Trouble in Manchester

The RSA's Matthew Taylor on the whispering cabinet minister, an antagonisic local and the train that

Sunday was just one of those days. I was booked to chair a fringe meeting for the New Statesman at lunchtime and so got to Euston in good time for the Manchester train. That’s when it all started to go wrong. The train ‘wasn’t ready’ which, given that Virgin had presumably had since Saturday night to prepare it, was hard to understand.

When we finally did board the train it was chronically overcrowded. There were three announcements from the buffet (or ‘shop’ as it is now called)) one to say it was opening late, another to say it couldn’t take charge or credit cards and a third to say it had closed down due to ‘unforeseen’ problems.

The train then stopped and we were told it would arrive at least an hour late. But at least something was working; the air conditioning in our carriage was set so high that people were scrabbling around in their luggage for woollies.

I arrived in Manchester far too late for my meeting but in time to run to the Piccadilly Sports Bar and watch the last five minutes of my beloved West Brom losing to Aston Villa. Thoroughly grumpy and miserable I walked the streets of Manchester. Eventually I found a pub with the Chelsea v Man United game but distracted by the match I accidentally picked up someone else’s drink at the bar.

As the rather large person in question was remonstrating with me Chelsea equalised an event in which I could immediately tell he somehow felt that I as a Londoner was somehow implicated. I beat a hasty retreat.

Of course, I could have gone to the conference but ever since the Observer printed a tendentious piece two weeks ago suggesting I had been appointed to advise David Cameron I have been getting funny looks from my old comrades.

Eventually it was time for the RSA World at One fringe meeting at the Raddison Hotel. The room was packed and hot and the audience having to be patient as we had pushed back the start time by half an hour to accommodate David Miliband.

Our first speaker was supposed to be Ben Page from IPSOS MORI but for reasons best known to them, the Social Market Foundation had taken his pass and despite my pleadings were utterly indifferent to the fact that he was stuck outside the security cordon with minutes until our meeting.

As the minutes ticked away Ben kept phoning to say the police were getting increasingly suspicious of his story and he was starting to worry about the prospects of a full body search. At this point I snapped, losing my temper with various SMF staff and bellowing (mild) obscenities in front of several rather startled members of the Cabinet.

Eventually I tracked down the pass and Ben and I ran up five flights of stairs to a meeting room so hot that it could only have felt tolerable to anyone who had just stepped of the super cooled 8.36 Euston to Manchester train.

Ben was a star and entertained everyone with his slides showing the contradictory nature of public opinions. I made my short comments. But RSA and WATO staff were frantically waving at me to indicate that the Foreign Secretary was ten, no fifteen, no five, no ten minutes away so I slowed down and extemporised.

After 25 minutes which ranged over my life at the RSA, Number Ten, the Labour Party and Bootham Street Junior School I dried up so we had to move to questions.

Eventually, after very enlightening exchanges about how to canvass in Mitcham, the design of leaflets and engaging with your local park, Mr Miliband showed up looking relaxed and commanding. After he had made a few comments Martha Kearney started to quiz him, presumably aware that we were by now running well over time and that several people were showing signs of heat exhaustion. But the conference delegates have been well briefed so the moment Martha mentioned the leadership issue she got drowned out by a combination of booing and the soft clump of expiring bodies falling to the carpet.

So that WATO could get something to tape for today’s programme there was no choice but to overrun, anyway, we couldn’t get out of the doors until all the people on stretchers had been carried to safety. Suddenly I realised I had fifteen minutes to get the last train back to London. There was no choice but to run. As I sprinted past a Cabinet minister I can’t be sure but I think she murmured ‘that’s right Taylor you can run, but you can’t hide’.

I made it to the station with two minutes to spare. My body was steaming, my shirt was soaked and there was sweat running in rivulets off my forehead as I sat down in the carriage. ‘Ding dong’ went the announcer ‘welcome to the 20.10 to Euston. Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances. the air conditioning will not be working on this journey’.

Matthew Taylor became Chief Executive of the RSA in November 2006. Prior to this appointment, he was Chief Adviser on Political Strategy to the Prime Minister.
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Why Philip Green's fall should bring down the honours system – but won't

Sir Shifty may fall in disgrace, but our ridiculous system will endure. No matter what's happening in the rest of politics.

Sir Philip Green’s Efficiency Review (2010) is his Das Kapital and it is still, happily, online. You can, if you wish, smirk at his recommendations to the government, which were solicited by David Cameron, I imagine, because when he stood next to Green he looked not like a 17th-century woodcut but like a tall, handsome semi-aristocrat.

