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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

As long as Jeremy Corbyn's Labour opponents are divided, he will rule

The leader's foes have yet to agree on when and how a challenge should take place.

Labour MPs began plotting to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader before he even held the position. They have not stopped since. From the outset, most regarded him as electorally and morally defective. Nothing has caused them to relinquish this view.

A week before the first major elections of this parliament, Labour found itself conducting a debate normally confined to far-right internet forums: was Hitler a Zionist? For some MPs, the distress lay in how unsurprised they were by all this. Since Corbyn’s election last September, the party has become a mainstream venue for hitherto fringe discussions.

Many MPs believe that Labour will be incapable of rebuilding its standing among the Jewish community as long as Corbyn remains leader. In the 1930s, Jewish support for the party was as high as 80 per cent. “They handed you your . . . membership just after your circumcision,” quipped the father in the 1976 television play Bar Mitzvah Boy. By the time of the last general election, a poll found that support had fallen to a mere 22 per cent. It now stands at just 8.5 per cent.

Corbyn’s critics cite his typical rejection of anti-Semitism and "all forms of racism" (as if unable to condemn the former in isolation), his defence of a tweet sent by his brother, Piers (“Zionists can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for Palestine”), and his description of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”. The Lab­our leader dismissed the latter remark as a diplomatic nicety but such courtesy was not displayed when he addressed Labour Friends of Israel and failed to mention the country’s name. When challenged on his record of combating anti-Semitism, Corbyn frequently invokes his parents’ presence at the Battle of Cable Street, a reference that does not provide the reassurance intended. The Jewish community does not doubt that Labour has stood with it in the past. It questions whether it is prepared to stand with it in the present.

MPs say that Labour’s inept response to anti-Semitism has strengthened the moral case for challenging Corbyn. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of how the fear of “enormous reputational damage” had pushed him to the brink of resignation. As the New Statesman went to press, Corbyn’s first electoral test was looming. Every forecast showed the party on course to become the first opposition to lose council seats in a non-general-election year since 1985. Yet Corbyn appeared to insist on 3 May that this would not happen, gifting his opponents a benchmark by which to judge him.

Sadiq Khan was projected to become the party’s first successful London mayoral candidate since 2004. But having distanced himself from Corbyn throughout the race, he intends to deny him any credit if he wins. Regardless of the results on 5 May, there will be no challenge to the Labour leader before the EU referendum on 23 June. Many of the party’s most Corbyn-phobic MPs are also among its most Europhile. No cause, they stress, should distract from the defence of the UK’s 43-year EU membership.

Whether Corbyn should be challenged in the four weeks between the referendum and the summer recess is a matter of dispute among even his most committed opponents. Some contend that MPs have nothing to lose from trying and should be prepared to “grind him down” through multiple attempts, if necessary. Others fear that he would be empowered by winning a larger mandate than he did last September and argue that he must be given “longer to fail”. Still more hope that Corbyn will instigate a midterm handover to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, his closest ally, whom they regard as a beatable opponent.

Those who are familiar with members’ thinking describe many as “anxious” and in need of “reassurance” but determined that Corbyn receives adequate time to “set out his stall”. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of being “caught between Scylla and Charybdis” – that is, “a Labour Party membership which is ardently Corbynista and a British electorate which is ardently anti-Corbynista”. In their most pessimistic moments, some MPs gloomily wonder which group will deselect them first. The possibility that a new Conservative leader could trigger an early general election is cited by some as cause for haste and by others as the only means by which Corbynism can be definitively discredited.

The enduring debate over whether the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged (the party’s rules are ambiguous) is dismissed by most as irrelevant. Shadow cabinet members believe that Corbyn would achieve the requisite nominations. Momentum, the Labour leader’s praetorian guard, has privately instructed its members to be prepared to lobby MPs for this purpose.

There is no agreement on who should face Corbyn if his removal is attempted. The veteran MP Margaret Hodge has been touted as a “stalking horse” to lead the charge before making way for a figure such as the former paratrooper Dan Jarvis or the shadow business secretary, Angela Eagle. But in the view of a large number of shadow cabinet members, no challenge will materialise. They cite the high bar for putative leaders – the endorsement of 20 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs – and the likelihood of failure. Many have long regarded mass front-bench resignations and trade union support as ­essential preconditions for a successful challenge, conditions they believe will not be met less than a year after Corbyn’s victory.

When Tony Blair resigned as Labour leader in 2007, he had already agreed not to fight the next general election and faced a pre-eminent rival in Gordon Brown. Neither situation exists today. The last Labour leader to be constitutionally deposed was J R Clynes in 1922 – when MPs, not members, were sovereign. Politics past and present militate against Corbyn’s opponents. There is but one man who can remove the leader: himself.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred