In this week's New Statesman: The Food Special

How halal meat became the most reviled food in Britain | Our changing tastes, from WWII to today | E

Ed Balls: "George Osborne is welcome to try my pork dish"

In a unique interview for this special Food issue of the New Statesman, Mehdi Hasan talks to the accomplished chef and shadow chancellor of the Exchequer, Ed Balls, about political gaffes involving food, how tax credit cuts will hit children’s health, and what he would serve to George Osborne for dinner:

I have said before that he is welcome to try my pulled pork dish [Balls’s signature ‘14-hour pulled pork barbecue’]. But maybe now I’d have to bake him a pasty, since he doesn’t remember when he last ate one.

Although Balls’s wife, Yvette Cooper, cooks “an excellent risotto every now and then”, he feels that his culinary skills are superior. “She’s very good,” he concedes, “. . . but out of practice!” And asked why he thinks food has such potency in politics, Balls says: 

I guess it is the Last Supper symbolism of ‘the breaking of bread’.

The shadow chancellor discusses two meals in recent years that have made for great intrigue. Legend has it that, in 1994, following the death of the Labour Party leader John Smith, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown made a pact at the since-closed Granita restaurant over who would succeed him. Balls tells Hasan that he was present at the meal: “I was there for the Granita starter but felt like a bit of a lemon, so I scarpered.”

Another private discussion about the Labour leadership – also widely reported and much speculated on – had a culinary dimension: Balls and Cooper were accused of plotting with friends, over a dinner of lasagne in January, to seize control of the party. In this interview, Balls tells the true story behind “Lasagne-gate”.

Morality of meat: Mehdi Hasan on halal

Elsewhere in the Food special, Mehdi Hasan explores the highly charged debate in Britain over meat, animal cruelty and Islamic ritual slaughter. Hasan questions how many opponents of halal know what producing it involves, and wonders whether criticism of halal is ever a proxy for deeper fears about Muslims.

Joe Regenstein, professor of food science at Cornell University, who leads the university’s Kosher and Halal Food Initiative, tells Hasan that the scientific evidence against halal slaughter “has often been done poorly with an agenda driving a desired outcome”. Furthermore, Regenstein says:

Many of those attacking religious slaughter have no clue as to what is happening. It is more of an Islamophobic issue, not an animal well-being issue.

Also in the Food special, Helen Lewis travels to Paris in search of the secret behind Michelin stars, Nina Caplan reflects on the impact of Jewish cuisine on England and Sophie Elmhirst compares the “ONS shopping baskets” of 1947 and today to chart Britain’s changing tastes. 

An exclusive still life, shot by the photographer Stephen Lenthall, accompanies Elmhirst’s article, “We are what we eat”.

Russell Kane: "The grammar school system was smashed away by well-meaning liberals"

In the NS Interview, the comedian and debut author Russell Kane talks to Samira Shackle about winning the Edinburgh Comedy Award, using his family for material and his regret that he voted Lib Dem. Kane tells Shackle that, to him, growing up in the Nineties, writing a novel was a pie-in-the-sky dream:

I wasn’t brought up to think that dreams are achievable. The grammar school system was smashed away by well-meaning liberals. So I was fucked, packed off to a comprehensive along with all the other bright working-class kids, to be watered down and then shipped out to Asda.

Kane further attacks the British schools system, which he says is more inverted now than it was 50 years ago:

What we should’ve done in the Sixties is fixed the secondary moderns; we made an intellectual error. Bright working-class kids now go to a comprehensive . . . If you’re born in a council flat now to a single mum, you have less chance of getting to Magdalene College than you did in the Sixties. That’s fucking awful; that’s unacceptable.

In the Critics

John Gray reviews What Money Can’t Buy, a landmark book by the Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel. “In a culture mesmerised by the market,” Gray writes, “Sandel’s is the indispensable voice of reason . . . He shows that the limits of markets cannot be decided by economic reasoning.”

Our Critic at Large this week is Bryan Appleyard, who marks the fifth anniversary of the launch of Apple’s iPhone. In 2007, the then chief executive of Apple, Steve Jobs, declared that his company was going to “reinvent the phone”. “Jobs was right,” Appleyard writes; “he . . . reinvented the phone – not as a phone, but as a near-universal machine.” However, there remains an unresolved question: do we really want everything that this remarkable invention gives us? And yet, as Appleyard writes, “Mobile connectivity perpetually seduces us with the call of elsewhere. It takes us out of the moment.”

Elsewhere in the magazine

  • In Observations, Andrew Hussey, Denis MacShane and Daniel Trilling consider what message the elections in France and Greece hold for Europe.
  • In the Politics Column, Rafael Behr wonders if only the “quad” still believe in the coalition.
  • Nicholas Wapshott charts the re-emergence of Barack Obama the candidate in a Letter from America.

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories