How the left went west

You thought Islington was the new Labour heartland? Wrong. Giles Corenexplains the lure of Notting H

On the day in 1997 that new Labour announced a clampdown on road tax evaders, and ceremoniously pulped an offending vehicle before an invited press audience, Philip Delves Broughton, then a young diarist on the Times and resident of Notting Hill's exclusive Northumberland Place, stepped out into the bright morning.

Turning right, and heading towards the Tube station, he passed the front door of the then Minister without Portfolio, Peter Mandelson, his next-door-neighbour-but-one. Glancing at Mandelson's green Rover, he noticed, to his delight, that the tax disc had expired. Naturally enough, he wrote the story up and it appeared next morning in the Times.

"About six o'clock," he recalled to me last week, "I got a phone call at work from Mandelson, who was standing on a train platform with Derek Draper and Robert Harris, saying that he was appalled by the story. He asked me if I thought it was neighbourly behaviour. He clearly felt that his Notting Hill address entitled him to special treatment from the press."

But now the west London home that Mandelson apparently saw as a force field has become the very hubristic flaw that brought about his fall. Notting Hill, like Excalibur, is the ally only of he who has truly earned it and understands its mystical power.

In the aftermath of Notting Hillgate - as the scandal has come to be known - the most shocking revelation for the general public was that Mandelson lived in west, rather than north, London. Those who had been led to believe that N1 was the political postcode of the decade were left goggle-eyed by talk of W2. And the question left quivering on a million lips was: whatever happened to Islington person?

As a feature writer on the Times whose career began only weeks before the death of John Smith, I spent most of 1994 in Islington. I was sent to Granita the night after what the paper called "The Night of the Long Fishknives" to find out what it was about the Upper Street restaurant that had led Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to play out their power struggle on its stripped pine floorboards. Glenda Jackson was in there, and Judi Dench. Islington, they said, was the centre of new Labour power. And it all seemed so right.

But did new Labour fit in? I was sent to Barnsbury Square dressed in Victorian clothes with a troupe of carol singers from St Bride's to see how much the Blairs would give compared to the rest of the street. It took a harassed-looking Cherie some time to open the door. Surrounded by children, she seemed incredibly relieved to discover that we were only carol singers and not journalists. She gave a pound. Most of the rest of the street had given a fiver. I felt terrible, and told my editor there had been nobody at home.

Now fashion, like new Labour, has moved on. While the foot soldiers of the revolution - the Chris Smiths, Harriet Harmans, Geoff Mulgans and Alan Rusbridgers - are still in Islington, the key figures in the government's maturity are being gobbled into the gravitational pull of the Westway. Was Islington a mere staging post? Can we reasonably characterise it as the Damascene spot where old Labour paused on its route down from the grimy North, learnt its focaccia from its Ferragamo and practised a few new vowel sounds before its final push on the seat of privilege?

It is true that very few of our elected representatives, on their £45,066 a year, can afford an area that is now, in pounds per square foot, more expensive than Chelsea. But what has happened is that, ensconced in office, the Labour Party has turned towards the new establishment (better off, in fact, than the old Knightsbridge Tories) to keep up momentum. Lord Jenkins is crucial to Blair's ideological life, but Roy's neighbour in Kensington Park Gardens, Elisabeth Murdoch, will be of more long-term use to the party. And they both live on the all-important south side of the street. Anyone who is anyone backs on to Ladbroke Square, darling.

Benjamin Wegg-Prosser, the 26-year-old special adviser credited with overhauling the Mandelson image, must have been delighted when his boss moved in. Round the corner in Palace Gardens Terrace, Wegg-Prosser is just the sort of dyed-in-the-wool Notting Hillbilly (or should that be Notting Hilltony?) on whom the future of the party looks to depend.

Matthew Freud, the young head of Freud Communications and central to the Dome project, recently bought a £2.5 million house round the corner in Ladbroke Road, before moving out when his relationship with his neighbour Elisabeth Murdoch became public. She it may have been who pointed Mandelson towards Lambton Place Health Club, where he is often seen on the treadmill chatting to Lady Antonia Fraser. She and her husband, Harold Pinter, new Labour's greatest literary grandee, live two minutes up the road in Campden Hill Square. Blair's favourite huntsman, John Mortimer, is but a "view-halloo" away. Also in Notting Hill, you will find Lord Hollick, Blairite proprietor of the Express, and David Sainsbury, generous new Labour donor.

When the sacked minister David Clark blamed the loss of his job on being "out of the loop" and "not part of the London social scene", complaining that as an outsider "you don't make the contacts, you are not invited to the soirees, the coffee mornings, the dinner parties", he presumably had in mind Carla Powell. She, since becoming friends with Mandelson, has become the first "society hostess" for some time to enter the sphere of political influence. She lives in Caroline Place, but a short trot down Queensway from Newton Road, where the columnist Paul Johnson, a Blair confidante, seems also to be making a comeback.

The Express editor, Rosie Boycott, in Chepstow Road, has her part to play. Michael Jackson of Channel 4 and John Birt are among the other on-message media mandarins in the heart of Trustafaria.

There are red herrings, too: it is said that Peter Mandelson offered to babysit for his neighbour Princess Charlotte of Luxembourg, a power alliance that is probably not too threatening. Norman Lamont can be found in Kensington Park Road, but then he surely bears as much responsibility as any Millbank spin-doctor for getting new Labour into power. It's more difficult to fit in Tony Benn, who has lived in the area for years. It is not impossible to imagine the Prime Minister strolling down Westbourne Grove on a Sunday morning on his way to chat to Lord Jenkins about the Third Way, waving merrily to the gawping Okay Yardies, only to spot Benn coming back from the newsagent, and having to dart into Cafi 206 to hide behind Mariella Frostrup.

Perhaps there is a natural affinity between Labour and Notting Hill. For years after the war it was the working class, the poor and the ethnic minorities who made it what it was. By the 1980s, however, the property boom caused an identity crisis to set in, leading to some years in the wilderness. From the early 1990s, however, money was embraced wholeheartedly, and the area is now dominated by right-thinking but style-silly media slaves. They may have gone to public school, but they pay lip service to the ideals of cultural diversity and salt-of-the-earth rootsiness they believe their postcode upholds.

All this could so easily have been old hat by now. In November 1995 the Evening Standard revealed that the Blairs had employed a "looker" to find them a "suitable residence in west London". They were forsaking the wilds of Islington, it was revealed, for this "paradise for upmarket lefties". It was only the events of May 1997, then, that kept them out of Notting Hill. But for one small landslide Tony might have had an address to be really proud of.

It is still his dream. If you ask him where he would most like to be living in five years' time, he will say "No 10". Watch his eyes very carefully and say, "is that on the north side of Kensington Park Gardens or the south?"

This article first appeared in the 15 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A slight and delicate minister?

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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