

Little detail has emerged from the Hatfield talks except that electoral matters were discussed. This would appear to have three dimensions – an electoral arrangement to maximise the number of unionist MPs returned to Westminster; an arrangement to support the Tories in the event of a close or inconclusive result at the general election; and some sort of wheeze to prevent Martin McGuinness becoming first minister after the next Stormont election. But there’s some unpicking to be done here in terms of what’s in it for Peter, what’s in it for Reggie, and what’s in it for Dave.

To begin with Rankin’ Dave Cameron, his reasoning is absurdly transparent. With the polls pointing to either a hung parliament or a slim Tory majority, what he wants is to gain the assured votes of ten or so unionist MPs. This is of a piece with his thinking on UCUNF in the first place, which as far as I could see had more to do with Scotland than the north – the big selling point being the rash pledge to run eighteen Forza Nuova candidates over here, thus underlining his dispositional unionism with a low-overhead gesture of his pan-UK credentials. It all confirms my view of Rankin’ Dave as a perishing lightweight, and not just because of the question of whether he can be an honest broker in government, something that an attempt to recreate the UUUC would naturally undermine – he should really go and have a talk with John Major about what it’s like to have to rely on unionist votes. Any Tory grandee with a bit of sense could have told him that getting mixed up with the Unionist Party would be more trouble than it was worth. Since Andrew Bonar Law stood with Carson a century ago and incited armed insurrection against the elected British government, the Unionists have always meant trouble.

Peter’s motivation is easy to understand. His primary concern is Jim Allister, his secondary concern is to spook the Shinners. If he manages to get an electoral pact, well and good – such a pact would work to the DUP’s advantage given its incumbency advantage, higher-quality cadre and the fact that it can easily sacrifice candidacies in South Belfast and Fermanagh/South Tyrone, seats the DUP wasn’t going to win anyway; if he doesn’t… well, he’s no worse off that he was to begin with, and he knows that any raising of the “unionist unity” banner, with him managing to inveigle Reggie into discussions on the matter, raises a fatal question mark over the logic behind the UCUNF boondoggle. This proves once again that Peter is smarter than Reggie, or indeed Dave.

Which brings me to the question of what the fuck Reg Empey thinks he’s doing. I think you have to look at this in terms of the schizophrenic strategies pursued by the OUP in recent years. At Stormont, they’ve alternated between hankering after the old coalition of the centre – that is to say themselves, the SDLP and Alliance, with the Dupes and Shinners relegated back to the margins – by forging a close working relationship with the SDLP; and on the other hand, flirting with Jim Allister and trying without much success to outflank the DUP on the right.

This all has to do with the confusion of a party that used to be a monolithic catch-all party for Prods, trying to reinvent itself in an environment where the DUP has outpaced it. Hence the Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force, which may be a dopey idea, but that’s not to be scorned in a party that’s been bereft of ideas for a very long time – and indeed, never used to need them.

The ever readable Turgon had some interesting thoughts on this over on Slugger:

The battle between the UUP and DUP has been going on for years. It must be remembered that forty years ago Dr. Paisley was a marginal figure and when the unionist monolith began to fracture the likes of Bill Craig were actually much more senior and significant figures within unionism than the Big Man. However, the DUP prospered more than any of the other pretenders to the UUP throne of lead unionist party. Any attempt by the UUP to move “leftwards” (as an aside I find the designation of hard line unionism as right wing and its opposite left wing irritating and inaccurate but it is a useful shorthand) resulted in segments of unionism moving towards the DUP or else the UUP splitting and moving back rightwards.

Hence, I would argue, Jim Allister. As long as unionist politics exists there will be a DUP or something like it – indeed, the TUV now is more or less a functional equivalent of the DUP as it was forty years ago.

Although comparisons with Nelson are spectacularly inapt, the unionist leader who managed to do a Battle of the Nile on the DUP, was of course Jim Molyneaux. Molyneaux used to say that he had contained Dr. Paisley because he had “out righted” him. That was not, however, entirely accurate; rather what Molyneaux achieved was to have a broad church party which managed simultaneously to be more right wing than the DUP (e.g. Willie Ross) but had many members much more liberal to hoover up the more moderate unionist vote (Ken Maginnis). It also appealed to the Orange vote (Rev. Martin Smith) and had proper fundamentalists (Nelson McCausland); yet had a few Catholics (John Gorman); was right wing (Enoch Powell) and yet socialist (Chris McGimpsey) and even with working class roots (Harold McCusker). This eclectic mix allowed Molyneaux to offer a party which had members who could resonate with practically all unionists and for a significant time he reaped the electorate rewards, steadily eroding the DUP vote in all save the European elections where Dr. Paisley gained a huge personality vote.

Old Lemonsucker was a smarter man than he was given credit for, and understood better than anyone since Brookeborough the nature of leadership in unionism. Brookeborough, you’ll recall, was prime minister for twenty years, during which time his usual routine was to spend one morning a week at Stormont dealing with correspondence, and the rest of his time hunting foxes down in Fermanagh. Jim Molyneaux famously once issued a statement to say that he wouldn’t be issuing any more statements for the foreseeable future. That’s why he could hold his anarchic party together, while the more dynamic David Trimble couldn’t.

Since that the UUP have largely tried to regain their position by being more moderate than the DUP and have gone on a long, largely fruitless quest for that mythical beast: the garden centre Prod along with the apparently equally unicorn like unionist Catholic. By the tie up with the Conservatives they seem to think that they had created a formula which would attract both sorts of unicorn and tame them to become the white chargers they needed to reclaim their rightful place as lead unionist party. To be fair they have gained some Catholic members and increased their profile. However, at their first outing in the European election, they owed their relative defeat of the DUP more to the TUV’s slicing off approaching a half of the DUP’s vote than to any huge increase in their own support. The ogres of the TUV had had more effect on the victory than the unicorns.

Well, neither of these creatures is entirely mythical, and UCUNF did bring a few of them out of the woodwork, as well as energising the OUP’s Toryboy wing, who have seized on the idea of pan-UK non-sectarian civic unionism with a link to Cameron as the magic formula that would outflank the Dupes while somehow persuading nationalists to become unionists. But there’s also the call of the jungle drums, which is where the unionist unity drive comes in. Reggie’s problem is that these two impulses are contradictory.

You see this with the candidacy problems. The New Force has a tortuous candidate selection process; but beyond that, the Unionist part thereof has still not sorted out its selections, thanks largely to the situation in North Down where Lady Sylvia is not for UCUNFing. As a result, the tiny Ulster Tories have got utterly pissed off at the Unionists’ failure, a few months before an election, to have candidates in place. Their mood has not been improved by this dalliance with the DUP, after they’d been assured by both Dave and Reggie that UCUNF would be contesting all eighteen seats here. So now we’ve seen the withdrawal of three Tory candidates, two of whom – Peter McCann and Sheila Davidson – are Catholic. Reggie swears blind that he’s not shafting Catholic Tories for the sake of a pan-Prod electoral stitch-up, but the Hatfield talks don’t provide the best backdrop.

There is another factor, that of UCUNF’s supposed appeal to the Garden Centre Prod and the Catholic Unionist. You may object that, to the extent that these creatures exist, most of them are in the Alliance Party, but that’s not the point. The point is that they have some significance for candidate selection, and the latter have a disproportionate significance. Peter McCann, the Catholic Tory from west Belfast, was a totemic figure for UCUNF not because he was going to win over loads of Catholics to the unionist cause; his role was to be our local analogue to Shaun Bailey, the black Tory who’s standing in Hammersmith. Now, black Londoners remain in their huge majority loyal to Labour, and most of them seem to regard Shaun Bailey as a chancer on the make, but Shaun isn’t being heavily promoted for the benefit of black Londoners. If he wins a few over, well and good, but Shaun has to be put in the context of Cameron’s detoxification of the Tory brand. Thus, Shaun is being targeted at white middle-class Londoners of liberal disposition who want to be reassured that the Tories aren’t racist any more; Peter McCann could have appealed to Garden Centre Prods who otherwise would abstain or vote Alliance, as a reassurance that UCUNF wasn’t sectarian.

It goes further than that, of course. Word is circulating that Reggie is headhunting Trevor Ringland to stand in East Belfast, and TV’s Mike Nesbitt to stand in Strangford. These boys, should they run, would be aimed squarely at the Garden Centre Prod vote; but they would be good candidates for a non-sectarian, middle-of-the-road politic, and probably wouldn’t be interested in anything that looks even vaguely like an exercise in sectarian headcounting. And then, look at Sylvia Hermon herself. She’s presentable, articulate, moderate in her politics and a transparently decent human being – she also has the advantage of being a Chief Constable’s widow in a constituency full of cops who served under Sir Jack. She’d actually be an ideal “civic unionist” candidate, if it wasn’t for her unfortunate refusal to stand as a Tory under any circumstances. Then again, she’d be equally plausible as an Alliance candidate, and even as an independent should certainly not be written off.

Beyond the implications for the OUP, there’s a broader peace process implication. If your strategy is based on the coalition of the centre, or voluntary coalition (and we know which party that’s designed to exclude), you need a cross-community partner. Specifically, you need a substantial SDLP. Now, the SDLP as is may be beyond help, but you should be wary of taking steps that actually hammer more nails into its coffin. The first effect of a unionist electoral pact would be to knock out Alasdair McDonnell, the man best placed to revive the SDLP. Secondly, even if you manage to knock out Michelle Gildernew – and, given her popularity with Fermanagh farmers, that’s no certainty – in the process Michelle would squeeze the SDLP in Fermanagh/South Tyrone into oblivion, with a likely knock-on effect for neighbouring constituencies. More generally, anything that looks like a revival of UUUC politics is a huge incentive to nationalists to rally behind the party that promises to most aggressively represent Catholic rights – and that ain’t the SDLP. What price a coalition of the centre, if the SDLP is too enfeebled to be of any use?

Finally, the hard fact is that seats at Stormont are more important by far than seats at Westminster. The big prize is a unionist bloc at Stormont that would prevent Marty being elected first minister – which is entirely symbolic in terms of the actual joint powers of the OFMDFM. Then again, if I read the d’Hondt system correctly, that may actually cost unionism in terms of Executive ministers, and McGuinness would still hold a position in the joint presidency that meant the FM couldn’t do anything without his consent.

Did I say Peter was smarter than Reggie? It could be that Reggie, in his chasing after short-term tactical advantage, is being too clever for his own good.

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