Copeland shows that Labour face general election disaster

Chris Moncrieff
Chris Moncrieff

The astonishing Tory victory at Copeland probably represents Labour’s worst by-election disaster for more than a century.

So what are they going to do about it to ensure there is no repetition?

For a start, Jeremy Corbyn, who graciously acknowledges his share of the calamity, says he has been elected twice as party leader and will fight on to put things right. Some chance!

Are he and his supporters suffering from severe myopia or something? It is not just Labour grandees like Tony Blair who say Corbyn is wrecking the party, but many rank-and-file former Labour voters who said they did not vote Labour at Copeland because of Corbyn’s leadership. But he just won’t budge.

What further evidence do Corbyn and his little band of supporters require before it dawns on them that they are, unwittingly perhaps, the cause of this humiliation, which points the way to a disaster at the next general election?

The fact is Corbyn has to spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with a recalcitrant here-today-gone-tomorrow front-bench team, while steering the party in a direction that none of its traditional supporters want it to go.

And as PG Wodehouse would have said, even a retarded whelk can see that.

If you study the glum faces of many Labour MPs during Prime Minister’s question time in the Commons, you realise something needs to be done - and urgently - to restore Labour to a proper fighting force again.

• Will the House of Lords try to sabotage the Brexit Bill? They have no right to do so because it was passed virtually unscathed by the elected House of Commons.

The Prime Minister has been watching like a hawk the early stages of this debate, which may have caused some “rebellious” peers to consider their position carefully before damaging the measure.

And the price for wrecking it would be heavy, possibly the actual abolition of the Upper Chamber. Theresa May does not make idle threats, so anti-Brexit peers should think twice before they act.

This of course should be welcomed by those anti-House of Lords peers who say they only joined to destroy it from within. Don’t make me laugh. Who is going to destroy their own livelihood? The scale of hypocrisy about the House of Lords is overwhelming.

Ominously Lord Heseltine has vowed to fight Brexit in the Lords. “My fight starts here,” he proclaims. So it may not be a walk in the park for Brexiteers after all.

• The sordid expenses scandal in the House of Commons seems to have spread like a contagious disease into the House of Lords. It has been publicly said that many peers contribute absolutely nothing to the place, but are only too happy to enjoy its many perks.

These include the finest food in the most splendid surroundings, heavily subsidised by the taxpayer. And, worst of all, they get an allowance of £300 a day just for turning up. You don’t have to do anything: your mere presence in the building qualifies you for this. In one notorious incident, a peer arrived by taxi at Parliament, told the driver to keep his engine running, dashed inside, registered his presence and dashed out again, before zooming off £300 richer.

I simply cannot fathom how that can be justified. Will they clamp down on it? We shall see, but this is not a case for holding your breath.

Nice “work” if you can get it.

• Some of these practices are shameful enough, but they reminded me of a shameful act of my own back in 1970. Edward Heath had just won the election for the Conservatives and he invited all political correspondents, and their spouses, to a reception at No 10 to meet the new Cabinet.

It was to be my first meeting with Margaret Thatcher.

My own wife was heavily pregnant, so could not go. So, with the approval of all those concerned, I took another lady who had to pretend to be my wife.

All went well, and we were standing drinking at the event when Thatcher came over. After the initial introductions, she inquired: “And where are you two going on holiday this year?”

In one and the same breath my “wife” said “Sardinia” and I said “Walton-on-the-Naze”.

That was the first and last time I saw Thatcher lost for words.

And my cover was blown!

• Commons Speaker John Bercow, who was facing removal from office, has, it seems, been reprieved. The back-bench motion expressing no confidence in him has been refused Government time in Parliament to allow it to be debated and voted on.

So, along with all the other motions tabled in the Commons on a daily basis, it will sit idly on the order paper, never to see the light of day. Other means could be found of debating it, but the prospects of that happening are almost zero.

So Bercow, who has infuriated many MPs with his constant interruptions and occasional insults, lives to fight another day. My bet is he will now quit at a time of his own choosing, namely about two years from now.

Lucky fellow!

• Long-serving Labour MP Sir Gerald Kaufman, who has died aged 86, knew better than any other back-bencher how to get his views into the newspapers and on the air. He regularly telephoned me early in the morning with three or four crisp lines - no more, not a word wasted - about the topic of the day. He always saw it in print and heard it on the radio - and he needed no aides to tell him how to do it.

He had an acute political mind and was unlucky never to have been a cabinet minister, but he was always regarded as either too young or too old during periods of Labour Government.

He vowed never to retire from the Commons - and he never did.