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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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.