Andy McSmith's Diary: Labour’s image problem reaches Rochester


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Indy Politics

Labour’s last day of campaigning in the Rochester by-election would have gone better if Emily Thornberry, MP for Islington South, had not turned to help. Out on the stomp, she was so taken by a house decked in three St George flags, with a white van parked outside, that she took a picture and posted it on Twitter, with the caption “Image from Rochester.”

She meant no insult, but the impact was lethal. Labour’s image problem is that it is a party seemingly be run by a metropolitan elite who are startled and surprised when they stumble upon working class voters. The spectacle of an Islington MP studying Rochester inhabitants with an anthropologist’s curiosity seemed like confirmation. It was not only Labour’s enemies who thought so. The Labour Simon Danczuk told the MailOnline: “She was being derogatory and dismissive of the people. We all know what she was trying to imply…. It’s like the Labour party has been hijacked by the north London liberal elite.”

About three hours after the original Twitter, a chastened Emily Thornberry was back on Twitter to deliver an apology. “People should fly the England flag with pride!” she agreed. By then, of course, the damage was done.

A problem with quotas - or with racial equality?

There are no written rules about what MPs cannot say in Parliament – language is “unparliamentary” if the Speaker of the day says it is – but it is well understood that if one MP wants to insult another, it has to be done without saying it outright. The famous example was the formula Winston Churchill used in 1906 to imply the government’s critics were lying: he accused them of committing a “terminological inexactitude”.

Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, crafted his words with care after being assailed by the right-wing Tory Philip Davies, the scourge of “political correctness”, who objected to the Government asking Trevor Phillips, former head of the Equalities Commission, to campaign to improve ethnic diversity in company boardrooms. “Some people believe all appointments should be made on merit. You believe ethnic minorities should be over-represented,” Mr Davies alleged.

“I know that you have written 19 letters to Mr Trevor Phillips on the subject of race and political correctness,” Cable replied gently, “which leads me to believe that you might have a problem with the concept of racial equality.”

Bercow’s cream not whipped

But if he was wounded by that put down, Philip Davies can take cheer from the current issue of The House Magazine in which the Speaker, John Bercow – unusually for someone in his position – names four Tory MPs and five Labour whom he considers to be good parliamentarians. Davies is praised for being a persistent attender. All nine are trouble-makers: the Speaker does not appear to have much regard for those who do as the party whips tell them – or for Lib Dems.

An epic parliamentarian

What an adornment to Parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg is. During a debate on the European arrest warrant, he stepped in to correct his fellow right-wing Tory Martin Vickers, who has opposed virtually everything connected with the EU, but is in favour of the arrest warrants. It was not, Mr Vickers claimed, a case of a “sinner repenting” because after this he would carry on being as anti-EU as ever. The Mogg politely contradicted him: “It is  not a question of the sinner who repenteth. Even Homer nods.”

Google informs me that the Roman writer Horace uncovered a discrepancy in the epics written by Homer, in which a character who had previously been killed off turns up alive. “Even good old Homer nods,” Horace observed.

“Even Homer nods” is what you say when someone you can normally trust makes a howler.

Pantomine heroics

“I do not want this to sound like self-congratulation,” Keith Vaz, the demure Labour chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Committee, said during the same debate, “Oh yes you do!” they shouted. “Oh, all right – I do,” he conceded.

A tale fit for the Queen

There is a story about the comedian Tommy Cooper which has been around for years, but when it was told in the House of Lords this week, the difference was that the teller was Lord Grade of Yarmouth, who claimed to have been there when it happened.

Michael Grade moved into theatre management in 1966 and was apparently entrusted to line up the artists to meet the Queen after a Royal Variety performance. He says he “stuck particularly close” to Tommy Cooper, who had been told not to open a conversation with Her Maj.

Ignoring this, he jumped in to ask: “Do you like football?” She replied: “Not terribly, Mr Cooper.” He then asked: “Can I have your Cup Final ticket?”

I often wondered if it was true. It must be: it is in the House of Lords Hansard.