Boris Johnson: Goodbye to the Piffle Tower

We already have microseconds, milliseconds, and the interval between the traffic light going green and the bloke behind you honking his horn. Now, however, there is a new yardstick to measure an incredibly brief period of time. Let’s call it the “piffle moment”.

On October 25, older readers may remember, it was reported that Boris Johnson was planning to build a “394-foot structure resembling a cross between a pylon and a Native American totem pole” at the Olympic site. Partly because of its slight similarity to the work of one Gustav Eiffel, and partly because of Boris’s famous “inverted pyramid of piffle” denial of his affair with the journalist Petronella Wyatt, but mostly because it was quite a decent joke, it was swiftly dubbed the Mayor’s “piffle tower.”

Well, all of 17 days later, tucked away unnoticed in a story by my former Standard colleague Katharine Barney about the candidates for Boris’s proposed Olympic edifice, we find the following:

A design for an iron construction that would have been six times taller than the Angel of the North has not made the shortlist of finalists.

The proposed monument featured a translucent structure with viewing decks above the Olympic Park.

The piffle tower, it turns out, is yet another of those wheezes that have poured from Team Johnson, only to last about as long as the edition of the newspaper they appear in. Remember the “living bridge”, a “new Thames crossing for London, packed with shops and flats?” Remember Cycle Fridays, a series of “escorted cycle rides” which served a few dozen people? What do you mean, no?

Some things Boris’s opponents attack as vanity projects don’t really qualify. Growing more food on London rooftops is a nice idea. The new Routemaster will be London’s first green bus, desperately needed in a city whose highly polluting, all-diesel bus fleet lags decades behind other capitals’.

But there are too many silly little initiatives coming out of City Hall. The endless quest to be seen to be doing things is taking time and energy away from actually doing things – and will ultimately also irritate and annoy the voters. New Labour learned that the hard way. Let’s hope Boris doesn’t have to.

Alastair Campbell fails to control the media

A few days late, perhaps – but amply justified by the material – let me draw your attention to a fine confrontation on BBC1’s This Week between one of my favourite London MPs, Diane Abbott, Michael Portillo, and that twinkly old charmer, Alastair Campbell.

The former Chief Persuader produces his usual denials that he abused and bullied people (“balls… absolute bilge”) and is then told by Portillo that he’s personally heard it happen while waiting for a radio interview. Abbott joins in: “You can still see the bruises on them… Your modus operandi was about bullying.” Campbell: “I know you don’t like saying good things about the Labour government.” Abbott: “Oh, here we go.”

It’s really quite funny to see how thin-skinned Campbell is and how riled he gets. Asked later by Abbott whether he’ll be helping in the election campaign, he snaps: “I’ll probably help more than you do, Diane.” Abbot, silkily: “I’m certainly turning people out to vote in my own constituency, many of whom were worried by some aspects of what you represented in the Labour Party.”

Legendary stuff – which Alastair has curiously failed to mention in his equally-legendary blog. Never mind, you can see it here.

Nick Griffin for Barking: Has the BNP made a mistake?

Has Nick Griffin messed up his calculations? (photo: PA)
Has Nick Griffin messed up his calculations? (photo: PA)

Nick Griffin’s decision to stand against Margaret Hodge in Barking at the next general election might, just might, turn out to be another example of the BNP’s legendary capacity for unforced error.

True, in 2005 Barking gave the BNP its best parliamentary result ever – its candidate, Richard Barnbrook, got 16.9 per cent, and was just 27 votes away from coming second. True, nine of the 30 councillors in the wards which make up the seat are BNP – and there would probably be more if they had stood candidates in every ward at the last local elections. This part of London is the heartland of the British far right, something metropolitan liberals often forget when congratulating each other on the capital’s multicultural tolerance.

And true, Hodge has been a weak MP. Until only a few years ago, she didn’t have much of a presence or a proper office in her constituency. She is loathed by many in her own local party. She has said some incredibly stupid things that have played straight into the racists’  hands.

But if the BNP’s secret weapon is the behaviour of some of its opponents, its saving grace is its own incompetence. Griffin may not realise that things have changed in Barking since 2005. Hodge has upped her game organisationally, opening an office, campaigning quite hard on the ground and ruthlessly purging her local party enemies (though this last could still backfire – many of the people she has got rid of are rather good, and justifiably very unhappy with her).

More importantly, Barking is now a good deal more ethnically mixed than it was four years ago. Griffin’s opponents have a larger anti-BNP vote to call on, if they can get it to the polls. BNP support is often strongest in places where the ethnic presence is comparatively small, or comparatively new. That was the case in Barking in 2005; it is less the case now.

If I were Nick Griffin, I would have skipped Barking and gone for next-door Dagenham and Rainham, which is demographically at the stage Barking was when the BNP started to make headway there.

Yes, Dagenham does have an excellent Labour MP, Jon Cruddas – who really gets it about how Labour, particularly London Labour, has stopped talking to the white working class. And yes, Cruddas has been an active ground presence in his seat far longer than Hodge has in hers. But against that has to be set the work of the Boundary Commission. In the new redrawn Dagenham, some of Cruddas’s best wards have been taken out of his seat and some classic Essex Tory country in Rainham has been added in.

The BNP will be hindered in both Barking and in Dagenham by the general expectation that the Tories will win nationally, which usually tends to depress the far Right vote. In Dagenham, the risk, with a big name like Griffin, was still probably not that the far Right would win the seat, but that they might take enough votes off Cruddas to let the Tories through the middle. It could still happen – Labour has a tough fight here – but the man breathing slightly easier today will probably be Jon Cruddas.

Jack Dromey: this isn't the first time Labour has tried to impose a grandee on Leyton

After my story yesterday about alleged attempts to “parachute in” Harriet Harman’s husband, Jack Dromey, to the safe Labour seat of Leyton and Wanstead, someone from the Leyton Labour Party emails to remind me what happened last time Labour tried imposing a grandee in Leyton. (And no, I didn’t know members of the Leyton Labour Party were allowed to read the Telegraph either – surely a disciplinary matter?)

At the 1964 general election which brought Labour to power, Harold Wilson’s putative Foreign Secretary, Patrick Gordon Walker, lost his seat to a notoriously racist campaign by his Tory opponent, Peter Griffiths (slogan: “If you want a n—-r for your neighbour, vote Labour.”) Wilson still gave Gordon Walker the Foreign Office, but there was the small matter of finding him a new seat in Parliament.

Two months after the election the then Leyton MP, Reg Sorensen, was given a peerage in order to create a vacancy for Gordon Walker to fill. Perhaps not totally surprisingly, the voters of Leyton resented this crude attempt to manipulate them – and voted against Gordon Walker at the byelection, forcing him to resign as Foreign Secretary and permanently setting back his career.

Gordon Walker did win Leyton back for Labour at the 1966 general election. But the whole episode left a legacy, which still lingers, of independent-mindedness and resentment of central party interference in this seat. Could history be about to repeat itself?