Brown's Fleet Street friends

He may have lost the Sun but Brown still has the support of the FT

As Gordon Brown contemplates the Sun's defection to the Tories and the unhappy precedent of Neil Kinnock's defeat, he would do well to turn to today's Financial Times.

Along with the Mirror titles, the FT is Brown's last genuine friend on Fleet Street. The paper's leader today proclaims:

There is life yet in Gordon Brown. Or so it seemed, as he began his speech with a combative yet uncharacteristically succinct crescendo of the achievements of the past 12 years, the vindication of Labour's fight for change.

Thanks to an influential social-democratic faction the FT has endorsed Labour at every election since 1992. It's also the most Europhile newspaper in the country and is contemptuous of the Tories' sinister alliances in Brussels.

The paper's circulation may be a modest 395,845 copies a day (though that's more than either the Guardian or the Independent), but given its wealthy readership it effortlessly punches above its weight.

Meanwhile, the Tories, not surprisingly, are jubilant after winning the support of the Sun. Eric Pickles, the party chairman, said this morning that he had shared a "private moment" with the disgraced Andy Coulson on hearing the news. It was in part the fierce criticism of the former News of the World editor by the liberal press that convinced Rupert Murdoch to back Coulson's new boss, David Cameron.

But the Sun will not be an uncritical friend to the Conservatives and it was pathetic of Lord Mandelson to bleat about the paper becoming a "Tory fanzine". It's either acceptable for newspapers to hold political views or it's not. Certainly by this logic the Mirror is little more than a Labour Pravda.

The Sun is likely to press Cameron to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty even if the Irish approve it this Friday. It will lead the calls for him to repeal the 50p tax rate. It will encourage him to drastically reduce the NHS budget. Alastair Campbell was right to contrast today's negative headline, "Labour's lost it", with 1997's positive message "The Sun backs Blair". Here the paper mirrors the public's own uncertainties about Cameron.

That the tabloid's declaration for the Tories came after a speech in which Brown pledged the sort of "tough" action on antisocial behaviour consciously designed to appeal to the Sun is a painful irony for Labour. The futility of pandering to the conservative right has been exposed once more.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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No, Christopher Hitchens did not convert to Christianity on his deathbed

From Mother Theresa to Princess Diana, for Hitchens, there were no sacred cows. He certainly would not have wanted to become one. 

The suggestion that atheist writer Christopher Hitchens converted on his deathbed was inevitable. When the evangelical Christian Larry Taunton appeared on Newsnight last week to discuss his new book, he suggested that “the Hitch” was “contemplating conversion” in his final days. The collective sigh from his fans was palpable.

That particular claim is uncontroversial. Of course Hitchens “contemplated” Christianity – to say so simply suggests he had an open mind. However, the book goes further, and claims that Hitchens began to doubt his convictions in his final days. Taunton writes that: “Publicly, he had to play the part, to pose, as a confident atheist. In private, he was entering forbidden territory, crossing enemy lines, exploring what he had ignored or misrepresented for so long.” The book is littered with similar insinuations that he was, so to speak, losing his faith. His close friends, those he wasn’t paid to spend time with as he was with Taunton, deny this completely.

Naturally, the book has sparked a host of rumours and junk articles that suggest he converted. Not one to let a cheap shot slide or leave an insinuation untouched, Hitchens was forward-thinking enough to not only predict these accusations, but deliver a perfect pre-buttal. When Anderson Cooper asked him, a short while before his death, whether he had reconsidered “hedging his bets”, he responded:

“If that comes it will be when I’m very ill, when I’m half demented either by drugs or by pain when I won’t have control over what I say. I mention this in case you ever hear a rumour later on, because these things happen and the faithful love to spread these rumours.”

If that isn’t enough, however, his wife has made clear in the strongest possible terms that talk of a softening on Christianity and a deathbed conversion is entirely untrue. “That never happened. He lived by his principles until the end. To be honest, the subject of God didn’t come up.”

The spreading of fallacious rumours of deathbed conversions by the religious is predictable because there is so much historical precedent for it. Many of history’s most famous atheists have suffered this fate, so, in a sense, Hitch has now been inducted into this hall of infamy alongside the likes of Darwin, Thomas Paine, and David Hume. In God is not Great, he wrote that “the mere fact that such deathbed ‘repentances’ were sought by the godly, let alone subsequently fabricated, speaks volumes of the bad faith of the faith-based.”

Now, not for the first time, Hitchens has fallen foul of this bad faith. After all, what can be more abhorrent than baying for a man to abandon his lifelong principles when he is at his most vulnerable, and spreading callous lies when he can no longer respond? It speaks for the complete lack of confidence these people must have in their beliefs that they strike when the individual is at their least lucid and most desperate.

Hitchens felt the bitter end of the religious stick when he was dying as well, and he responded with typical wit and good humour. He was told that it was “God’s curse that he would have cancer near his throat because that was the organ (he) used to blaspheme.” His response? “Well, I’ve used many other organs to blaspheme as well if it comes to that.” One suspects that he would have rubbished recent talk in a similarly sardonic fashion.

Likewise, for a man who was not afraid of a provocative title himself (see: The Missionary Position, No One Left to Lie to) it would be reasonable to think he’d accept his own life as fair game. From Mother Theresa to Princess Diana, for Hitchens, there were no sacred cows. He certainly would not have wanted to become one.

Fortunately, we are blessed with the wonders of the internet, and Hitchens can respond to these claims as Thomas Paine and David Hume could not – from the grave. His prediction and preparation for this speaks of an intellect like no other. In a posthumous debate he still wins out.