This is a breaking news story and will be updated. Follow HuffPost UK on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.Bob Crow, the late boss of the RMT transport union, was undoubtedly a controversial figure. London commuters late for work due to seemingly endless Tube strikes would curse his name. Politicians and journalists who clashed with the left-wing firebrand would call him a “dinosaur” or, owing to his whopping £142,000 salary, a “champagne socialist”. But when Crow died suddenly in 2014, it was notable how tributes came from not just those sympathetic to left-wing politics but from across the political spectrum. Even Boris Johnson, then the Tory mayor of London, recognised Crow “fought tirelessly” for better pay and conditions and that he thought his former foe “a man of character”.Obviously, no self-respecting union leader would want to be seen getting too cosy with Conservative politicians. But how Crow was regarded in the political sphere stands in sharp contrast to Howard Beckett, one of the candidates to replace Len McCluskey as general secretary of Unite. Keir Starmer moved to suspend him from the Labour Party for saying home secretary Priti Patel, a British-born minister of Indian heritage, “should be deported”. Beckett apologised to Patel but remained defiant during an interview with Sky News on Friday, refusing to withdraw from the Unite race and saying his suspension was “completely inappropriate”. He added he did not “literally” mean the minister should be deported and was “sorry if” that was not clear to those that read his hastily-deleted tweet. While the assistant general secretary claimed he had not been informed of a suspension, Labour sources insist an email was sent and his union informed. Unite, meanwhile, does not appear to have taken any action, telling HuffPost UK he “has correctly and unreservedly apologised”, while offering no further comment. Beckett’s is the just the latest in a long line of bad headlines and divisive interventions from union chiefs in the seven years since Crow’s death. And many of them have targeted not the Conservatives, but Labour. McCluskey accused former deputy leader Tom Watson “sharpening his knife looking for a back to stab” and said Starmer faces the “dustbin of history” if he does not change direction. The FBU’s Matt Wrack has hit out at Starmer for “watering down” policies and Labour MPs for undermining former leader Jeremy Corbyn.TSSA boss Manuel Cortes repeatedly went public to hit out at Corbyn for Labour’s “Brexit fudge” when the party was in turmoil over its policy on a second referendum in 2018.  Former GMB general secretary Tim Roache stood down last year citing ill health and has faced claims of impropriety, which he denies. Separately, an independent report found the union to be institutionally sexist. In the minds of voters, all this friendly fire points to more left-wing division and Labour leaders not in control of their party’s agenda. Fresh elections this year for the leadership of Unite and GMB follow Christina McAnea’s election as the first female general secretary of Unison in January. With Peter Mandelson calling for union reform, these races are just as  important for Starmer’s Labour Party, if not more, than any parliamentary by-election. A new era of Labour blood-letting and a “war of the roses” between MPs and the union movement splashed across every newspaper is not likely to boost the electoral hopes of Corbyn’s successor.Though said to be “McCluskey’s right hand man”, Beckett is unlikely to emerge victorious in the Unite race, however. Some believe he may struggle to even make the ballot.The contest is between Steve Turner, a figure who prefers to keep his powder dry until behind closed doors, and moderate Gerard Coyne, who pointedly told HuffPost UK that Unite can no longer be Starmer’s “backseat driver”.  Whoever leads a union affiliated to Labour will have a voice and a platform. But, as Crow proved, how they use that influence will be their legacy. Related...Unite Urged to Stop Being Starmer's 'Backseat Driver' By Union Leadership ContenderLabour Suspends Union Boss After His 'Deport' Priti Patel TweetRace To Replace Len McCluskey Starts As Unite Triggers General Secretary Election
Keir Starmer was reshuffling his shadow cabinet on Sunday as the fallout from Labour’s dismal election results continued.Starmer has already removed deputy leader Angela Rayner as party chair and campaigns coordinator, after Labour lost control of a host of councils and the “red wall” parliamentary seat of Hartlepool for the first time since its inception in the 1970s.The Labour leader has faced a backlash from senior figures for apparently sacking Rayner.Allies insist she has been offered another job in the shadow cabinet but they could not say what it would be, with Starmer in the process of reshuffling his top team on Sunday.Reports suggest shadow communities secretary Steve Reed could be in line to replace Rayner. Ian Murray, the shadow secretary for Scotland, and MP Chris Bryant have also been tipped for promotion. Shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds is meanwhile among those reported to be in line for a demotion. There has also been criticism from some sections of the party of Starmer’s key aide Jenny Chapman, the former MP for Darlington.Speaking to Times Radio on Sunday, Murray insisted Rayner had not been sacked and that Starmer wants to move her to a “much more prominent role” so Labour can benefit from her “authentic voice”.But after headlines that Rayner had been sacked sparked outrage from some in the party, Murray admitted: “Communications over the last 24 hours have not been top-quality.” Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, who has signalled he is ready to take over from Starmer if asked, said of Rayner’s sacking: “I can’t support this.“This is straightforwardly wrong if it’s true.”Members of former leader Jeremy Corbyn’s team, who come from the left of the party, were among those to criticise the move to “scapegoat” the deputy leader.Former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott called it “baffling” while John McDonnell labelled it a “huge mistake”.McDonnell, a former shadow chancellor, told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “When the leader of the party on Friday said he takes responsibility for the election result in Hartlepool in particular and then scapegoats Angela Rayner, I think many of us feel that is unfair, particularly as we all know actually that Keir’s style of leadership is that his office controls everything.“It is very centralised and he controlled the campaign.”In a further sign of the splits in the party, Labour grandee Lord Peter Mandelson urged Starmer to dilute the influence of party members and “hard left factions” linked to train unions.He said Starmer was set to embark on a “serious review” of Labour policy.“I also believe that he needs to to look at how the party is organised, how it represents the genuine grassroots of the party and reflects the genuine views and values of Labour voters across the country in all the nations and the regions of the country,” Mandelson told Times Radio“The idea that the Labour Party and its policies and its outlook can be driven disproportionately frankly by a mixture of grassroots members in London and the south-east and the sort of hard left factions that are attached to trade unions - that has got to go, we have got to change.“Party reform therefore I think is an essential part of what Keir has got to take on next.”As well as undertaking a reshuffle, Starmer has hired Gordon Brown’s former chief pollster Deborah Mattinson – who has written a book about why Labour lost the so-called “red wall” at the 2019 general election – as director of strategy.Related...Angela Rayner Sacked As Party Chair And Campaigns Chief By Keir StarmerSadiq Khan Re-Elected As London Mayor Despite Late Tory SurgeNicola Sturgeon Hails 'Emphatic' Victory For SNP In Holyrood Elections
Whether it was the result of the vaccine “bounce”, big public spending during the pandemic or the enduring effect of Brexit, Boris Johnson has had a very good couple of days.But Tory success in the Hartlepool by-election and the personal popularity of the prime minister only tell part of the story of “Super Thursday” – hundreds of local, national and mayoral elections across the UK. Here’s what we know so far as counting is set to continue all weekend.Hartlepool by-election– The Conservatives won the north east constituency, with Jill Mortimer seizing the seat from Labour with a majority of 6,940.The first big result that defined the narrative for the next 24 hours. In a stunning victory, the Conservatives overturned a majority of 3,500 at the general election to take the seat – which had been Labour-held since it was formed in 1974. The bruising result – described as “absolutely shattering” by one shadow cabinet minister – prompted calls from across the Labour Party for a change of direction, especially from the Left of the party allied to former leader Jeremy Corbyn. However Peter Mandelson spins it, facts are stubborn things.Labour won 53% of the vote in 2017 in Hartlepool - a majority of all the votes. And we won with 38% last time - a 9% lead. This time we got 29% and we lost. The party is going in the wrong direction.— Richard Burgon MP (@RichardBurgon) May 7, 2021Labour leader Keir Starmer pledged to do “whatever is necessary” and told his party to “stop quarrelling among ourselves”.“I’m bitterly disappointed in the result and I take full responsibility for the results – and I will take full responsibility for fixing this,” he said.“We have changed as a party but we haven’t set out a strong enough case to the country.“Very often we have been talking to ourselves instead of to the country and we have lost the trust of working people, particularly in places like Hartlepool.“I intend to do whatever is necessary to fix that.” Mayoral races – Tory Ben Houchen was re-elected as Tees Valley mayor by a landslide on the first count, taking almost 73% of the vote.– Labour’s Ros Jones was re-elected Doncaster mayor while Joanne Anderson became Liverpool’s first black female mayor.There was further success for the Tories in the north east with Houchen comfortably winning a second term as Tees Valley mayor.Along with Hartlepool, that means two-thirds of the “hat trick” of results targeted by the Tories have been achieved – with the focus now on Andy Street remaining as West Midlands mayor.In Liverpool, the city elected its first black female mayor as Labour held on to the role despite corruption allegations.Joanne Anderson was named as the successor to Joe Anderson on Friday, after the former mayor chose not to stand following his arrest as part of a Merseyside Police fraud investigation.I can’t believe I’m writing this. But Tory sources say Shaun Bailey’s campaign now believe they can win the London mayoralty.— Patrick Maguire (@patrickkmaguire) May 7, 2021And there was increased excitement over arguably the most significant mayoral battle. While many were expecting an easy victory for sitting Labour mayor Sadiq Khan, the Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey was doing much better at the ballot box than the polls suggested. A result is expected on SundayEnglish local council elections– With results available from 64 out of 143 councils, the Conservatives had a net gain of seven authorities and 155 seats, and Labour a net loss of four authorities and 142 seats.The governing party – and one that has been in power for more than a decade – is not supposed to win by-elections. It is also not supposed to do well in local authority elections, where a mid-term drubbing is often seen as a protest vote against the current national administration.But the rot continued for Labour. Not only did it lose seats but it lost overall control of councils, including Harlow, Dudley and Nottinghamshire. With the Conservatives continuing to make gains as council results poured in from across England, the prime minister hailed the results as support for his government’s “levelling up agenda”.“It’s a mandate for us to continue to deliver, not just for the people of Hartlepool and the fantastic people of the north east, but for the whole of the country,” Johnson said.Scottish parliament vote– In Scotland, the SNP gained East Lothian from Labour and Ayr and Edinburgh Central from the Tories.– Of the first 47 seats in the Scottish parliamentary contest to declare, 38 went to the SNP, four to Liberal Democrats, three to the Tories and two to Labour.The SNP made gains from its rivals as it edged closer to an overall majority – but Nicola Sturgeon’s hopes of a victory that would hand her a mandate for a second Scottish independence are hanging in the balance.The SNP picked up key seats in Edinburgh Central – where former SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson replaced the one time Scottish Tory boss Ruth Davidson – as well as as in Ayr and East Lothian.But under Holyrood’s proportional representation system, those successes could see it lose seats on the regional list ballot.Meanwhile, Labour’s Jackie Baillie held on to her Dumbarton constituency – which had been the most marginal seat in all of Scotland and a top target for the SNP.‘The most probable outcome is the SNP is going to be one or two seats short.’Prof Sir John Curtice believes Scottish Labour’s hold on the Dumbarton seat makes a SNP majority at this Scottish Parliament election unlikely.#BBCElections#SP21➡️— BBC Scotland News (@BBCScotlandNews) May 7, 2021With some constituencies still to be counted on Saturday, when the crucial regional list results will also be declared, Sturgeon said it was “not impossible”. And while the majority of the 129 MSPs at Holyrood have still be declared, Sturgeon said it was “almost certain” the SNP would win its fourth term in power at Holyrood.Elsewhere, former first minister and Alba Party leader Alex Salmond said the measure of his party’s success would be “our existence as a political party”, adding it is “here to stay”, as the early counting suggested it was struggling.Welsh assembly count– In Wales, after 30 seats had been declared Labour had 19, the Conservatives seven and Plaid Cymru four.The picture was much brighter for Welsh Labour, where party leader Mark Drakeford declared its strong Senedd election performance as “an extraordinary set of results in extraordinary times” as the party look favourite to retain control of the Welsh government.The party has exceeded expectations, having so far lost just one of its seats and taking Rhondda from Plaid Cymru’s former leader Leanne Wood.Drakeford said earlier on Friday that signs of a strong Labour performance reflected the “real enthusiasm” he had encountered on doorsteps. It looks as if Labour has taken the Rhondda off Plaid so I want to pay tribute to Leanne Wood after 18 years as AM/MS for/in the Rhondda, which is a phenomenal act of dedication to our community.— Chris Bryant (@RhonddaBryant) May 7, 2021Labour said Plaid Cymru had “imploded” in losing its Rhondda seat to Labour’s Elizabeth Buffy Williams and failing to take target seats Llanelli and Aberconwy.Rhondda’s outgoing MS, Wood, told ITV Wales the result was “disappointing”, but said her party ran a “clean and honest campaign”.Labour’s strong results will minimise its reliance on other parties in order to form a government, with Plaid previously thought as the most likely to enter into a coalition with them were Labour some way short of a majority.Only one of Wales’ so-called red wall seats, the Vale of Clwyd, fell to the Welsh Conservatives.Related...Conservatives Win Hartlepool By-Election In Stunning Defeat For LabourSix Reasons Labour Lost The Hartlepool By-ElectionLabour Reshuffle: Who Might Be In And Out Of Keir Starmer's Top Team
The Conservatives have won the Hartlepool by-election in an embarrassing  defeat for the Labour Party.A Labour source said Keir Starmer would “take responsibility” for the result.The seat has been Labour since its creation in 1974. But Conservative Jill Mortimer has been elected Hartlepool’s new MP. It is highly unusual for a governing party to win a by-election.Hartlepool was held by Labour with a majority of 3,595 in 2019, even as other bricks in the red wall crumbled – in part due to the Brexit Party splitting the Tory vote.Before the count was finalised, Labour all but conceded defeat with shadow cabinet member Jim McMahon admitted the party was “not close to winning this”.The victory cements the Tory party’s growing popularity in the north of England following the 2019 general election, where a string of seats in Labour’s traditional heartlands fell to Boris Johnson’s party.Early results in council contests elsewhere also appeared to show voters deserting Labour, as ballots continue to be tallied up across England, Scotland and Wales following the “Super Thursday” polls – the largest test of political opinion outside a general election.The Tories seized Redditch and Nuneaton & Bedworth councils in the Midlands from Labour, along with Harlow in Essex, while Starmer’s party saw heavy losses across North East local authorities.A Labour source said Starmer would “take responsibility for these results” as he sought to “win back the trust and faith of working people”.“The message from voters is clear and we have heard it – Labour has not yet changed nearly enough for voters to place their trust in us,” they said.“We understand that. We are listening. And we will now redouble our efforts.”In a sign of the discontent on the Labour left, MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle appeared to mock the party’s attempts to change its image. He said: “Good to see valueless flag waving and suit wearing working so well … or not?”This is a breaking news story and will be updated. Follow HuffPost UK on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.Related...Why Keir Starmer Has More To Fear Than Just Hartlepool On ‘Super Thursday’Keir Starmer Accepts 'Full Responsibility' For Hartlepool By-ElectionLabour Won't Win Election With 'Tory Sleaze' Attacks Alone, Peter Mandelson Warns
Today’s so-called “super Thursday” local elections will set the tone for politics over the coming months, and could have a dramatic impact on the fortunes of Boris Johnson, Keir Starmer, and the rest.With around 5,000 seats up for grabs in 145 English councils, thirteen elected mayor races, battles for the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, and the crunch by-election to select a new MP for Hartlepool, you’d be forgiven for finding it a little confusing.But with the help of a couple of elections experts – Tory peer Lord Hayward and YouGov’s Patrick English – we’ve got you covered.Here’s what to look out for:Hartlepool hustleMuch of the pre-election focus has been on the one contest where a new MP will be elected, in the coastal town of Hartlepool, County Durham.Held by Labour, it was one of the so-called former “red wall” seats that didn’t turn Tory in 2019, when Johnson rode the Brexit wave to secure a thumping 80 seat parliamentary majority for the Tories.People are so excited about this seat as it’s the first test of whether the prime minister can keep hold of first-time Tories who lent him their votes in 2019.It’s also the first electoral test of Starmer’s strategy since becoming Labour leader a year ago, since when he has made a big play of winning back largely white working class “red wall” voters.Unfortunately for him, a bombshell Survation poll put the Tories a whopping 17 points ahead this week, suggesting they were taking a large share of those who in 2019 backed the Brexit Party, which is now defunct.New Hartlepool phone poll:J Mortimer, Con 50% (+1)P Williams, Lab 33% (-9)T Walker, Ind 6% (+4)S Lee, Ind 6% (+6)R Featherstone, Grn 3% (+2)A Hagon, LD 1% (-)J Prescott, RFM 1% (-)517, phone for @GMB, aged 18+ living in H’pool, 23-29 Apr. Changes w/ 29 Mar-3 Apr— Survation. (@Survation) May 4, 2021But while constituency polls are notoriously difficult, the Labour mood isn’t great about Hartlepool.English says: “Losing a seat that’s been Labour since its conception, that Peter Mandelson used to hold, that wasn’t even taken by the Tories during the scaling of the ‘red wall’ in 2019, there’s no spin you can put on that that says that’s good.”‘Red wall’ redemption? As well as Hartlepool, several “red wall” councils are going to the polls, which could spell more bad news for Labour.The Tories’ “minimum expectation” will be to take Dudley, an historic marginal, given their lead in the national polls, according to English.But if they take another two or three, for example the likes of Wolverhampton or Warrington, it would be a “bad night for Labour and a good night for the Conservatives”, he says.According to Hayward, the Tories will also be looking to improve their position in the likes of Bolton and Bury, and could even take seats where they have little or no representation, such as Sheffield, Rotherham, Doncaster, Barnsley and Wakefield.There is even talk of Durham and Sunderland being on the line, which if they went Tory would be another stunning result in the “red wall”.Durham, as Hayward puts it, is the home of the Miners’ Gala and the “ultimate bastion and representation of Labour domination of the Midlands and the north”.But in reality, Labour should be looking to hold councils like this and take back places like Northumberland, Derbyshire, Lancashire and Nottinghamshire, where it suffered a set of appalling local election results in 2017 when Jeremy Corbyn was leader.Overall, we could well see a “natural continuation” in the realignment of British politics following the Brexit vote, English says.This could lead to huge pressure in Labour for a change in approach, or even leader.Mayor trailblazersLabour and Sadiq Khan are set to once again win big in London, and the party seems likely to have the first directly-elected female metro mayor with Tracy Brabin in West Yorkshire.But as ever with British politics at the moment, the focus is on two “red wall” battles in the West Midlands, held by Tory Andy Street, and Tees Valley, where his party colleague Ben Houchen is mayor.The polls once again point to convincing Tory holds in both these seats.But Labour’s West Midlands candidate Liam Byrne – he of “there is no money left” infamy – is bullish, suggesting last month that he should beat Street “easily”.If Byrne is right, a Labour victory in the largest city region outside London, with a population of nearly three million people, would be huge for Starmer.Similarly, toppling Tory golden boy Houchen in Tees Valley would be a huge win for Labour, although it seems unlikely.Starmer may however be celebrating victory over the Tory West of England mayor Tim Bowles, which could represent another side to the realignment of UK politics. Remainers’ revenge?While much of the focus is on the “red wall”, English points out that “one of the most underplayed elements of the ‘red wall’ discourse is that Labour held it for three elections and lost them all”.He suggests the party could be thinking about building a new coalition of voters, starting with Tory areas that voted Remain in the 2016 referendum.While these are unlikely to be enough to win a general election, Labour will be looking to make gains in the likes of Trafford, in Manchester, which could mirror areas of London like Putney “where the Tories previously had a hold”, Hayward says.English adds: “If places like Hartlepool or Blyth Valley aren’t going back to Labour any time soon, or marginals like Tamworth and Corby, Labour needs to think about new coalitions of voters.“Can they pick up ‘blue wall’ seats? Can they go back to those marginals and pick them up?” Independence woman? Perhaps the most important election of the night is north of the border, where Nicola Sturgeon is hoping to secure an SNP majority to stick rocket boosters under her drive for Scottish independence.The SNP are polling around 50%, according to Ipsos MORI, although the pollsters say it is still “too close to call” whether they can gain a majority.If Sturgeon falls short, she may be able to rely on the pro-independence Greens in the Scottish parliament. But anything less than an outright win for the SNP would help Johnson, who is desperate to avoid the existential threat of another independence referendum and the potential break-up of the union on his watch.Elsewhere, the Tories are locked in a tight battle for second place with Labour, who will hope new leader Anas Sarwar can demonstrate some progress on the long road to winning back former strongholds that could prove key in any future general election victory. When will we know the results?They are likely to drip in slowly from the early hours of Friday over several days through to Monday.With rain forecast, what better way to spend the weekend than watching the parties’ fortunes rise and fall.Related...Boris Johnson Hints Social Care Plans Will Not Be In Queen's SpeechWhy Keir Starmer Has More To Fear Than Just Hartlepool On ‘Super Thursday’Keir Starmer Accepts 'Full Responsibility' For Hartlepool By-Election
Two armed Navy ships will be sent from the UK to Jersey amid an ongoing row between the island and France over post-Brexit fishing rights and concerns about the prospect of a blockade.Two offshore patrol vessels will “monitor the situation” after French maritime minister Annick Girardin warned on Tuesday that the country was ready to take “retaliatory measures”, after accusing the Channel Island of dragging its feet over issuing new licences to French boats.Reports suggest as many as 100 French fishing vessels are due to arrive in Jersey on Thursday to take part in a protest over the restrictions.The Ministry of Defence confirmed on Wednesday that HMS Severn and HMS Tamar were being deploying as a “strictly precautionary measure” agreed with the Jersey government.Prime minister Boris Johnson spoke to chief minister of Jersey, Senator John Le Fondre, and the minister of external affairs, Ian Gorst, on Wednesday and “underlined his unwavering support” for the island.The UK and Jersey have already criticised France for making “disproportionate” threats after Paris warned it could cut off electricity to the island.Jersey, a self-governing Crown dependency, receives 95% of its electricity from France through three undersea cables.The row has come after the island implemented new requirements under the terms of the UK-EU trade deal for boats to submit evidence of their past fishing activities in order to receive a licence to carry on operating in Jersey waters.A Downing Street spokesman said: “The prime minister and chief minister stressed the urgent need for a de-escalation in tensions and for dialogue between Jersey and France on fishing access.“The prime minister underlined his unwavering support for Jersey. He said that any blockade would be completely unjustified. As a precautionary measure the UK will be sending two offshore patrol vessels to monitor the situation.“They agreed the UK and Jersey governments would continue to work closely on this issue.”On Wednesday Gorst held talks with Marc Lefevre, the president of the La Manche region of northern France, on the “difficult set of issues relating to fishing licences”.“There are a number of important matters which we will continue to work through,” he said.Girardin told the French parliament that it gave Paris the “means” to act against the island if the issue could not be resolved.“Even though I am sorry that it has come to this, we will do so if we have to,” she said.Gorst, however, said the island was not seeking to bar boats which had historically fished in Jersey waters and insisted the dispute could be resolved amicably.He said that of the 41 boats which sought licences under the new rules last Friday, all but 17 had provided the evidence required.“The trade deal is clear but I think there has been some confusion about how it needs to be implemented, because we absolutely respect the historic rights of French fishermen to fish in Jersey waters as they have been doing for centuries,” he said.“I do think a solution can be found. I am optimistic that we can provide extra time to allow this evidence to be provided.”He said the Jersey government was now seeking permission from London and Brussels to speak directly with the French fishermen concerned to resolve the issue.Related...Strict Immigration Rules Would Have Robbed Britain Of These Incredible PeopleLabour Won't Win Election With 'Tory Sleaze' Attacks Alone, Peter Mandelson WarnsOpinion: This Is Absolutely The Wrong Time For Britain To Cut Foreign Aid
You’re reading The Waugh Zone, our daily politics briefing. Sign up now to get it by email in the evening.Keir Starmer certainly sounded like he was getting his excuses in early. Asked about a Survation poll suggesting the Tories would romp home in the Hartlepool by-election, the Labour leader said nobody “realistically” thought he could turn round his party “from the worst general election result since 1935 to a position to win the next general election within a period of one year”.In fact, people around Starmer have been getting their excuses in a lot earlier than this week. In January – when the Tories had only a two point national lead – I reported senior figures were already forecasting a “vaccine bounce” for Johnson.  