Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The Conservative modernisers’ oxymoron

As the Tory cabinet meets at Chequers, it is worth taking a look at what happened to erstwhile Downing Street aides. Our insider provides another dispatch from inside theWestminster village – including why Seni’s Law has to return to parliament today

Do you ever wonder what happens to erstwhile Downing Street aides?

Former joint chief of staff to Theresa May, Nick Timothy, who left on a high after the successful general election campaign last June, has taken to sharing his political insights with the world through columns in the Sun and Daily Telegraph. That included one particularly memorable front page story accusing George Soros of funding a ‘secret plot to thwart Brexit’ with a public advertising campaign. Timothy recently left Twitter after claiming that May, as home secretary, was not responsible for the infamous ‘go home or face arrest’ vans which toured areas with large ethnic minority populations.

Fiona Hill, who ran No 10 with Timothy, has more actively kept out of politics since leaving the role a year ago. Tory members of parliament now even tend not to bristle with fear every time a Whatsapp text alert is heard in parliament’s Strangers’ bar – Hill’s old modus operandi for beginning a Malcolm Tucker-esque dressing down.

Some former staffers have their uses. Tom Swarbrick, who was May’s head of broadcast until earlier this year, is now a radio presenter. When the government announced its National Health Service spending splurge would be funded by a non-existent Brexit dividend last month, you will never guess who landed the only live broadcast interview of the day with the prime minister – only LBC’s Swarbrick. It was a true testament to May’s complete inability to do media that in such a soft interview she still managed to sound under the cosh.

There is one colourful character who is always worth keeping tabs on. Last month, your Insider brought you the latest from the Conservative party’s ‘modernisation’ process, but shamefully failed to update readers on one of the intellectual heavyweights of the project. Where is Steve Hilton?

The, er, ‘brains’ behind David Cameron’s ‘big society’ vision could often be seen wandering barefoot around No 10 during the early Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition years. Even when wearing shoes, he was easy to identify as a ‘radical’ for his propensity to wear T-shirts to work; the true sign of a free thinker. He became a full-throated Brexiteer during the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, and is now a tub-thumping Trumper, regularly backing the United States president on American airwaves with his Fox News show The Next Revolution.

Even that, though, might not have prepared us for quite how far down the alt-right rabbit hole Hilton has burrowed. Controversial hard right US commentator Ann Coulter appeared on Hilton’s show recently to declare that children shown crying at the country’s borders after being separated from their parents by immigration control officers were ‘child actors’. Hilton chuckled along and quickly wrapped up.

Your Insider looks forward to the inevitable conclusion of Hilton’s Conservative modernisation process: backing Jacob Rees-Mogg as next Tory leader. You heard it here first.

An old-fashioned double act

The private members’ bill bandits, Tory MPs ‘Frightful’ Phil Davies and ‘Chilling’ Chris Chope, have made it their lives’ work to ambush as many new laws proposed by backbenchers as possible. Each Friday while the House of Commons is sitting, the two take turns to bloviate, bluster and babble in the chamber, forcing bills to run out of time.

Chope came in for particular ire last month for shouting ‘object’ to block a bill that would have outlawed the act of taking a photograph up someone’s skirt. The hardline Brexiteer, recently knighted for his contribution to public service, admitted afterwards he had no idea what ‘upskirting’ was prior to blocking the bill. What a valiant commitment to scrutiny!

Protests then pursued the perverts’ parliamentarian, as both his Westminster and constituency offices were decorated with knickers bearing the slogan: ‘No one should photo my pants unless I want them to’.

Davies was also at his filibustering finest, speaking for 148 minutes to delay a bill brought forward by Labour’s Steve Reed, which would see more rules applied to when force can be used to restrain mental health patients. The bill, recently the topic of a guest edit day on Progress’ website, is known as ‘Seni’s law’, after Olaseni Lewis, who died after being restrained by police officers in a mental health hospital.

So far, so Davies. But, given the record of the Chope-Davies axis on private members’ bills, why had they not expected it? Labour whips had been given assurances through the usual channels that it was not going to be talked out. As this began to unravel, Reed had to negotiate with Davies to reduce the number of amendments on the bill from a whopping 109 to just two, providing Labour would not block them. This reduced voting time from 36 hours to just 40 minutes.

In a surprising narrative twist, it fell to bill bandit Davies himself to point out that enough MPs were not around to vote on the amendments and the legislation would fall anyway – something else apparently not foreseen by Labour whips.

Cue a mad dash between the voting lobbies by several Labour MPs to ‘actively’ abstain and ensure Seni’s law can return with cross-party support later this month.

Enough is not actually enough

Labour bigwigs held crisis meetings with representatives from Jewish groups and Jewish Labour MPs, following March’s rally against antisemitism in the party. To deal with the issue, they promised to hire an in-house legal counsel to deal with the backlog of antisemitism allegations in the Labour party.

When rumours began to swirl that Gordon Nardell, convenor to the Labour Representation Committee – which has consistently downplayed the level of antisemitism in the party – was the frontrunner, a number of the people who had been in those meetings raised concerns again.

In the words of one, Luciana Berger: ‘We were ignored.’ Nardell’s appointment was confirmed in June.

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Photo: Stephen Simpson, licensed under Creative Commons

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