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
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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