Keys and Gray hit the airwaves

The former Sky duo, sacked after making sexist remarks, have made their debut on TalkSport. But did

"You're LISTENING to Keys and Gray on TalkSport," said Richard Keys, almost shouting the emphasis on the second word. Perhaps he wanted us all to know that the medium had changed, as if we hadn't guessed already. Those TV days have gone, maybe for ever.

But here they were, the sexism row behind them, the small hiatus finished; here were Keys and Andy Gray in what many might see as their spiritual home – the unashamedly brassy TalkSport. But if we'd tuned in hoping for any slip-ups, un-PC language or off-mike muttering, we were going to be disappointed. And disappointment was very much the order of the day early on, as they sucked most of the life out of the weekend's Premier League games. Maybe they were nervous. Maybe they were just being careful. Whatever it was, the airwaves weren't crackling.

The pair were introduced with the kind of up-tempo, rococo, ZZ Top-style cock rock that sports programmes like to use to give a sense of (usually misplaced) dynamism, as highlights of the weekend's goals were played. I've not listened to this station much, preferring to stick with the advert-free FiveLive for my Saturday football radio fix (unlike some of my fellow New Statesman bloggers, I have a great love for the beautiful game); but it appears that TalkSport has hired someone to grunt and bark every time a goal goes in. Fancy that.

"We've got a goal! WHAT A GOAL! Oh my word. YOU BEAUTY! HA HA! Oh! OH! Grrrrrrrr! BANG!" were some of the choicer cuts. Compared to which, "Would you smash it?", Keys's infamous off-air comment to Jamie Redknapp, seems like the kind of polite thing you might hear over the gentle clinking of brandy glasses at a gentleman's club. Perhaps, after all, these two were being hired to lend a bit of gravitas to proceedings. Maybe TalkSport needs them more than they need TalkSport.

The show, sold as "unmissable debate and exclusive interviews from the biggest names in sport", began shakily, with the eminently missable Dion Dublin musing over whether Wayne Rooney's goal for Manchester United against Manchester City at the weekend was the best goal ever in the history of the world ever.

"Was it the best EVER? What was it? The best? His best?" roared Keys. "It's up there," said Dublin laconically. And that was that. Gray and Dublin reminisced about Big Ron's Corridor of Uncertainty. And then it was time for "Incey", Paul Ince, to wander through the same topics, telling "Keysy" that Eric Cantona's chip against Sunderland was the best goal he'd seen for United. Peter Reid, Gray's old Everton team-mate, turned up minutes later, and when asked about that Cantona goal, had to remind the pair that he'd been manager of Sunderland that day. "That's how much you've lost the plot since you've been away," laughed Reid.

Lost the plot? They didn't do too badly, to be fair, for a first attempt back at radio since the glory days of Sky Sports. There were only a couple of errors – Keys accidentally cutting off Ince in his prime, and one ill-advised use of the verb "smash" apropos a goal by Matt Le Tisser – but the only way is up. First show done, it can only get better. After an hour and a half, I was beginning to warm to them, despite myself. There was no self-pitying, no angry defiance; they just got on with it. I actually ended up rooting for them.

There was just a moment of sadness, though, a tinge of Alan Partridge, where you could sense it all struck home for Keys. "You're listening to Richard Keys and Andy Gray on TalkSport With WICKES, get down to Wickes for 33 per cent off Palma ceramic wall tiles, now only £14.56 per pack," he said, barely able to contain his excitement.

The heady days have gone, indeed. But maybe all isn't lost.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.