Causing a stink

There’s a lot of shit in the water

“The Labour Party now is unrecognisable.” Keir Starmer was on the ITV This Morning sofa, emoting with Holly and Phil. He was immaculately turned out for the occasion, wearing an open-necked dark shirt under a navy suit. He could have been a mid-table football manager chatting about his team’s prospects. I can think of no more terrifying thing to tell Conservative strategists than that he looked… safe.

Not comfortable, quite. He lacked the utterly relaxed air of late 90s Tony Blair chatting to Des O’Connor, telling anecdotes about meeting the Queen and jetting around the world, competing to see whose permatan was deeper. You could see Starmer, as he listened to the questions, thinking about the traps and where he wanted to take the answers. But any Tory hoping that he would come off as just a bit odd, in the Ed Miliband way, or cranky and defensive, in Jeremy Corbyn’s style, was in for a disappointment. 

He engaged with questions about Diane Abbott and strikes and how his promises would be funded and then after each one, judging he’d done enough, changed the subject. Neither Holly nor Phil tried to change it back. “Do you feel better off after 13 years of this government?” Starmer asked, as though he were throwing the question out there. “Do you think our health service is better?” Wasn’t the country just a bit run down? Holly nodded along, sympathetically.

Over in the House of Commons, another element of the Labour attack machine was grinding into action, with a debate about what the party’s environment spokesman Jim McMahon called, again and again and again, “The Tory Sewage Scandal”.

The object of this exercise was quite simple: to facilitate personalised ads accusing each and every Conservative MP of personally voting in favour of more sewage leaks in their own constituency. This is obviously unfair. You can accuse Tories of a lot of things but, as several of them pointed out in the ensuing debate, no one is in favour of dumping raw sewage in rivers. No one who doesn’t work for a water company, anyway. 

There were quite a few MPs on the government benches, and they kept up a sustained rumbling barracking throughout McMahon’s speech. If the intention was to put him off his stride, it didn’t work. Quite the opposite, he seemed to be loving it, giving a masterclass in opposition politics. “Just in the course of this debate, 70 sewage dumps will take place,” he opened, which is a fair summary of a lot of Commons sessions. When a Conservative asked him a question, he replied by telling them how many sewage leaks had taken place in their constituency. “There’s more,” he told them when they heckled, like a comic handling a rowdy club night. “Raw human sewage is even being discharged moments away from these very Houses of Parliament” – that may have been a reference to the gents loos in the Press Gallery, leakier than even the unhappiest Cabinet minister – “What a metaphor for the last 13 years of a Tory government.”

Replying, Therese Coffey explained, in essence, that it’s quite wrong to blame the Conservative government in London for sewage in English rivers, but entirely right to blame the Labour government in Cardiff for sewage in Welsh rivers.

This was greeted with laughter even from his own side

Other Conservatives complained about the unfairness of it all. Lee Anderson, not previously on anyone’s list of sensitive MPs who just want a bit of nuance and understanding, denounced “real nastiness” from Labour. “I’m not into this divisive dog whistle politics,” he said, deadpan. This was greeted with laughter even from his own side.

Tory backbencher Sally-Ann Hart said the government was trying its best to stop the leaks. Labour was practising “dirty, dangerous and polarising politics.” MPs were terrorised by “personal, misinformed” ads. It was “Corbynism and Momentum politics”, she said, which was quite wrong. Corbynism certainly involved terrifying MPs on social media, but the targets were generally Labour MPs. “This is all about politicking for Labour,” Hart finished. “Their tactics smack of desperation.” 

This, too, is wrong. Like Starmer’s makeover for the ITV sofa, it reflects ruthlessness. It’s entirely plausible that if Labour were in government there would still be sewage in England’s rivers, but the Conservatives are in government, and after 13 years in power, problems start being your fault. Labour wants to win the next election, and if it has to punch a few bruises to do it, then it will.

In any case, Hart may well wish for a genuinely kinder, gentler politics, but her party disagrees. In another part of the forest, Tory chairman Greg Hands was busy tweeting out ads that suggest Labour policy is “unlimited, uncontrolled immigration”, and accusing the party’s MPs of wanting immigrants to continue crossing the Channel in small boats. This too is unfair. There are an awful lot of motes and beams in the eyes of MPs on all sides when it comes to attack politics. And quite a lot of shit in the water, too. 

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