“There is no motivation to save money or to treat cash ‘as your own’,” Green grumbles, before complaining, “There are inconsistent commercial skills across departments.” I am weeping with laughter at the whole report. But I’m not one of those BHS employees watching their pension ­vanish as the hideous cushions, throws and bedspreads pile up on the Green family yacht Lionheart. I instantly rename the yacht 14-Day Return Policy No More.

The days when Green could write efficiency reviews for people to ignore are gone. It is said that he could lose his knighthood, because that would be exciting and pointless. If so, I hope the ceremony features the formal rending of a garment from the BHS sale bin – perhaps a torn sock will be flung at his head? The Queen will not be happy, because de-knighting makes the ancient system of patronage look as ridiculous as it really is. Do intercessors between man and God make mistakes? Would they raise a man the Daily Mail now calls “Sir Shifty”? (I checked whether there was a Sir Shifty among the knights of the Round Table who flogged the Holy Grail to a passing tinker. There was not.)

Lord Melbourne advised Queen Victoria not to attempt to make her husband, Albert, a king, for if the people knew that they could make kings, they might unmake them. Green will discover this in his tiny way. But the elites should not hide their baubles. One fallen knight will not destroy the system (and I cannot think that Green will take £571m from his Lionheart cushion budget to save his knighthood by replenishing the BHS pension fund, because a knighthood is, in essence, just a tiny Bentley Continental that you wear over your nipple). One fallen knight should destroy the system but it won’t, because human conceit and docility are without end. Green will be shunned. Nothing will change.

One might have hoped that the Brexit vote would have alerted Cameron to the abyss between the electorate and the elected. (Even Alastair Campbell, chomping against Brexit, seemed to forget that he was as complicit in the alienation of voters as anyone else: government by sofa, teeth and war.) The response was glib, even for Cameron, a man so glib that I sometimes think he is a reflection in a pond. Brexit hit him like someone caught in a mild shower without an umbrella. He hummed at the lesson that history dealt him; he hummed as he left his page. It was the hum of the alpha Etonian caught out in a mistake, yes, but it was still a bloody hum.

His next act was to increase pay-offs to favoured courtiers against civil service advice and at public expense; then, it was reported, he nominated his spin doctor Craig Oliver and his former spin doctor Gabby Bertin for peerages, because the upper house needs more PRs. He has learned nothing. I wish him a relaxed retirement in which he will, apparently, write his four-page memoir, David Cameron: My Struggle (sub-subtitle: Eton Mess?). I hope he does not attempt to deny “the prosciutto affair”, because there is no need. It was not true. It was too pure a metaphor.

So the honours system, an essential part of our alienating politics, alongside dodgy donors, duck houses and George Galloway, endures in its worst form as conventional politics fails. It is a donkey sanctuary for political friends and Bruce Forsyth. I am not suggesting that everyone who has been honoured is dreadful – some lollipop ladies deserve to be patronised with an OBE (when there is no E any more), I am sure, and the lords, some of whom are excellent, are the functional opposition now – but the system can no longer be defended by the mirth potential of watching politicians ponder what light-entertainment celebrities might swing a marginal before being posthumously accused of rape. We must find something better before the house burns down. Perhaps a robust parliamentary democracy?

The problem is best expressed by the existence of a specialist consultancy called Awards Intelligence, which engages in “VIP brand-building” by soliciting awards. It sells “awards plans” from £795, which I could well imagine Philip Green perusing as he bobs about aboard Lionheart, were it not too late. The Awards Intelligence website tells us so much, though obliviously, about the narcissism of modern politics that I am tempted to reproduce it in full. But I will merely report that it asks:

"Did you know that you can join the House of Lords on a part-time basis as an Independent Crossbench Peer or a political peer affiliated to one of the main politial parties – even if you have ongoing work, family or community commitments!"

The message from Awards Intelligence, which boasts of a 50 per cent success rate, is clear: the legislature is part-time, it exists to “instil trust, add credibility and provide a platform for you to have your say” – and it can’t always spell “political”.

Sir Shifty and Awards Intelligence do not constitute the worst crisis in the history of honours, dreadful though they are. During the First World War the royal German cousins were stripped of their garters, so that British soldiers would not have to kill men of higher rank. But it is time for the Queen to stop pinning toys on nipples. They are part of a political system sweeping us, swiftly, towards the night.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue