A disturbance behind the Speaker’s chair is nothing new, as Neil Kinnock and Norman Tebbit will know. So there was a scuffle in the corridor last night. So what? Ah well. We have the conjunction of “drinks party” and the Karl Rove of the Tory Party, Eric Pickles, that’s what.
If Labour didn’t know what to expect from today’s Tory party in general, and Fat Eric in particular, before the Crewe and Nantwich byelection, they certainly knew afterwards. As I’ve shown, the Tories have hit on a simple tactic: take your own negative attributes and dump them on Labour. In Crewe and Nantwich, the negative was racism. The Tories, after all, were the party of Smethwick, of John Enoch Powell, even of the internal undermining of the unfortunate John Taylor in Cheltenham. Best avoid having any of that kind of thing sticking to you.
The Tories’ opportunity was gifted to them by a Labour election leaflet early in the campaign – early enough to get traction and do damage – which mentioned the idea of ID cards for foreign nationals. As with so much of the waste paper doing the rounds at the time, I glanced at it and sent it on its way to the recycling container. Heard it all before.
But Crewe, in particular, has a large population of migrants from other EU countries, notably Poland. Thus the Tory opportunity. The Labour leaflet was perhaps clumsy, and certainly unhelpful. But racist? I doubt that there was any intent in that direction, but the Tories were off and running. They had been gifted an opportunity to dump one of their most severe and enduring negatives on Labour, and did not hold back. Fat Eric, who prides himself on his anti-racism, trowelled on the righteousness, lecturing his opponents that “we’ve all got to rub along together after this election”.
Labour could not clean off that particular stain, no matter how much senior firepower they deployed in their defence, before polling day. All the Tory visitors were, of course, up to speed on the issue and piled in behind Fat Eric. What a joy, to be able to dump the race issue on another party – any other party!
But what goes around, comes around. Fat Eric’s “righteous Yorkie” approach has not made him popular outside the Tory party. It was no surprise to see on the face of Lib Dem MP Ed Davey, during Pickles’ less than assured Question Time performance recently, a look not so much of dislike, but of downright detestation. Pickles has been more than a little abrasive towards the Lib Dems over local government matters, and his elevation to party chairman means that any suggestion that David Cameron could do deals with Nick Clegg has one big fat roadblock in its way.
Labour, too, with Prince of Darkness Peter Mandelson back in harness, will be looking to exploit any weakness in the Tory armour, and with the desire to pay Fat Eric back with interest over his suggestion of racism.