Jeremy Clarkson defends the "Chipping Norton set"

It wasn't BSkyB David Cameron and Rebekah Brooks talked about over their "Christmas-time" dinner: it

In this week's Sunday Times, Jeremy Clarkson has taken a brief respite from shouting "POWER" as he drives round corners to defend the ex-News International boss -- and close friend -- Rebekah Brooks.

The piece is a response to Peter Oborne's blog post in the Telegraph, which blamed many of David Cameron's troubles on the "Chipping Norton set" -- "an incestuous collection of louche, affluent, power-hungry and amoral Londoners, located in and around the Prime Minister's Oxfordshire constituency".

Those in the set were said to include the PR man Matthew Freud and his wife Elisabeth Murdoch, as well as Brooks and her husband, the racehorse trainer Charlie.

Not so, says Clarkson. Matthew Freud lives in Burford, "which to most people in Chipping Norton -- myself included -- is basically France". Admittedly, David and Samantha Cameron do live nearby but Clarkson doesn't see them very much any more, "partly because Sam is one of those non-smokers who suddenly remembers when she's presented with a smoker like me that what she'd like to do is smoke all my bloody cigarettes". (Although Cameron did find time to dress up as the Stig for Clarkson's birthday party.)

Perhaps the best part of the article, however, is where Clarkson describes the "Christmas-time" dinner at Rebekah's and Charlie's house, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch. (That's how he refers to it, by the way -- "Christmas-time" -- so we're still in the dark over whether it was Christmas dinner itself. The mental image of Clarkson snoring gently through the Queen's Speech, while Cameron stands over him, tutting, still lives on.)

What Rebekah and Cameron talked about most of all -- and I'm a trained journalist so I understand the need to get things right -- is sausage rolls.

We were planning a big walk with all our kids over Christmas and thought it might be a good idea to build a fire in my woods and stop off for a picnic. Rebekah was worried about what we'd eat. Cameron thought sausage rolls would be nice.

So, there you have it. Confident that his case has been proved, Clarkson adds triumphantly: "In other words, it was much like a million other Christmas-time dinners being held in a million other houses all over the world that day." (That leaves me feeling a bit left out -- I had a prime minister and a billionaire media baron's son at mine but unaccountably missed out on the host of a popular motoring show. Oh, well, perhaps next year. I'll get the call in to Richard Hammond now.)

PS. The Mail on Sunday reports today that the Chipping Norton set was still in full swing two weeks ago, with Elisabeth Murdoch's and Matthew Freud's summer party at their Cotswolds home. Guests included Rebekah Brooks, James Murdoch . . . and Jeremy Clarkson.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Getty Images
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn fares well in his toughest interview yet

Labour will be relieved that Corbyn's encounter with Andrew Neil was less painful than Theresa May's. 

Jeremy Corbyn's half-hour BBC1 interview with Andrew Neil was the toughest grilling he has faced since becoming Labour leader. Neil sought to cause Corbyn maximum discomfort by confronting him with his past views on the IRA, NATO and Trident (which he never anticipated having to defend from his current position). 

"I didn't support the IRA, I don't support the IRA," Corbyn said in response to the first. After Neil countered that Corbyn "invited convicted IRA terrorists to tea in the Commons a few weeks after the Brighton bomb," the Labour leader replied: "I never met the IRA. I obviously did meet people from Sinn Fein" (a distinction without a difference, some will say). But after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Corbyn is aided by the reduced toxicity of the subject (New Labour dealt with terrorists) and the fact that for some voters, the young most of all, "the troubles" are a distant memory.

NATO, Neil recalled, had been described by Corbyn as "'a very dangerous Frankenstein of an organisation', 'a danger to world peace'. Two years ago you said it should be 'wound up'." It is to Corbyn's credit, in some respects, that he struggles to disguise his sincere views, and he did on this occasion. "NATO exists," he observed at one point, eventually conceding after much prodding: "I will be a committed member of that alliance in order to promote peace, justice, human rights and democracy". But nearly 30 years after the end of the Cold War, the subject will seem esoteric to many voters.

Trident, however, is another matter. "My views on nuclear weapons are well-known," Corbyn correctly noted, making it clear that the Labour manifesto committed to full renewal against his wishes. "I voted against the renewal," he said. "Everybody knows that because I wanted to go in a different direction." That the opposition is divided on such a profound issue - and that Corbyn's stance is at odd with the electorate's - is undoubtedly a drag on Labour's support.

But under forensic examination, Corbyn emerged stronger than many predicted. There were few moments of intemperance and no disastrous gaffes. Corbyn successfully dodged a question on whether Labour would cut immigration by replying that the numbers would "obviously reduce" if more workers were trained. Indeed, compared with Theresa May's painful encounter with Neil last Monday, Corbyn's team will be relieved by his performance. Though the Labour leader cannot escape his past, he avoided being trapped by it tonight. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496