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.

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Autumn Statement 2015: a test of competence as well as compassion

George Osborne's chickens may be coming home to roost.

The debate will be political and polarized, as you’d expect, when the Chancellor sets out the results of the Spending Review tomorrow and how his £20bn of savings will be realised. However my suspicion is that while many followers of the Westminster's circus are debating what it all means for compassionate or compassionless conservatism, the public will be more interested in a more straightforward question: one of competence. 

Strip away the hyperbole and the election in May was won on an assessment of which party was the more competent to govern. A huge part of the public’s judgment in this regard was to trust the track record of the Conservatives in balancing the books and that the £20bn in departmental savings earmarked was a reasonable and responsible ambition. 

This is the question in point because what the public did not endorse explicitly was significant change in the size and role of the state. The argument was made and won for a budget surplus, not necessarily for its consequences. As Paul Johnson of the IFS has been at pains to say after every recent budget.

We should acknowledge that one of the reasons the Chancellor does have the public’s confidence is that the cuts to public services so far have not been as damaging as many opponents predicted. The NHS is under-strain, but has not broken. Hard pushed local government leaders have managed to shield social care from the worst of the changes, and the majority of police officers lost were in the back-office not on the beat. So when pollsters ask the public whether they have noticed the effects of austerity, most say they haven't. 

Understanding what the implications are of further large reductions in areas in the firing line such as police forces or local government is hard to do. So the government has told the public "trust us". Now we are going to find out how well that trust was placed. The point is this though - if the public haven't yet felt the full affects of a smaller state they may not be so tolerant it if they do. That brings us to the Chancellor’s real test. The easy cuts have surely been made, after the long years of spending increases prior to 2010 you would expect the system to be able to tighten its belt. But with five years of austerity under that belt there is a risk that the additional cuts could push services too far. 

The public were told that £20bn of saving could be achieved without the kind of pain that will be felt if social care for the elderly really starts to fall over, if police officers become significantly more scarce, or if the NHS does need much more than the promised £8bn (as many believe it will). On this point they have trusted the Chancellor to understand the implications of what he is promising. So if the policy choices in the Spending Review turn out to show that he did not, it will be the Government's competence as much as its compassion that will concern the public.


Steve O'Neill was deputy head of policy for the Liberal Democrats until the election.