Maajid, the guy from the telly

IT’S difficult to let the week slip away without reviewing Maajid Nawaz’s appearance on Newsnight on Monday and a studio debate with Mehdi Hasan and Mo Ansar which descended into an ugly mess of people talking over each other, Hassan shouting ‘straw man’ as only he can while Maajid interrupted everyone as they spoke. Anybody not up to speed would’ve digested that ten minutes and wondered what it had all been for. Jeremy Paxman was almost silent, maybe exasperated, as the squabble raged.

The argument led to The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman mischievously suggesting the Lib Dems were now going cold on Maajid, on the basis that despite having previously seen him as quite a catch in the Hampstead and Kilburn parliamentary selection, they now seem his flirtations with controversy a potential distraction.

“They see there is not enough impetus to get him over the line. Nobody is really sure if he wants to be an MP,” she quotes a source “with knowledge of the campaign”, rolling the idea that less money and energy will be spent fighting H&K than it was in 2010 when the party made the constituency a genuine three-horse race.

If resources are ultimately divvied up in a less favourable way for Hampstead and Kilburn, however, maybe Maajid’s style isn’t to blame. When the Liberal Democrats look at north London, surely the priority next year is trying to resist the obvious threat of Labour’s Catherine West to one of their more high profile MPs, Lynne Featherstone, in Hornsey and Wood Green. That promises to be a close-run thing, which may well eclipse the intrigue we have previously seen in Hampstead. It’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to think a call across borough boundaries may go out for resources to be sent to a ‘Save Lynne’ effort.

Moreover, the pointers which are taken from local elections in May – despite the likely low turnout – could be a more helpful guide for the Lib Dems about their general election prospects for the following year, rather than whether Maajid gets into a heated circular argument on Newsnight with Mehdi Hassan, or not. Certainly, his campaign is not likely to be as visible on the ground until those results are in, and the party knows what it is really working with in Camden.

In terms of Maajid’s approach, it is naive to think Hampstead and Kilburn member did not know what they were getting when they selected the chairman of Quilliam for the race in H&K and are now shocked that he gets into divisive debates on television programmes or on Twitter. They needed somebody with some level of profile to draw new interest in what they are doing, even if their famously localised, street by street efforts are not necessarily an easy fit with a speaker whose prime thoughts are about foreign policy and combating extremism. 

It’s the deal they accepted: a man who is on the telly a lot and a bit of oomph to the campaign, in return for a guy who might need reminding every now and then to get his bum to the Jester Festival cake stall.

One Lib Dem in NW6 told me this week amid the repeated gossip that Maajid’s Newsnight appearance and any further distractions would ultimately count against him: “He might not be like candidates we’ve had before but saying he isn’t interested in local issues or saying he upsets people won’t get Labour anywhere – Glenda Jackson has been hiding in Blackheath all the time she has been in the MP and her party has let her be invisible here, while still calling for water cannons during the riots or supporting HS2.”

Glenda was always able to somehow prefer national debates over local ones, but then suddenly wow people at hustings around here before elections with reminders of what a good public speaker she can be. Maajid too can dominate a stage. Maybe, to some extent, he will need to show he can replicate the way she has done things to advance.


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