They could see the writing on the wall, and it spelled a simple correlation between pride in the NHS rollout and Johnson’s feelgood factor.Some saw an attempt at expectations management at the time, but it turned out to be an accurate prediction. Starmer’s words on Tuesday were not quite such a bald admission of defeat, but they contained a similar plea for patience in the face of the public’s focus on the route out of lockdown.There’s no question that Johnson’s entire upbeat persona suits the good times best. When things were going badly last year, on everything from the A-levels fiasco to PPE shortages and test and trace failures, he sounded brittle. But thanks to the vaccine and a cautious roadmap, he has found a restrained optimism that seems to match the public mood.In Leave-voting areas like Hartlepool, the Brexit factor may well still be a powerful weapon for the PM too. Not for nothing did he effectively declare at last week’s PMQs that it was Brexit-wot-won-it on both the European Super League (the UK could threaten to rewrite competition law on its own) and on the vaccines (Brussels delays and in-fighting made even Remainers blanch).Several local Labour MPs and activists are certainly downbeat about the party’s chances in the seat. Many are pointing to Hartlepool’s historically stubborn streak, how its anti-Labour forces have always been strong but split. Labour came close to losing it in Thatcher’s pomp of 1983, and the combined “Hartlepools” seat had a wafer thin margin even in Attlee’s 1945 landslide. Although there’s a lot of chatter that even a small victory would be a defeat, I suspect Starmer would bite your hand off for any kind of win. Peter Mandelson, who told our podcast recently “I’d like a majority which is a darned sight larger than one, thank you very much”, would probably breathe a sigh of relief too.It remains to be seen just where the 25% Brexit party vote from 2019 travels in this by-election. Just how many of them were former Labour voters who felt voting Tory was a step too far? How many were Tories who loved Farage? How many Labour voters stayed at home because of Corbyn or Brexit and how many will now take the leap to backing Johnson?Well, even before he became PM, Johnson certainly grasped a reality that some in Labour didn’t: that divides within the north (between big cities and smaller towns) were often as big as divides between north and south. That’s exactly the point he made in a speech in April 2019, when he was a backbencher on a trip to support Teesside mayor Ben Houchen. Johnson was so enamoured of Houchen that he missed the last train back to London and had to be driven by a local supporter (as it happens a former Tory candidate in Hartlepool) on a four-hour journey to the capital. And it’s Houchen’s wider success (an upbeat narrative of green jobs and investment) that ought to worry Starmer even more than any Hartlepool result.In fact, it’s possible that the “Ben bounce” will count as much as the “Boris bounce” in the by-election. With the mayoralty on the same ballot paper, putting a cross against one Conservative candidate is the gateway drug to doing the same for Hartlepool contender Jill Mortimer.An Opinium poll suggests Houchen can win on first preferences (with 63%), but it also puts West Midlands metro mayor Andy Street on 54%. And here it’s the lack of a “Brum bounce” that could cost Labour, some MPs tell me, as the party’s turnout could be hit by the fact that Birmingham city council, the source of a usually solid Labour vote, is not voting this year.The pain may not end there either. If MP Tracey Brabin wins the West Yorkshire mayoralty this Thursday, Labour will at some point face another tricky by-election, in her seat of Batley and Spen. Some expect that one to be held off as long as possible, maybe until the autumn when furlough starts to be withdrawn.There is a glimmer of hope for Labour: Johnson’s chronic inability to plan ahead. When it comes to the concrete business of “levelling up”, the government is so far from knowing what that means that it has only today appointed an adviser to the PM on the topic (Neil O’Brien). His “White Paper” is a blank sheet of paper and not due until later this year.At least Starmer was frank enough to say on Tuesday that he would “take full responsibility” for any failures at the ballot box. If there are some serious setbacks, his shadow cabinet may have to shoulder some blame too however. The perception of Starmer as “the bland leading the bland” could prove as harmful as any other factor in voters’ minds.One party insider reports some good news from Hartlepool. “People in ‘15/’17/’19 were reporting back raw fury towards Labour on the doorstep, which is no longer the case.” Yet Starmer has to transform himself from being not-Corbyn into something positive. If the party loses the by-election, it could be down to the “meh” voters (who stay at home) as much as the ‘yeah’ voters (who back the Tories).Repeat that apathy in a general election, and Starmer could more resemble William Hague than Neil Kinnock.Related...The End Of Social Distancing? Here’s What We KnowKeir Starmer Accepts 'Full Responsibility' For Hartlepool By-ElectionUnite's Steve Turner Warns Split Left Vote Could See Len McCluskey Replaced By Centrist
Labour shadow minister Tan Dhesi has been warned to “pay people what they are worth” after trying to recruit unpaid volunteers to carry out “long term” work in his office. A job advert on Working For An MP asked for “committed” people “passionate about helping others” and who “take satisfaction from getting stuff done” to volunteer for the Slough MP for no pay. Tasks for the role included answering the phone, opening post, updating Dhesi’s website, writing to constituents, monitoring media coverage and other basic admin. Most are jobs which would normally be carried out by a caseworker or parliamentary assistant, positions which would attract a salary of around £30,000. The ad was removed minutes after HuffPost UK contacted the Labour Party. A source close to Dhesi said the advert was placed due to an administration error and the Slough MP had been unaware. It is said Dhesi’s staff have been overwhelmed with casework due to the impact of the pandemic.Zamzam Ibrahim, vice president of the European Students’ Union, warned Dhesi that “nobody should work for free”, adding: “Unpaid labour is far too often masked as volunteering and used to exploit young people. And far too often those unpaid volunteers are given same responsibility as salaried staff.“Everybody from staff to interns to those on temporary contracts have a right to a living wage and a full array of employment benefits such as sick pay and holiday pay.”One Labour staff member, who asked not to be named, told HuffPost UK: “It’s a shame really that a Labour MP would try to offer what is quite clearly a proper job role under the guise of ‘volunteering’, and even worse that it’s for long term.“I’d like to think that MPs from our party would pay people what they are worth, even more so in this current economic climate.”A note on the ad penned by W4MP, not Dhesi’s office, warned the work was voluntary, saying: “As such, there are no set hours and responsibilities and you should be free to come and go as you wish.“If the post demands set hours and/or has a specific job description you may be deemed to be a ‘worker’ and be covered by national minimum wage/national living wage legislation.”  The ad said the MP was “looking for committed volunteers to assist his team over the coming months, and perhaps on a longer-term basis”. It added: “If you’ve ever wanted to volunteer your time to help people in need, to support a fantastic local community and its elected MP, or experience what it’s like to be part of an MP’s busy team, then this volunteer role might be just for you.”But the ad underlined “this is not an internship position or a job, and should not be viewed as such”, and said: “This position is very unlikely to lead to paid employment with Tan Dhesi MP and is not suitable for anyone seeking more than a voluntary role.”HuffPost UK has approached Dhesi for comment but he has not responded.The Labour Party, which backs a number of campaigns for fair pay, declined to comment and it was not clear if Dhesi had received any sanction. Related...Boris Johnson Says There Is 'Nothing To See Here' In Downing Street Flat RowUnite's Steve Turner Warns Split Left Vote Could See Len McCluskey Replaced By CentristLabour Won't Win Election With 'Tory Sleaze' Attacks Alone, Peter Mandelson Warns
You’re reading The Waugh Zone, our daily politics briefing. Sign up now to get it by email in the evening.Despite swimming in allegations of “Tory sleaze” from his opponents, Boris Johnson was characteristically upbeat when he faced reporters on Friday afternoon.Pressed on those leaked text messages he exchanged with billionaire James Dyson at the height of the pandemic, he snapped back that there was not “anything remotely dodgy or rum or weird or sleazy about trying to secure more ventilators”.The PM was, as ever, carefully sidestepping the real question: what exactly did he mean when he told the Tory donor that Rishi Sunak could “fix” tax issues for Dyson?But with election warfare resuming proper and Covid infection rates continuing to fall, this week felt as though the normal rough and tumble of politics was back and crackling.Not least because it marked the return to the stage of a very familiar Westminster actor: the Downing Street source.Also known as ‘a source close to the prime minister’ or ‘one familiar with the workings of Number 10’, the source briefed three newspapers that the PM’s former aide Dominic Cummings was behind leaks to the media.The PM was “disappointed” at how “bitter” Cummings had become, the source said, in three reports published at almost exactly the same time on Thursday.Johnson’s official spokesperson attempted to distance the PM from the reports (yes, the ones citing a ‘Downing Street source’), calling them “speculation”.Not one to take it on the chin, Cummings hit back hard in a blog today, saying it was “sad to see the PM and his office fall so far below the standards of competence and integrity the country deserve”, but he “will not engage in media briefing regarding these issues”. He repeated his call for a public inquiry into how the government has handled Covid and said he will give evidence to MPs.An internal investigation is underway to find out who leaked what, but one thing’s for sure: Keir Starmer’s calls for a probe into the Dyson texts now seem like a sideshow.And, while Johnson may struggle to escape Cummings’ desire for revenge if the former Vote Leave boss is indeed on the war path, it does Number 10 no harm if Johnson is able to sidestep scrutiny in the process.It comes just days after the PM demoted his press secretary Allegra Stratton and scrapped on-camera briefings for journalists – rendering useless the new £2.6m press room Dominic Raab once insisted was “value for money”, which further raises questions about the government’s media strategy, both nationally and locally.Angela Rayner was the first to go on the attack, telling Johnson had presided over a day of “cover-ups and cock-ups” and shown “breath-taking contempt for the country” over both the texts and Cummings.The deputy Labour leader has also written to Tory chair Amanda Milling over the party amplifying “fake news” about hospital cuts in Teesside from a US-based site called Hartlepool TV. The site and its associated pages have also shared conspiracy theories about vaccines, the Capitol Hill attack and voting fraud in the 2020 US elections.Rayner warned campaigning in the forthcoming elections must “not be used as a vehicle for the spreading of hate, conspiracy theory and misinformation”.Culture secretary Oliver Dowden won plaudits for his punchy pledge for a fans-led review of football this week. He has previously warned the government’s long-awaited online harms bill would herald a “new age of accountability” for tech companies who fail to tackle fake news on their platforms.Here’s hoping the fast-approaching end of the pandemic is not seen by this government as a green light to avoid scrutiny itself.Related...Dominic Cummings Blasts Boris Johnson Over His 'Competence And Integrity' And Denies Leaking StoriesDavid Cameron's Repeated Lobbying Of Treasury And Bank Of England RevealedLabour Won't Win Election With 'Tory Sleaze' Attacks Alone, Peter Mandelson Warns
