Locked up with writers

No duffers, no loons, they could cook, they were funny and twisted and many of them had nice mums -

Once again I am hunched in the only office I may ever know – a train - my own lovely home being a distant memory filled with housework and DVD’s I haven’t watched for ages. On this occasion I’m in a Birmingham-bound diesel office which has managed to sneak out of Edinburgh Waverly without being – thus far – stymied by all of the apocalyptic and mysterious things that happen to the rail network on Sundays. Yes, dear reader, I am mad enough to attempt Sunday travel.

Sitting opposite me in a kind of smiley coma is Gill Dennis the splendid creature responsible for writing, among other things, the screenplay for “Walk The Line”. We have just tutored a screen writing course and, having talked and thought almost continuously for five days we now find it challenging to organise complex tasks like blinking. Occasionally we cry. I may even be crying now.

Tutoring residential courses represents a delicious kind of community-based Russian roulette for writers. There you will be, trapped in a remote location with a number of complete strangers in order to Teach Something About Something, perhaps with another writer who may or may not turn out to be going through a drug-induced internal soap opera, or a sex-induced external soap opera, or a typing-induced grand opera.

Expecting typists to respond warmly to group experiences always seems odd to me. We are not naturally hugging, sharing, orderly folk. We have the power to transform The Walton Family Eats Dinner into The Manson Family Gets Even. Before arriving at one of these things – on a train – I am always assailed by similar questions. Will there be more than one nutter? Will inappropriate sexual behaviour in thin-walled bedrooms cause conflict/envy/bootleg recordings? Will we end up building a rudimentary altar and sacrificing the weakest participant? And, most importantly, will all the writing be shit?

Happily – miraculously – this course involved 100 per cent charming and co-operative people who could also write like the stars I hope they become. All sixteen of them - no duffers, no loons, they could cook, they were funny and twisted and many of them had nice mums. Plus, Mr. Dennis is one of nature’s gentlemen and a joy to be around. Much fun was had, much work was done – and I got to enjoy being slightly teary on the final evening as work was presented and everyone found out how good everyone else was.

If only there was a British film industry it would all have had a point. If only there was a Scottish film industry and the powers that be weren’t more interested in rebranding themselves than making watchable, unique films that would entertain, enlighten and delight. If only they were interested in the arts at all – we could be another Ireland. But we’re not.

Lately, I’ve also managed to lie in a couple of pals’ spare bedroom and finish the first draft of a short story. (I will commence serious rewriting once I have finished this.) As said pals were away for the weekend and left me in charge of their children – no, that’s not arrestable, I am in fact a competent warder/baby sitter – I had the incalculably wonderful experience of introducing two ankle-biters who don’t have a telly at home to the full glory that can be squashed into three box sets of Dr Who.

They are excellent young people – partly because their parents love them and they have not been accosted by television and partly because they have gone to a school that treats them like human beings and has equipment and proper teachers and lots of running about and mild risk – they just didn’t have the doctor.

And now they do. Ah, the flinching, the giggling, the looking away, the being surprised when tricky situations are not resolved by murder, the gentle exploration of a world that loves adventure and intelligence and curiosity and human potential. A television show that respects the viewer. They have only a vague idea of how rare that is. But they now do know how good the doctor is. I growed up with him around and they can, too. He’s where the BBC keeps what’s left of it’s soul.

A year on from the Spending Review, the coalition's soothsayer has emerged to offer another gloomy economic prognosis. Asked by ITV News whether he could promise that there wouldn't be a double-dip recession, Vince Cable replied: "I can't do that.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.