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"My sympathies have always been with the bullied rather than the bully."

Graham Linehan on comedy writing, politics and Twitter.

When you think about the current state of TV comedy, do you feel optimistic or pessimistic?

I'm never pessimistic because something always comes along. Every dry period gets shaken up by something like The Office. In fact, it could be said that dry periods create programmes like The Office, which often start as rejections of the current fashion. But they're black swan events, so when everyone tries to copy them they just create a new, dreary status quo to rebel against. I can't bear the mock-doc format now.

How do you personally decide if a joke goes too far or is too cruel?

I love the challenge of covering a taboo subject in a way that can't offend anyone. My favourite comedies do this -- the famous example is the Seinfeld masturbation episode -- and I'm always on the lookout for things that, at first glance, seem impossible to transpose to a comedy setting. I did the episode about Armin Meiwes, the German cannibal, on The IT Crowd because, horrible though the facts of the case were, I heard there was a previous guy who chickened out, so he and Armin went to see Oceans Eleven together instead. I found that hilarious and oddly sweet, so I thought I could do something with it.

Also, Twitter provides a means by which the people attacked in a particular joke can easily get in touch with you. These days, I think: "If the person I was making fun of contacted me, would I be able to defend it?" If the answer is yes, I go ahead. If the answer is no, I ask myself if I like the person. If the answer to that is no, I go ahead.

You said in Mustard magazine that you find it hard to write female comic characters. Do you think audiences still have trouble accepting that women can be funny?

Absolutely not. There may be writers out there who blame their own shortcomings on women but I hope I never become one of them. It's just a little more effort for me to get inside a woman's skin. One thing I have always tried to do is make the female characters as venal, corrupt and silly as the men. Being equally hard on my characters, male or female, is my pathetic little contribution to feminism.

You were a journalist in Dublin. Were you good at it -- and did you enjoy it?

Also here in London, for Select magazine. I enjoyed it very much but I was never a proper journalist. I would write humorous pieces and try and make my subject fit them, rather than the other way round. I was so young. I shudder when I read any of that stuff now. In fact, I shudder when I read things I wrote a month ago.

Are there any journalists you admire?

Plenty! Too many to list! I think the Guardian under Rusbridger has been amazing. I think the Guardian's work over the last decade, especially with WikiLeaks and phone-hacking, has been extraordinary. Literally world-changing. I love the way people like Ben Goldacre give you not just the story but the tools to understand the story and the issues and processes behind it. As a bonus, the Guardian understands what engaging with readers really means and the paper is all the better for it.

How do you think journalism should be funded once print doesn't pay any more -- advertising, paywalls or something else?
Paywalls seem a typical old-worldy example of trying to remake the web in the image of something less efficient, less useful, less shareable. I don't see it working long term. Until people stop resisting the fact that the world has changed utterly, this transition period is going to be longer than it should be and everyone will suffer. I don't have any bright ideas on how to pay for journalism -- if I had, I'd be writing this from my yacht -- but I do know that people will always want it and if you give them a convenient way to pay for it, they will.

You often call out media organisations for their bad behaviour. Are you ever afraid it might damage your career?

I wasn't until now.

How much has Twitter changed your day to day life?

It has totally transformed my life. It has given it an extra dimension and I would miss it terribly were it to disappear. I have daily conversations with people from all walks of life, whom I would otherwise never have known -- human rights lawyers, Egyptian IT Crowd fans who protested in Tahrir Square, policemen, Tories (yes, even Tories!), journalists . . . If ever I see something I like, I immediately find out whether the writer is on Twitter and if so, I'm able to send a note of thanks. A lot of friendships with people I hugely admire have started that way. I get very frustrated when people don't see what a miracle it is. The famous six degrees of separation has been reduced to zero and every day we're feeling the repercussions of that.

Do you think that Twitter-led campaigns -- such as #welovethenhs -- are effective at swaying public opinion and at motivating people to action? Or is Twitter, as its critics suggest, just a cosy lefty echo chamber?

Ask the News of The World. Or Carter Ruck. Or Jan Moir. There wasn't anything cosy about those campaigns. And they got results. I doubt Jan Moir will be tut-tutting the recently deceased any time soon and as for the News Of The World . . .

#welovethenhs wasn't so much a campaign as an attempt to fight propaganda with propaganda. I wrote the first tweet in a Starbucks while waiting for a coffee and a few months later Gordon Brown had inserted the phrase into a speech. That was pretty dizzying but I think the fact that it was so easily co-opted by politicians probably ended up being a fault rather than a feature.

As for the left-wing echo chamber . . . Twitter is made of individuals, so it can't be left or right any more than an individual is purely left or right. There is a problem, however, in that there are a lot of very clever people out there who have decided for whatever reason that they don't want to have anything to do with the internet. Their absence is a problem. They're being left out of the conversation and the conversation is the poorer for it.

You've talked about playing video games (your line about being a dick in Call of Juarez still makes me laugh). Do you think they would be an interesting medium to write for?

Yes. In fact, I did a little work for Little Big Planet 2. It's difficult though, because games often serve the gameplay rather than the story and the stories suffer terribly as a result. Some games with a narrative are so poorly written that I just can't play them. Alan Wake, Red Dead Redemption, even LA Noire . . . I just couldn't bring myself to listen to another good actor delivering terrible lines.

How would you describe your politics?

My sympathies have always been with the bullied rather than the bully so I guess I'm left-wing. I do believe that the internet is giving us a chance to move on from these limiting definitions, though.

You were critical of the Today programme's "dishonest, binary style of debate". But is there a place for adversarial debate in politics/journalism -- for example, Prime Minister's Questions?

Prime Minister's Questions . . . Is there a less edifying spectacle? Point-scoring. A football match. Not even a football match -- the early computer game Pong would be a better example. PMQs might be many things, but I only tune in expecting to see the government fighting a rearguard action. You never expect to see anyone getting shit done.

As for the Today programme, there is absolutely a place for this kind of debate, but it shouldn't be the default mode. That's lazy. It's almost a way of farming out the job of research to a third party. And in my case, it led to what I still think is a breach of ethics in that the only way they could get me on the program was by giving me a false brief. I was told in an email I'd be talking about "the challenges and excitements of adapting a film for the stage" and that was just a flat-out lie. Michael Billington had been briefed accurately because he was working from a few pages of notes, he had been allowed to prepare. My anger stemmed mainly from the fact that I hadn't been afforded the same courtesy. They still haven't apologised for it.

Do you vote?

Yes. It's good for us to feel powerless once every four years.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?

I was very bad at being single. Lots of regrets there.

Was or is there a plan for your career?

No, I just float from project to project.

Are we all doomed?

How many more times can we read "It was the hottest summer on record" before the newspaper bursts into flames in our hands?

Follow Graham Linehan on Twitter: @Glinner

Defining Moments

1968 Born in Dublin
1994 Begins writing for TV with The Day Today. Later writes for Brass Eye as well as Black Books, Big Train, Hippies and Jam
1995 His co-creation Father Ted premieres
2006 Launches his "old-fashioned sitcom" The IT Crowd, filmed with a live audience
2009 Launches Twitter campaign to support the National Health Service
2011 Perpetrates Twitter hoax that Osama Bin Laden was a fan of The IT Crowd

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.

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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