You’re reading The Waugh Zone, our daily politics briefing. Sign up now to get it by email in the evening.Text bomb, text bomb, we love a text bomb. Yes, it was a case of another day, another set of “sleaze” headlines. Newly released emails between David Cameron and the Bank of England have left him looking ever more desperate in his lobbying on behalf of Greensill Capital. Meanwhile, senior Treasury officials sounded pretty uncomfortable as they explained how the former PM phoned them to chase up progress on his £60m in share options Greensill’s supply finance plan. Heavily redacted emails raised even more suspicions thanks to blacked out sections.But while Cameron’s reputation is already pretty trashed, the real issue for Labour is just whether any ministers, indeed the prime minister, have been found promising (or indeed delivering) favours for friends. Boris Johnson has vigorously defended his WhatsApps to James Dyson, but it was obvious from the tone of the messages that he just loves to shoot the breeze on matters as important as changing tax rates.Some of the public will see this as refreshingly direct, yet the danger is one that those close to the PM recognise all too well: he got so used to texting and messaging (he is an avid texter to fellow MPs and friends) over the years outside government that he didn’t change even after entering No.10 (and probably the Foreign Office before that). And there are thousands and thousands of missives he has sent, some of which perhaps lay bare exactly how he operates. It’s a treasure trove just waiting to be found.The security risk of a PM texting like a teenager is obvious too. In a swift U-turn on yesterday’s curious stance that no leak inquiry was needed into the Dyson exchanges, No.10 said today that a probe had begun by the Cabinet Office. Curiously, it said there was no such inquiry into the leak of Johnson’s texts to Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, where he promised an aide would monitor progress of a deal to take over Newcastle United football club. To add to the chaos, in both cases, it seems Dominic Cummings is now being blamed.The PM’s casual approach to his texting was matched by a similarly casual approach to his promises of transparency. Yesterday, he was pressed by the SNP’s Ian Blackford to “publish all personal exchanges” on any Covid contracts by the end of Wednesday. Johnson replied: “I am happy to share all the details with the House, as indeed I have shared them with my officials, immediately.” Well, immediately clearly doesn’t mean immediately as they are not yet public (his spokesman said he would “very shortly” deliver on the promise).Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng dug the political hole a little deeper as he defended government-by-WhatsApp, declaring: “One of the things in a democracy that we have to be is very accessible.” That simply begged the question why the PM was more accessible to friends and donors than to a public in need.With multiple inquiries, we are guaranteed more revelations and confrontations, all of which keeps this pot boiling for Labour. The party has already built “Tory sleaze” into its doorstep script for the May 6 elections and there’s one big reason for the sense of urgency. With postal vote applications substantially up on previous years, the elections could be effectively over by this weekend when many ballots drop through letterboxes.The Hartlepool by-election is of course an extra test for Keir Starmer and on our CommonsPeople podcast this week Peter Mandelson was notably cautious, warning that sleaze is not enough for Labour to win back lost voters. The former cabinet minister was, shall we say, intensely relaxed, about sofa government (“who cares about the furniture?”) but was withering about WhatsApp government: “We live in a democracy, we don’t live in a private members’ club.”Mandelson (“I’m not actually a lobbyist but Boris has always been a stranger to the truth…”) said his recent trips to his former constituency had confirmed voters have a low opinion of Johnson’s conduct, but they equally were still unhappy with Labour. “The memory of Jeremy Corbyn is still strong on the doorsteps amongst Labour voters here, it’s still coming up and I’m afraid we have still got some way to go before we rebuild the confidence and trust that we just threw away.” Although voters liked local NHS doctor Paul Williams, the former leader cast a long shadow.Now, of course he’s not known as the Sultan of Spin for nothing. Mandelson said Labour’s Hartlepool vote in 2019 had been “outgunned” by the combined Tory and Brexit party vote, and its 37% share was “the fourth lowest of any Labour held seat in the country”. He even floated the idea of losing. “We’ve got a real fight on our hands...on balance I think we are going to win...but if we lose it, it will be because of national factors and past factors affecting Labour in the town, not by the state of the Labour party now.”That may be classic expectations management, or it may be an early attempt to circle the wagons around Starmer in the event of disaster, by blaming Corbyn. But what felt truly authentic was Mandelson’s palpable frustration at his party being so hamstrung after so long in opposition. “You’ve got to go for your opponents as well, tear them inside out, strip them down, lay them bare, and see what they stand for and what they are not doing for this country...I want my party to win, I’m fed up of losing, I’m fed up to my back teeth of losing,”The former Hartlepool MP is famously a fighter, not a quitter. If the vaccine bounce continues, if the public quite like Johnson’s victory against the Super 6 football giants, if they think sleaze is something all politicians do, Keir Starmer may have to show similar resolve this summer. And as Mandelson told us, the big lesson from 1990s Tory sleaze was that the charge only really bites if the voters have a “credible alternative” to clean things up.Related...David Cameron's Repeated Lobbying Of Treasury And Bank Of England RevealedLabour Won't Win Election With 'Tory Sleaze' Attacks Alone, Peter Mandelson WarnsNo.10 Launches Leak Inquiry Into Boris Johnson's Texts With James Dyson
Attacking “Tory sleaze” will not win the next election for Labour alone and Keir Starmer needs to go on the attack against Boris Johnson, Lord Mandelson has said.The party grandee told HuffPost UK’s Commons People podcast that while Labour’s local election attacks around “cronyism” and the lobbying scandal will “loosen and crumble” Tory support, it will not be enough to win nationally in 2024.Starmer must also present a “credible and attractive alternative”, as well as showing Labour is strong enough to “tear [the Tories] inside out, strip them down, lay them bare, and see what they stand for and what they are not doing for this country”.Mandelson told Commons People: “One thing is clear to me – it’s that Tory sleaze is not going to win the next election for Labour.“It will loosen and crumble a lot of support for the Tories and people will reach the conclusion that they are out for themselves and that they suit themselves and they fill the pockets of their own cronies and supporters, that’s true.“But that doesn’t mean to say that Labour’s just got to sit back and wait for the election to fall into their laps.“That’s not how you win elections. “So fine, make the point, but you’ve got to present a credible and attractive alternative if you want people to vote for you.” Speaking from Hartlepool where he is campaigning for Labour ahead of the crunch May 6 by-election, Mandelson said the party had a “real fight” in the seat, where it was “completely outgunned” by the combined Tory and Brexit Party vote in 2019.Johnson is also benefitting from a “vaccine bounce” in the polls, while voters in Hartlepool felt Labour had “lost its way over the last decade” because it was nationally “rubbish” and “fell into bad hands” locally, and that the party took the town for granted.“Then along came Brexit which loosened the cement even more, and frankly Corbyn then was the final hammer blow for Labour in this town, and then we had the disastrous results in the election in 2019,” he said. But now, he said, they feel “Labour is coming home, that there is a new broom, and they feel it nationally with Keir Starmer and I’m glad to say they feel it locally”.“Increasingly, people are seeing Labour as a credible alternative, they do see Keir Starmer as a man of principles and of integrity.