Mehdi Hasan: Dan Hodges. The Truth. And me.

I am tired of the online conspiracy theories and false accusations. This is my last comment on the subject.

I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next man (did man really land on the moon? I mean, really?) but I'm sorry to have to tell you that Dan Hodges wasn't "axed", "pushed" or "forced out" from the New Statesman. By me -- or anyone else.

I'm repeatedly asked if I had him "sacked". I didn't even know he'd "quit". I'm bemused by the number of people who have bought into this nonsense. I mean, come on: this is Dan Hodges we're talking about here. This is the guy who gleefully admitted to being the brains behind an anti-AV poster that suggested electoral reform might lead to the deaths of newborn babies; who hubristically announced, four days ahead of the result of the Labour leadership election, that "David Miliband has won"; who grandly declared that "the next general secretary of the Labour Party is set to be Chris Lennie" less than a month before Lennie lost.

Lest we forget, here is a man who describes himself as a "neo-Blairite" and as the "Blairite cuckoo in the Miliband nest" but who has also written:

As no one in the Labour Party appears willing to admit their part in the plot to bring down Tony Blair, I'll cough. I was up to my neck in it.

I briefed and span. Placed stories. Sowed seeds of confusion and dissent.


(He "briefed and span" [sic] and "sowed seeds of confusion and dissent". Hmm, little has changed, I see...)

Let me deal with some of the conspiratorial claims that have been made, starting with the David Ray Griffin of "Hodgesgate", Guido Fawkes. His ludicrous blog post, published on 10 October and based on a briefing from (who else?) Dan himself, and written without the aid of New-Yorker-style fact checkers, claimed:

In the Thursday edition published during party conference Dan Hodges' article about the booing of Blair was spiked and didn't appear in the magazine

But Dan didn't have an article scheduled to run in the post-Labour-conference issue of the NS. Why? Because Dan was a guest blogger.

Guido continued:

Hodges was told he would be rested from the magazine for a few months

Um, er, how can I put this delicately for the conspiratorially-minded? Dan Hodges did not write for the magazine. He was a freelance, guest blogger -- one of several -- who contributed a sum total of four freelance articles to the magazine over the course of his 11-month-relationship with the NS. How do you "rest" someone from something they didn't do?

Other (non-Tory) allies of Dan included (surprise surprise!) disgruntled ex-employees of the NS such as Nick Cohen and Martin Bright. You couldn't make this stuff up.

But back to Dan Hodges. A few weeks ago, a shadow cabinet minister who has known him for several years turned to me and said:

When the time is right, Dan will screw you over. He is using you.

Who says the current Labour shadow cabinet doesn't contain visionaries? The anonymous (see what I did there, Dan?) shadow minister's prophesy turned out to be true.

Hodges, having published four blog posts in a row slamming Ed Miliband (and in the headlines, too!), decided to "flounce" off from the NS earlier this month. Asked by the New Statesman's deputy editor to perhaps consider writing the occasional blog post on an issue other than his monomaniacal obsession with the Labour leader -- a rather common and reasonable request made by commissioning editors across the land to their reporters, columnists and bloggers -- he claimed censorship, invented a conspiracy theory involving Ed Miliband himself (woo-hoo!) and migrated to that bastion of free speech, the Telegraph blogs, where he will now perform the role of the right's useful idiot and join Damian "Indulgence of Islam is harming society" Thompson.

Just to conclude, it is worth noting that Dan himself has backtracked on his original Guido-aided spin: asked by Paul Waugh on Twitter whether he was "really being axed by the @NewStatesman", he replied:

Is so

Yet, in his colour-filled blog post for the Telegraph, he wrote:

Unless he heard from me, he should take it I'd resigned.

And resign I did.

Yes, he resigned. Of his own volition. Without being pushed by Ed Miliband. Or Jon Bernstein. Or me.

It's boring, I know. But it's also true.

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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit