Heseltine’s act of faith and the redesign of the Independent

Plus: an incident down a dark alley

According to the prosecution in the Old Bailey trial of Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and others, Brooks and Coulson – once editor and deputy editor respectively of the News of the World – had a six-year love affair. It continued after Brooks moved to edit the Sun and Coulson became NoWeditor.

Everyone is faintly surprised and shocked but they shouldn’t be. Powerful men once mated with their secretaries (as they were then called) and other junior employees. An important effect of more equal opportunities between the genders is that they now form liaisons – inside and outside marriage – with their professional peers. For example, almost throughout Nicholas Lloyd’s nine-year editorship of the Daily Express, his wife, Eve Pollard, was also a national newspaper editor, latterly at the Sunday Express. Shouldn’t sociologists be exploring the effects of bedroom intimacies on power relations?

Canary warning

Michael Heseltine has finally made up my mind on the HS2 rail link. Arguing that we should abandon cost-benefit analysis and go ahead with the project as an “act of faith”, he compares it to the London Docklands regeneration scheme he pushed through in the early 1980s against opposition from cabinet colleagues, civil servants and local politicians. Now, he says, Docklands is home to the gleaming banking towers of Canary Wharf and, if he had forecast such developments, he “would have been carted off by men in white coats”.

The white-coated ones would have been right. The area is now home to a parasitic class of highly paid financiers who led the country, and much of the world, to disaster in 2008; perverted the British economy so that it now produces almost nothing of value; pushed the price of London housing to levels unaffordable to most local people; and created in east London a wasteland of upmarket chain shops and restaurants that has no cultural, aesthetic or community value.

If High Speed 2 is going to lead to Canary Wharf-style developments all the way from London to Birmingham, then we should vigorously oppose it.

Major mistake

The trial of Brooks and Coulson also focused on why NoW reporters believed that the murdered 13-year-old Amanda “Milly” Dowler, whose mobile they hacked, was still alive. A recruitment agent left a message about a job in the West Midlands, but had dialled a wrong number. “Hello, Nana,” the call began. The reporters convinced themselves they heard “Hello, Mandy”.

This is an example of how journalists will mishear or misread to an extraordinary degree when they want a story to be true. During John Major’s premiership, a distinguished political editor believed he had discovered that, at an election meeting early in his career, Major spoke in favour of proportional representation. The hack had a yellowing newspaper cutting as evidence and the sensational story ran on the front page. Closer examination of the cutting, the sense of which had been confused by a clumsily positioned sub-heading, showed the words came from the Liberal candidate.

The political editor received this news on a Swiss mountain top and was only narrowly dissuaded from throwing himself off. A more terrible fate awaited the NoW.

Indie Python

The Independent’s latest redesign, its fifth in five years, looks elegant and classy. But need it strain so hard for novelty? “This newspaper has a proud record of innovation,” says the editor, Amol Rajan. “That tradition . . . makes me glad to see our masthead made vertical.” Which sounds a bit like the punchline to a Monty Python sketch. Equally inexplicable is the Balkanisation of the comment section, so that the columnists are scattered through the paper, with byline sketches that make them all look slightly scary. I once took a short cut down a dark London alley with Steve Richards, the paper’s political commentator. Looking at the new sketch of him, I give thanks I escaped unharmed.

Kettling tactics

It is now impossible, it seems, to go anywhere without being cross-examined. Collecting a prescription from the pharmacy, I was ushered into a side room and asked questions about what time of day I took the tablets, what I thought they were for and whether I noticed side effects. A few days later, visiting the Cambridge art gallery Kettle’s Yard with my wife, I was asked where I had heard about it, what I was interested in and where else I had been in the previous year. A day later, the same questioner was heading our way at the nearby Fitzwilliam Museum before we rapidly retreated. What happens to all this information? Who analyses it? What do they do with it? And couldn’t they just ask GCHQ?

Should we trust Michael Heseltine's acts of faith? Image: Getty

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 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

Photo: Getty
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Want to beat Theresa May? First, accept that she's popular

The difficult truth for the centre and left, and advocates of a new party, is that people don't "vote for the Tories reluctantly".

An election campaign that has been short on laughs has been livened up by a modest proposal by an immodest man: the barrister Jolyon Maugham, who used to write about tax for the New Statesman as well as advising Eds Miliband and Balls, has set out his (now mothballed) plans for a new party called Spring.

The original idea was a 28-day festival (each day would be celebrated with the national costumes, food and drink of one of the European Union’s member states) culiminating in the announcement of the candidacy of Spring’s first parliamentary candidate, one Jolyon Maugham, to stand against Theresa May in her constituency of Maidenhead. He has reluctantly abandoned the plan, because there isn’t the time between now and the election to turn it around.

There are many problems with the idea, but there is one paragraph in particular that leaps out:

“Like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, Labour’s left and moderates are bent on one another’s destruction. No one knows what the Lib Dems are for – other than the Lib Dems. And we vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative.”

Even within this paragraph there are a number of problems. Say what you like about Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty but it seems hard to suggest that there is not a fairly large difference between the two – regardless of which one you think is which – that might perhaps be worth engaging with. There are fair criticisms of the Liberal Democrats’ uncertain start to this campaign but they have been pretty clear on their platform when they haven’t been playing defence on theological issues.

But the biggest problem is the last sentence: “We vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative”. A couple of objections here: the first, I am not sure who the “we” are. Is it disgruntled former Labour members like Maugham who threw their toys out of the pram after Corbyn’s second successive leadership victory? If you are voting for the Tories reluctantly, I have invented a foolproof solution to “voting for the Tories reluctantly” that has worked in every election I’ve voted in so far: it’s to vote against the Tories.  (For what it’s worth, Maugham has said on Twitter that he will vote for the Liberal Democrats in his home constituency.)

I suspect, however, that the “we” Maugham is talking about are the voters. And actually, the difficult truth for the left and centre-left is that people are not voting for Theresa May “reluctantly”: they are doing it with great enthusiasm. They have bought the idea that she is a cautious operator and a safe pair of hands, however illusory that might be. They think that a big vote for the Tories increases the chance of a good Brexit deal, however unlikely that is.

There is not a large bloc of voters who are waiting for a barrister to turn up with a brass band playing Slovenian slow tunes in Maidenhead or anywhere in the country. At present, people are happy with Theresa May as Prime Minister. "Spring" is illustrative of a broader problem on much of the centre-left: they have a compelling diagnosis about what is wrong with Corbyn's leadership. They don't have a solution to any of Labour's problems that predate Corbyn, or have developed under him but not because of him, one of which is the emergence of a Tory leader who is popular and trusted. (David Cameron was trusted but unpopular, Boris Johnson is popular but distrusted.) 

Yes, Labour’s position would be a lot less perilous if they could either turn around Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity ratings or sub him out for a fresh, popular leader. That’s one essential ingredient of getting the Conservatives out of power. But the other, equally important element is understanding why Theresa May is popular – and how that popularity can be diminished and dissipated. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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