Goodbye, Melanie! Mehdi Hasan on the Spectator's departing blogger

Phillips leaves the Spectator as the complaints pile up.

Poor ol' Melanie Phillips. In today's Guardian, the Conservative Party chair Sayeeda Warsi goes on the offensive:

"I don't read her, actually. I call her Mad Mel," Lady Warsi says of Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips, who has denounced her as "stupid".

Last week, Phillips announced her departure from the Spectator, where she has been blogging for the past few years.

On 16 June, under the headline, '"My blog's new home", she wrote:

This is my last blog post for the Spectator. I have decided to expand and develop my own website over the coming months and so if you would like to continue to read my blog you can find it at Melaniephillips.com.

But was this a voluntary or enforced departure? The blogger Guido Staines beat me to it but I can't help but notice how the Spectator has had to apologise to Alastair Crooke, director of Conflicts Forum, on its website this week, after a blog post by Phillips made "false" allegations about Crooke's past. Phillips's decision to move on might just be a coincidence but a well-connected source tells me that the payout to Crooke cost the Spectator "tens of thousands of pounds" and left Fraser Nelson and Andrew Neil "furious" with her.

Here's the full text of the apology on the front page of the Spectator website:

An apology to Alastair Crooke

A blog by Melanie Phillips posted on 28 January 2011 reported an allegation that Alastair Crooke, director of Conflicts Forum, had been expelled from Israel and dismissed for misconduct from Government service or the EU after threatening a journalist whose email he had unlawfully intercepted. We accept that this allegation is completely false and we apologise to Mr Crooke.

Crooke is a former member of MI6 who has long been the subject of vitriolic attacks from the UK's neocon brigade for having the temerity to suggest that a) we should consider talking to, and negotiating with, Islamists, and (b) all Islamists aren't the same.

He wasn't, however, the first person to be smeared by Phillips. Remember this apology to Mohammed Sawalha, of the British Muslim Initiative (BMI) group, on the Spectator website in November 2010?

Mohammad Sawalha: Apology

On 2 July 2008 we published an article entitled "Just look what came crawling out" which alleged that at a protest at the celebration in London of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel, Mohammad Sawalha had referred to Jews in Britian as "evil/noxious". We now accept that Mr Sawalha made no such anti-Semitic statement and that the article was based on a mistranslation elsewhere of an earlier report. We and Melanie Phillips apologise for the error.

To lose one legal case to the "Islamist lobby" may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness -- especially since Phillips's husband, according to his own website, "is Britain's best-known commentator on the law". Perhaps, in future, she should run her blog posts past him before she hits "publish".

But "Mad Mel" shouldn't feel that bad. She isn't alone on this. Blinded by their monomaniacal obsession with Islamists under every British bed, members of the UK media's neoconservative faction have been the subject of other (successful) legal complaints and libel actions in recent years.

Stephen Pollard -- the current editor of the Jewish Chronicle who has, in the past, tried to portray me as an anti-western extremist on Twitter -- had to apologise to the London-based Muslim organisation, IslamExpo, after he described it as a racist group that promotes genocide in a Spectator blogpost in 2008.

From the Spectator website, August 2010:

Islam Expo: Apology

Stephen Pollard and the Spectator apologise for the unintended and false suggestion in a blog published on 15 July 2008 that Islam Expo Limited is a fascist party dedicated to genocide which organised a conference with a racist and genocidal programme. We accept that Islam Expo's purpose is to provide a neutral and broad-based platform for debate on issues relating to Muslims and Islam.

Pollard and Phillips have now both moved on from the Spectator, leaving its editor, Fraser Nelson, free to spend his cash on his editorial budget rather than on the magazine's legal budget. I'm sure he'll be delighted.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.