“But they want to know a lot more about him and what he believes in and what the policies of the Labour Party will be at the next election before they are prepared to transfer their allegiance to him and the Labour Party.Pointing out that Labour’s leadership has been “hermetically sealed” from the public due to Covid, he said that now the party has to make its case “with greater intensity, and more speed and more focus than we’ve been doing at any time in the last year”.Asked if Starmer needs to freshen up the shadow cabinet, Mandelson said: “He’ll know what to do when the time comes and I’m not going to start giving him advice or lessons about how he should do his job.“All I know is this – that people want Labour to make the weather.“They want Labour to make the news.“They want the Tories properly taken apart.“If you fall short, if it’s a bit weak, if it’s a bit flabby, if it appears not to know how to use the media well, if it’s not doing its opposition research well and honing its attacks and creating the ammunition, and [having] people strong enough to fire that ammunition in the Tory direction, then people are going to say well, are Labour strong enough?”Mandelson went on: “You don’t win elections by going through the motions, you don’t win elections by saying nice things about yourself.“You’ve got to go for your opponents as well, tear them inside out, strip them down, lay them bare, and see what they stand for and what they are not doing for this country.“And then people will look to you, and when they do look to you, you better have a credible, affordable set of modern policies for people to vote for.“And that’s what Labour’s got to create over the next year or so.”He added: “I want my party to win, I’m fed up of losing, I’m fed up to my back teeth of losing, I want to see my party winning again, and that’s why I’m here and that’s why I work for it.”Related...No.10 Launches Leak Inquiry Into Boris Johnson's Texts With James DysonDavid Cameron’s Greensill Lobbying Was ‘Acceptable’, Minister ClaimsRishi Sunak's Role In Greensill Lobbying Scandal To Be Probed By MPs
You’re reading The Waugh Zone, our daily politics briefing. Sign up now to get it by email in the evening.Over the past 12 months, as the Covid fall-out spread through our body politic almost as insidiously as the virus spread through our actual bodies, there’s a curious phrase that has cropped up on both sides of the Atlantic: “an abundance of caution”. This odd formulation has been cited for everything from Donald Trump cancelling early rallies (no really) to UK authorities halting AstraZeneca jabs for under 30s. Only on Tuesday, the line was used by US regulators to justify their pause in the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine.Here in the UK, there’s been no pause in the rollout of what we might call the Boris Johnson & Johnson vaccine, a political inoculation and reputation-saving wonder drug that has turned round the battered popularity of both the PM and his party. Though it is the NHS that is delivering the real vaccines that lie behind this poll bounce, the public is more than happy to credit Johnson too.An “abundance of caution” is what Keir Starmer has been associated with, by both allies and critics alike, in his approach to “constructive opposition” since he took over as Labour leader. But in his latest PMQs joust with Johnson, with all those Year-of-Keir pieces perhaps ringing in his ears, Starmer shrugged off the cautious mantle. As he unsheathed a rapier-like wit, in both senses of the word, he secured arguably his most impressive despatch box victory in months.In my own review of Starmer’s first 12 months in the job, it was fellow lawyer Charlie Falconer who said he was learning that politics moved at a much faster pace than the law. “The quick decision on the basis of incomplete facts is not something he is used to,” is how the shadow attorney general neatly put it. On Greensill and lobbying, the facts are incomplete but that was precisely what powered the Labour leader’s monstering of the PM on Wednesday.In a break with his usual practice, Starmer deployed mockery as much as scrutiny, ridiculing Johnson’s lame parries about Labour not backing the 2014 Lobbying Act and his links to lobbying-friendly Peter Mandelson. When Starmer pointed out that the man behind that inadequate legislation was, er, David Cameron, the PM looked like he’d stepped on a rake. As for wider lobbying, Starmer even deployed a rare bit of Cockney mimicry, saying: “It is called the shoplifters’ defence—Everyone else is nicking stuff, so why can’t I?’ It never worked.” Johnson tried a thin smile, but it was as weak as his argument. After months of being attacked as an “Islington lawyer”, Starmer was finally, proudly owning his background as a defence barrister and chief prosecutor. It worked so well, and he looked so relaxed, that for the first time he seemed to be thoroughly enjoying PMQs. If there had been a packed Commons, the cheers behind him would have roared. The joke about Line of Duty lacked comic timing, but he had weakened Johnson’s defences sufficiently to deliver the final punches on dodgy contracts, jobs for the boys, privileged access and “the return of Tory sleaze”. The power of Starmer’s performance was also grounded in the way his party has worked as a coherent unit this week on lobbying affair. Yesterday, Rishi Sunak relied on a technicality to duck an urgent question, leaving him open to the charge of “running scared”. Today, in a neatly timed Opposition Day debate and vote, Anneliese Dodds had a nice line about the #AskRishi hashtag. “We’d love to ask Rishi, but we’d have to find him first,” she said. Again, ridicule replaced righteous indignation, which is too often the habit of any Opposition.Sandwiched between the debate and PMQs was Carolyn Harris’ 10-minute rule bill to give NHS nurses a minimum 2.1% pay rise. Not a single Tory MP voted for the legislation, which is merely a device but gives Labour campaigners fresh ammo on the doorstep in the May elections. No money for nurses, lots of money for financier mates of Tories, that message will accompany lines that the Greensill affair puts thousands of steel jobs at risk in Hartlepool too.Perhaps the Labour tour de force of the day, however, was Rachel Reeves’ performance opening the lobbying debate. A lesson in relentless but well crafted argument, she was merciless about Cameron’s “shabby, toe-curling” statement issued under the cover of mourning about Prince Philip. Destructive opposition, a sense that shadow ministers really do want to be in government, was back.Most important of all, Reeves wove together a pattern of misconduct that ranged from the PM’s personal disregard of the ministerial code to his failure to uphold Nolan principles that were themselves born out of 1990s Tory sleaze. A government with enough time to meet bankers and ex-PMs on the make, but no time to meet the self-employed, or families of those bereaved by Covid.Of course, Commons speeches don’t often change much. Yet Labour’s onslaught this week, plus its nimbleness in reacting to each day’s jaw-dropping development (the Bill Crothers working for Greensill and Whitehall at the same time being one), shows that even faced with a majority of 80-plus, Oppositions can inflict damage.Starmer’s PMQs was so good that Reeves’ own speech felt like a complementary follow-up, rather than a rival prospectus to set tongues wagging about her own leadership potential. Strength in depth, something Labour backbenchers have longed for, is beginning to emerge.And that pressure, with some Tory MPs very nervous about the lack of transparency, looks like it has worked in getting at least some form of parliamentary inquiry into the lobbying affair. John Penrose, Jackie Doyle-Price, Andrew Bowie all expressed unease. Public Administration Committee chair Will Wragg, who takes evidence from appointments watchdog Lord Pickles on Thursday, looks close to ordering a full inquiry. The Treasury select committee is launching its own inquiry too. There’s still a chance that the dots won’t join, that there will be no smoking gun on Greensill to find ministers guilty of wrongdoing. But Labour is starting to make a case that there is a disconnect between how Britain is run and how the public are treated, that there is a direct line between a steelworker in Hartlepool heading for the dole and Tory politicians helping their own. And if parliament takes its duties seriously, instead of the vogue for an abundance of caution, maybe just maybe, we could get an abundance of scrutiny.Related...Keir Starmer Slams 'Return Of Tory Sleaze' Over David Cameron LobbyingTory MPs Vote Down Commons Inquiry Into Greensill Lobbying ScandalRishi Sunak's Role In Greensill Lobbying Scandal To Be Probed By MPs
Like lots of amateur footballers, Keir Starmer marked the first easing of the UK’s third national lockdown by joining his mates for a kickabout. As someone who has played a match virtually every week since the age of 10, the relief of meeting up for his regular eight-a-side game was palpable.Football has long been his refuge from the day job, a jealously guarded private place he can briefly forget about the cares of politics. But for the first time since he became an MP, aides released a photo of him in action, sporting a Donegal gaelic football top.Having worked for five years as a human rights adviser to the Northern Ireland policing board, an experience that was formative in his experience of grappling with all sides of a problem, Starmer loved Ulster so much that he and his new wife flew to Belfast for a honeymoon around the whole island of Ireland. It was then he picked up the Donegal shirt and has been wearing it ever since.Nearly a year since he was elected as Labour leader by a huge margin, Starmer’s major achievement has been to put his party back on the political pitch. From a catastrophic defeat in the 2019 election, his personal ratings are the highest of any Opposition leader since Tony Blair and he’s narrowed the double-digit gap with the Tories.Yet as the vaccine rollout has steadily boosted Boris Johnson in the polls, Starmer’s honeymoon period is well and truly over. Having been neck and neck until last November, Labour’s ratings, and even his own ratings, have dipped as winter has turned to spring.Starmer faces continued leftwing disquiet over his decision to withdraw the whip from Jeremy Corbyn late last year over his predecessor’s refusal to apologise over anti-Semitism. But there has also been a low rumble of unease from other parts of the party over a perceived lack of political definition and missteps. Even the largely supportive parliamentary Labour party (PLP) is getting restive.As he heads towards May 6 and a raft of elections across the country, including a by-election in the Labour heartland of Hartlepool, both his allies and his critics are preparing for Starmer’s first examination at the hands of the voters, rather than the pollsters or his own party members. So does his first year in office offer any clues as to what’s coming next? Or is the past another country?Close allies of Starmer, inside the shadow cabinet and in his top team, repeatedly point out just how far he has come since he took over. “I was making a little note last night of all the big things he wanted,” said one shadow cabinet member. “Despite that huge Tory majority, we have had wins on getting furlough extended, getting Universal Credit extended, on the NHS surcharge for staff, even getting more money for cladding. These are real substantial things, all of those things actually make a real difference to people’s lives.”A key insider who used to work for Corbyn said: “Simply by not being Jeremy, and by coming across as clearly competent, able to lead and so on, he made great strides in the general standing of the party in the country. And much as it was frustrating, particularly for the left of the party, the kind of constructive opposition stuff in that period, did strike the right note. Add in his performances in the Commons, and so on and the early period was largely a success.”The constant theme among most of his close allies is to highlight the immediate aftermath of that shattering 2019 defeat, when it suffered its worst election performance since 1935. “If we’d been a car, we’d have been scrapped,” says one frontbencher. “It wasn’t just the scale of the defeat, but the hollowed out party capacity Corbyn left behind, on the edge of bankruptcy.”A very senior aide adds: “The burning skip of a party and organisation we inherited, we didn’t appreciate the work that needed to be done to put that right.” Another says: “This first year has been about fixing the party. It was totally busted. I can assure you, there was no handover note [from Corbyn’s team].”On his way back from a campaign visit in his former seat of Hartlepool, Peter Mandelson was full of praise for Starmer. “What is more important is not the barometer of PLP opinion, with the greatest of respect to them, it is what he is doing to turn around a sinking ship – and that’s what it was. He inherited a wreck, it was not a properly functioning political party. He’s patched it up and we are seaworthy again.”But Mandelson qualifies his verdict as he extends the metaphor. “We need to steam ahead, we are presently not at fast enough speed. Once he knows what’s got to be done and once he has made up his mind to do it, he has the ruthlessness to carry it through. It’s a work in progress.”Others in the PLP are much more scathing, including those who initially believed Starmer offered hope of real change. Although there is some criticism of his political director Jenny Chapman and of his chief of staff Morgan McSweeney, it’s the leader himself that is causing worry among some MPs.One senior MP who has fought battles on behalf of Starmer puts it bluntly. “His team will often go policy shopping ahead of any planned intervention. So whether it’s, you know, the farmers NFU speech or any anything else they’ll ask think-tank types or academics what should we be saying? Some of those people push back and have said ’Well, maybe you want to tell us a bit a bit more about what you think and then we can tailor what we’re going to tell you when we know a little bit more about your gut, on this issue’.“I don’t know that you could leave that at the door of just Morgan or just Jenny, a lot more of us are coming to the conclusion there’s a problem with Keir himself. Because unlike Jeremy, I hate to say that phrase, but unlike Jeremy, unlike Ed M, previous leaders had an idea of what they wanted. He has got none of that.”One MP recounts giving Starmer personal advice over the phone. “You call up and he’s basically managing you on the call and he sort of thinks he’s really smart and you haven’t clocked that he’s just managing. Obviously, we’re fucking politicians so we know when we are being managed.“He’ll often say ‘I agree with everything you said’. I’m thinking, you shouldn’t have agreed with everything I said. You should have told the truth, which is, you maybe half understood half the things I said and you disagree with the rest of it, I’d respect him more if he said that.“We’re all desperate for him to succeed but almost everyone I’ve talked to this sort of has these conversations with him, he agrees with everything you’ve said. I think he hangs up, and he’s like ‘yeah, that was fine I’ve dealt with that’ and he’s on to the next thing. And I hang up and I think he’s got even less politics than I thought.”One insider says “there’s a feeling of drift”. “We’ve come out of that honeymoon period. And people are sort of looking around for what the next big battle is and where are going to be those big, cut-through dividing lines. People in the party are quite hungry for that. In the PLP there is a real sense of anger at the Tories over the pandemic and they want to be able to channel it.”An MP laments his lack of bite – and fight. “His biggest weakness is he’s not very political and we are living in a very ideologically political age.” One staffer says that the frustration is growing. “By early winter people needed to know more about what the Labour Party stood for under Keir. And what he himself stood for.” Few doubt his competence, but several doubt he has a political killer instinct.Even senior allies of Starmer admit the backlash against the party’s repeated abstensions – and planned abstentions that were then dumped – on parliamentary votes, from Covid restrictions to contentious bills such as the Policing Bill and Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill. Some blame the whips for being overcautious, others blame the leader.Yet defenders of Starmer will point to the sheer scale of the pandemic and the way it has knocked normal politics off the agenda. On a practical level, it has also torn up some of his strategic planning. His big speech on the economy was planned for January but had to be postponed until just before the budget simply because the nation was plunged into a third lockdown. “We’ve got to be in tune with the pace of the country. The nation doesn’t work to your ‘media grid’, unfortunately,” one aide says.The disruptive rhythm of the pandemic has meant Starmer has had to self-isolate three times, while robbing him of the normal chance to connect with both the public and his own party. “You just cannot overstate just how fucked off he is and how frustrated he is by all this. The public’s only interaction with him has had to be the speeches he’s done in an empty room, behind the despatch box, or through an LBC studio.”Crucially, internal party politics is often done through personal interaction, through nuances that cannot be said over a Zoom call, through intimate chats where “the record button is not next to everything you say”, as one insider puts it. “People don’t bump into one another in the [Commons] tea room anymore, in Southside [the party HQ] in the same way. That’s true in all walks of life but what’s special about politics is that we’ve suddenly moved to a place where no one can have a private conversation except in recordable form either written down or over Teams or Zoom.”One old hand says the real loss has been the lack of a supportive wall of MPs in the Commons chamber. “He has been denied what every single other opposition leader has had, which is the weekly opportunity to massively rally your troops with a good performance in PMQs. He often does really well but it doesn’t have the same effect.“There’s a possibility that that will be one of the big defining things that happens in the second year in the job, that he will be lifted and the party will be lifted because we will have packed chambers again. His response to the Budget was one of the best responses of recent years by a leader, but he just had to sit down without any notice simply because there was no theatre to it.”A close friend of Starmer’s admits the problem. “Everyone’s working remotely, they don’t even vote together. They don’t even see each other in the lobby. It does matter because even just being able to say to your party members, ‘oh, I mentioned your campaign to Keir’. Those little fleeting things, being able to say, oh, congratulations on that speech you made or birth of your daughter. Those sorts of things really matter to generating that sense of team, and we’ve not been able to do it.“Yes, absolutely, we are going to have to make fresh efforts to fix that, because I think it’s not right that the PLP feel a disconnection from the leader of the party, that is very bad, and we mustn’t allow that to continue, and we won’t.“But it can’t be fixed in the traditional ways, we would normally be having drinks sessions, and you’d be going to the tea room and being on the terrace and those things are not possible. It has caused difficulty, especially with new MPs who didn’t get a chance to get to know Keir before Covid.”One shadow cabinet minister puts it more simply: “We really need to be in the same room so we can have an Avengers Assembled feeling. You’ve got to get people together and when we do it will feel so much better.”Others concede that the pandemic has made his job much harder, but still worry there is a deeper problem with that perceived “lack of politics” about Starmer. One leftwing ally says: “His support in the leadership campaign was wide, but it was shallow, and that needed to be deepened. I think that what has happened is it’s become very much more narrow, and still as shallow as well. That’s not a great combination.”Great reaction for the brilliant @TracyBrabin on the phones this evening!Look forward to joining her in Yorkshire— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) March 30, 2021One former minister adds: “He’s inherited a mountain of shit and only moved some of it. The question is does he have that sort of animal drive you need? There’s a great line from Paul Keating: ‘Unless you want it with every sinew of your body, don’t even bother.’ Keir would actually like to be PM, but it is not the only thing in his life. And when you’re up against a bloke for whom it is the only thing in his life ultimately, then you have got a problem.“As John Smith used to say about prime minister’s question time, it’s not about the earnest search after intellectual truth, it’s about dominance. About dominating the chamber and your opponent. This is real, raw primeval stuff. Given how the odds are stacked against the leader of the Opposition I think that Keir has done quite well in that forum.”One shadow cabinet minister says that Starmer’s legal career, as former director of public prosecutions and earlier as a human rights lawyer, provides advantages but challenges too.“He is an absolutely conspicuously decent, able person and would be a very good prime minister, and the prime minister of the left. Yet he is incredibly inexperienced in politics and in some ways very separate from politicians. That is both a strength and a weakness.“It means there are a number of things as a result of that that have made this year more difficult than it otherwise would need to be. He lacks that urgency that experienced politicians have in dealing with the way that events unfold. You have to be fast and you have to be quick, and you have to be clear. Keir’s natural mood is more reflective but he’s realising the need to be much quicker. The quick decision on the basis of incomplete facts is not something he is used to.“Secondly, I think he thinks that simply presenting himself to the public, and letting them make judgements about him is sufficient, whereas again in politics you are defined by the particular things that you campaign for and stand for.“And thirdly, he does not engage in the same way as most other leaders of the opposition have done with the other leading politicians in their own party. You need to have people in your party owning your vision with you. Add in all the pro-vaccine bounce and Boris doing well ... and it’s reflected in anxiety in the shadow cabinet and in the parliamentary Labour Party. The message is: Keir, you have to be more of a politician, which he’s not doing enough of. But he’s learning it.“Compare him with Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer, a practicing lawyer who was basically pretty crap at politics but then pulled off the nomination for the Republican Party in 1860. And then understood what was required in politics which was high vision, but low cunning as well.“I’m absolutely sure he can do it, but he does need to change. And he is changing. He does get it. He is absolutely determined to be prime minister. I think that he recognises he needs to learn how to do it.”One shadow minister says Starmer has realised that his original time pressures have changed. “Keir started off talking about a four-year marathon. And actually the thing that is now absolutely coming home to him is there’s absolutely no time at all. We’re a year into it and there’s a lot of talk about an election in 2023.“If you take a DPP, QC, 57-year-old person who is the leader of the Labour Party after next to no experience in politics, and don’t forget he was only elected to parliament in 2015, you will take quite a long time to change gear.”One key criticism voiced by Starmer’s critics and potential supporters alike is a perceived colourlessness, a lack of “passion”, a woodenness on the media. But those close to him say that “the real Keir” just has to find a way to show himself.Charlie Falconer, the shadow attorney general, says: “I have known Keir a very, very long time. There is a much more driven, passionate person than the slightly icicled figure that currently emerges. You will never ultimately succeed right at the top of politics without digging into your own soul and the things that drive you. And people have got to know that.”He adds: “But he is profoundly a person of soul. Labour is littered with lots and lots of lawyers, myself, and millions of others, all of us followed at one stage or another in our career, a career driven by a desire to do well as lawyers, including making money. Keir never did that ever. He’s always been deeply driven by public service. He’s never ever sought to be either a big civil lawyer making money, or a big celebrity lawyer in any shape or form. And that is because his whole being is driven by a desire to help others.“The processes of the law may have buried his soul and his soul has got ultimately to emerge, so the public could see it, but also so that the political party which depends upon campaigning also believes that he’s leading with his soul. If the public see that, I’m convinced it will make a big difference.”Fellow shadow ministers talk about how Starmer gave one of his most fired-up addresses to a shadow cabinet after it was addressed by Sir Michael Marmot, the health inequalities expert, earlier this year. “I’d love to see him do more of that,” said one.On a recent visit to London Ambulance Service, he stayed much longer than the tight timeline allowed. “We were just about to be whisked off and the paramedic said ‘have you got time to take a cup of tea and have a bit more of a chat?’ And he was superb in that 20 minutes, clearly natural, and obviously was enjoying it.”One aide says: “He’s got that trait that some American politicians have of remembering details of people’s lives, their kids, and asking after them when he sees them again. That’s a real skill and it shows he has a natural empathy with people.”On a recent campaign visit to Hartlepool, he clearly relaxed when he went on a walkabout on the waterfront, and similarly on a trip in Edinburgh with newly-elected leader Anas Sarwar, he was “visibly much happier than being stuck on a Zoom”. Although everyone knows he “looks the part” of a PM in a neat suit and tie, the party is putting out more images of him wearing casual jumpers and jackets.Starmer’s team believe among his most notable media appearances of the year were not on the Marr Show or the Today programme but his appearances on Desert Island Discs and ITV’s Lorraine, where he talked about his mother’s illness and his childhood. In a recent PMQs he talked about his mother and his sister being nurses. “I didn’t know that,” a fellow shadow minister said, “and the more he does that the more he can connect with the public.”As the lockdown eases, Starmer is actually coming full circle on how to present himself, it appears. During his leadership campaign, he deliberately didn’t deliver a single full-length speech and would instead turn up to an event, say a few words then spend all the time taking questions and talking to members.Before the pandemic hit, his original plan for his first 100 days as Labour leader was to replicate that but with the general public. This summer, he will finally do it. “Factory floors, shop floors, community centres, churches, high streets, that’s where we plan to be,” a senior aide reveals. The plan is a combination of the Cameron Direct events that David Cameron used to hone his people skills, plus Emmanuel Macron’s series of meet-the-people events after the Yellow Vest protests.“One thing Keir constantly talks about is how do you close the gap between the Labour party, and the people it’s there to represent? How do you bring Labour back to the people? Those kinds of community events, Keir back on the stump is what we want to get back into this summer, as the road to [party] conference.”A return to vaguely “normal” political interaction is desperately sought by both Starmer and his party, almost as much as he desperately wanted to get back on the football pitch this week. Whether he can score goals is another matter. Although there was a rare photo of his eight-a-side match, aides still failed to furnish the actual result against the opposition.Tomorrow: Part 2 of Year Of Keir; Will Starmer Pass The May Elections Test? Related...Will The Hartlepool By-Election Bring Johnson’s Vaccine Bounce Down To Earth?Keir Starmer Heading For 'Dustbin Of History', Says Len McCluskeyWill 2021 Be A Year Of Pyrrhic Victories For Keir Starmer?
Britain will find it “easy” to sign a free trade deal with the United States after Brexit, Lord Mandelson has predicted.The former Labour cabinet minister said Donald Trump would be eager to strike an agreement to reward the UK for helping to break-up the EU.But the pro-Remain former EU trade commissioner warned that the deal would be a “shallow” agreement that was purely political in nature that would “create next to no new trade”.Speaking to university students at UCL in central-London on Monday evening, Lord Mandelson said negotiating trade deals with the US was “horrible”.“They are big, they are rude, they are aggressive and there is only one way they are interested and that is the American way,” he said.“They will always, by means of persuasion and bullying and occasionally brute force tell you that you are underperforming, insufficiently ambitious or asking for too much with too little in return.”
'All the original function is so incredible' – Peter MandelsonThe sinking of the Titanic.A proposed Chinese theme park has started to build a full-sized replica of the Titanic so tourists can experience over and over again the moment which led to the deaths of 1,500 people – a project endorsed by New Labour minister Peter Mandelson.Construction of the ship began on Wednesday with celebratory fireworks to mark the occasion, according to Reuters.It was commissioned by Star Energy Investment Group, whose CEO, Su Shaojun, reportedly compared the opening of a theme park based around the sinking of the ship with children s animated films: It's not like a certain country owns this thing.