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UK Politics

Andy McSmith's Diary: 'Go home' vans not offensive, they just lost their way

Our man in Westminster

Theresa May has had her wrist slapped by the Advertising Standards Authority over those Home Office vans that were sent into racially mixed parts of London to warn illegal immigrants to "go home or face arrest."

But it was not that slogan that promoted the ASA to ban the advertisement, despite the huge number of complaints it provoked. Instead, the ASA ruling is aimed at the small print which warned: "106 arrests last week in your area", which they say was misleading.

The appearance of the vans in six London boroughs in July caused an open rift in the coalition, with Nick Clegg saying that they were the wrong way to sell the government's immigration policy and the Home Office minister, Jeremy Browne - who has since been sacked by Clegg for being too close to the Tories- publicly promising that the experiment would not be repeated.

The vans inspired 224 complaints to the ASA. Most complainants considered them to be offensive, as 'go home' is an insulting epithet all too commonly directed at people from ethnic minorities. But the ASA rejected that complaint, saying that the message was aimed clearly at illegal immigrants, not at UK citizens or asylum seekers - though they suggested that it might have been better to put 'return home'.

But they said that the phrase 'in your area' was misleading because anyone seeing it was likely to assume it referred to the immediate locality, when actually the 106 arrests were spread across Barking, Dagenham, Redbridge, Barnet, Brent, Ealing and Hounslow. And the words 'last week' actually meant the most recent for which the Home Office had accurate figures, which was three weeks before the vans were out on the streets. This was explained in small print at the bottom of the advertisement, but the ASA ruled that the qualification was not visible enough.

"Although distasteful to some, we've ruled that the Home Office ad wasn't offensive or harmful. But it was misleading," ASA chief executive Guy Parker said.

Better late than never for early election culprit

Spencer Livermore, the adviser who is said to have been reduced to tears by Gordon Brown, is back with the Labour Party, helping to plan the general election campaign. It was Livermore who first suggested that Gordon Brown should call a general election in autumn 2007, in those long gone, short lived days when the nation thought that he was a Prime Minister whom they would happily return to office. Livermore was also one of the first to gauge that the abolition of the 10p tax rate was a time bomb primed to go off at the beginning of the 2008-09 tax year, which was a large part of his reason for advocating a dash to the polls.

The upshot was a public relations catastrophe: Brown's people hyped up expectations of an early poll, only to lose their nerve two weeks later. A frustrated Brown vented his rage brutally on Livermore, who left his job soon afterwards. One reason for his going was that he believed that Damian McBride, the notorious Downing Street spinner, was trashing his reputation.

When The Independent's Steve Richards asked Livermore on whose behalf he believed McBride had been briefing, the reply was "Ed Balls." Ed Balls denies it, but the fact that Livermore believed it should create an interesting atmosphere at Labour headquarters.

Ignore Shapps, he's too on-message

Of all the political slogans trotted out on the day that the party leaders reshuffled their teams, the one that takes the biscuit has to be the utterance from the Conservative Party chairman, Grant Shapps, who described the ministerial musical chairs as "really a reshuffle for hardworking people."

What did that mean? Tom Bradby, Political Editor of ITV News, tried asking David Cameron, during Monday night's political chat show, The Agenda. The Prime Minister replied: "He's so on message that he has to get that phrase in whenever he's talking about it."

That is prime ministerial code for 'ignore him: he's spouting the usual gibberish.'

Cameron is left playing Batch-up

In that same interview with Tom Bradby, David Cameron almost sounded like a man who was the zeitgeist, but then he fluffed it.

Invited to comment on The Fifth Estate, the new film on the Wikileaks affair, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange, the Prime Minister responded enthusiastically: "I watched some of it - brilliant! Benedict Cumberhatch - brilliant!" "Batch," Tom Bradby interposed. "Batch! Batch!" exclaimed the Prime Minister.

Diane ditched

"Being brutally honest, Diane Abbot isn't really a Labour MP. She is in fact leader of the Diane Abbot Ego Party." Thus Mario Dunn, former special adviser to a Labour Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, assessed a newly sacked former shadow health minister.