Fox’s friendship, newspaper revamps and getting lost in Westfield

Watching the drama engulfing Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, I am reminded of my late father. He had little patience with theatre - or TV drama - and would say: "If everybody told the truth from the start, there wouldn't be any play." Fox may not have lied about the role of his friend Adam Werritty but he has been slow to reveal the whole truth. He may have been technically correct to tell MPs, in a written answer last month, that Werritty "has . . . not travelled with me on any official overseas visits". But he must have suspected that sooner or later it would emerge that Werritty happened to turn up on 18 of the 48 occasions Fox has travelled abroad since he took office. Why not tell the full story from the start? Again, why say that officials were present at a meeting in Dubai when they weren't?

Perhaps Fox, a passionate believer in free markets and small states, believes the rules on ministerial conduct are footling, bureaucratic restrictions on his freedom to associate with wealth-creating capitalists. If he does, why not say so? Alternatively, if, as he and his allies maintain, he has done nothing wrong, why not disclose everything from the beginning?

The answer is that politicians regard truth, partial truth and outright falsehood as morally neutral categories. They are to be deployed according to the needs of the moment. This is embedded in their DNA, as party association and collective responsibility require them to make the best possible case for a particular policy or course of action even when they know it is flawed, or disagree with it. They must hold the line, stretching the facts as necessary. Doing the same when their own conduct comes under scrutiny is second nature.

Politics, like theatre, could not exist if everybody always told the truth. The play must go on and Fox is just behaving as a true pro.

Matchy matchy

Many of us are struggling to understand what exactly Fox is alleged to have done wrong. Sexual affairs or fiddling expenses are easy to explain, but matters involving business dealings, close male friends and foreigners present mass-circulation newspapers with a challenge. The Mail on Sunday had the answer: "17 years apart - but they dress like twins" was its headline over pictures of Fox and Werritty together. One showed Werritty, as best man, dressed identically to Fox at the latter's wedding. Both are smiling or, as "a behavioural and body language expert" put it, displaying "the same facial expression". In another picture, the two men wore brown jackets of different shades. A third showed them both in suits and ties. No, this doesn't tell you anything about Fox and Werritty. But it tells you a lot about journalism.

Load of pants

When I was New Statesman editor, we got in one of those smarty-pants designers who said we needed "zones" so that columns would be in one place and features in another, rather than jumbled together. Now the Independent, assisted by another smarty-pants, comes up with a rather downmarket redesign (features headlines in big black capitals, for example) in which the Viewspaper, a separate section devoted to comment, is dumped. Instead, columns and features are sprinkled through a single section that also includes news, sport, arts, etc. "None of your favourite components have been discarded - they are still there," writes the new editor, Chris Blackhurst, in a take-it-or-leave-it tone. However, the Independent, like all papers, maintains a separate ghetto for "world news". Newspapers didn't have such a thing 50 years ago. TV and radio still don't, and we'd think it most peculiar if they did.

Poor substitute

One of Labour's most outstanding achievements in office was to reduce child poverty during an economic boom. This sounds nonsensical, but isn't. Poverty is defined relatively; children living in families that receive below 60 per cent of median income count as poor. As the median nearly always rises during a boom, more children automatically become poor unless employers increase their parents' wages or ministers increase their benefits.
The Tories are about to pull off the opposite trick. In recessions, the median falls and so, unless poor families' wages and benefits are hit harder than average, child poverty automatically falls. In 2009-2010, that was exactly what happened, with 300,000 children coming out of poverty. But that was before the Tories got to work. Now, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reports, we can expect the same number (though not necessarily the same children) to go back into poverty over the next two years, despite the likelihood that median incomes will remain, at best, stagnant. You couldn't have a clearer illustration of the difference between Tory and Labour governments.

Stratford ramblings

I once wondered why supermarkets didn't develop some device affixed to trolleys that allowed shoppers to locate a particular product instantly. Then I realised that they want people to wander around aimlessly, making impulse buys. The same principle operates at the giant new Westfield centre in Stratford, east London. "Store locators" exist but they aren't very user-friendly. They give street numbers, but these are not shown on the shops themselves. Disoriented shoppers are more likely to wander at random into stores, buying things they don't want or need. And that is the whole point.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, This is plan B

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide