28 Dates Later by Willard Foxton: Part Five take two, Cupcakes with the Veteran

In which Willard ices cakes with a dater of great renown.

So here we are, date 10.

Or is it? Well,I'm sure regular readers will remember about 5 dates ago, when I asked out a girl who I thought was lovely via twitter, and she, perfectly reasonably  said no. "That doesn't count as a date! You're just trying to weasel out, the blog isn't called 27 dates and one rejected offer later!" some of you cried.

Well, as I knew when I wrote that piece, thereby hangs a tale.

It all starts a couple of years ago. A lady called CTS had started writing a dating blog called 52 First Dates.  At the time, back in 2011, I was happily in a long-term, seriously committed relationship - reading CTS's blog made me laugh, and it certainly made me glad I wasn't out there in the nightmare wasteland of the Internet.

I was with "the one", you see, so there was no chance I'd ever have to do Internet dating (the thought! Isn't it only weirdos who do that?), but I was certainly glad to be reading dispatches from the front line. The blog was very successful; it won lots of awards, contained tons of brilliant, witty writing. It wasn't all smiles and laughs; there was a genuinely chilling dark side to some of the men she met, but she wrote about it with a clarity and bravery the journalist in me admired.

At the time, I remember thinking what a great idea a long-running online dating blog was, and wondering if I'd ever be able to pull it off. And even if I could, would I? As I sit writing this at 4.30 am in a black cab on my way to meet the author of 52 first dates, to go on a date with her, I guess the question in my mind still is "maybe".

You see, the lady in question, who I asked out on twitter a couple of weeks back, was the lady who in a way, is the inspiration for this blog. Certainly, 28 Dates wouldn't exist if I hadn't read 52.

"But how did I end up going on a date with her? Didn't she turn you down?" I hear you ask. To be honest, after doing 52 online dates with all manner of weirdos, I could understand why she never wanted to touch a dating site, or meet a man "from the internet" (which I suppose I now am - how the mighty have fallen) ever again.

Well, after she had politely turned me down, a new post popped up on her blog - she was going to do a truly heroic endeavour - a 24 hour solid, round the clock, dating marathon for charity, dating 25 men in a day. She was asking for volunteers to be part of her platoon of suitors.

I'll be honest, I was in two minds as to whether to apply. The competitive part of me, and the part of me that wanted to meet her, said "Yes, go for it. Seize the day". The sensible, worries-too-much part of me said "What if she says no, again? What if it's like the Odyssey and at the end her husband and son murder you?". As you might expect, the foolish "but think of the story!" part of me won out, and I sent her an email, asking to be one of her dates.

She got back to me right away, and said she'd been intending to contact me & ask if I wanted to join in. Of course, I said yes. As you might expect, scheduling a dating marathon is quite an endeavor - she asked me what time slot I wanted, and I replied "Give me the weirdest, hardest to fill slot." She also asked that so the dates didn't become just talking all night, to bring something to do - she especially wanted to be taught any odd skills we had.

I wracked my brains for what to do. Most of my skills revolve around talking, making people laugh, surviving weirdness or writing, and I suspected she was better at all of those things than I was. Obviously, manly man's man that I am, I fell back on my culinary skills, and offered to teach her how to ice cupcakes. Yes, I know, ladies, form a queue.

Thus, at 4.30 am, I stepped out into the cold London night, got into a cab, and drove across London to meet a woman whose adventures I'd read about for two years. I had with me six un-iced cupcakes and about a pound of buttercream icing in a piping bag. I was off on a competitive date, with 24 other men competing for the hand of one lady, like some kind of post-modern Odysseus (At least, I hoped I was Odysseus. I'm probably more like Amphinomous). Even by my dating standards, this was odd.

I got to the venue, which was packed to the gills with comic Reliefers, doing their 24 hour challenge marathons. It was absolute bedlam. On the main stage in the theatre, comedian Mark Watson was sweating buckets onstage, 7 hours into a 24 hour gig; two delirious, luxuriantly bearded men were staggering around the theatre bar, 18 hours into an attempt at breaking the world record for the world's longest hug. People were singing. One chap was watching Beverly Hills Chihuahua on a 24 hour loop. By the time I got there, he was watching it for the 4th time, this time in Spanish "for variety". There were folk in various states of undress lying asleep on chairs and the floor.

I think the closest atmosphere I can immediately conjure up to describe it was something like Jabba's palace in Star Wars. You know, totally bizarre and otherworldly, but kind of exhausted & sweaty at the same time.

Anyway, in the middle of this, I met CTS, and she's just as charming in real life as she is as a writer. Also, as I had no idea what she looked like, I'm very pleased to report she's very pretty indeed. How she's single after 52+ dates, I have no idea.

We got chatting, and inevitably, we ended up sharing dating war stories - less about the dates themselves, and more about how weird the process of being known for going on bad dates is, about your dates reading about themselves and others online, and about how strange the world of being a date-blogger is. She told me she had originally started 52 first dates in league with a gay friend, who had met the man of his dreams after about ten dates, leaving her to forge on into the wilderness alone.

As well as sharing tales, we also iced cupcakes. I'd brought pink & yellow buttercream icing, as well as assorted sprinkles and things, and we happily piped out some deeply camp cakes. There was one lovely moment where we toasted each other with freshly iced cakes. Cupcake breakfast as the sun rose - we were living the dream. (I'm massively indebted to Ellie of Ellie's Bakehouse in Peckham, who helped me out with cake expertise at the last minute. You should all go there for baking lessons!)

As my time drew to a close, CTS asked me to write down a final thought on the experience, so I dashed something down on a piece of paper & handed it to her, as her next suitor arrived. I had a great time, and I hope she did too - I guess I'll find out when she writes it up in a week or so!

It's worth bearing in mind that at the end of today she'll have done 77 online dates; almost more today than I'll do in my whole dating experience. Just for comparison, at the time of writing, I've done about 16 dates in total. I recently interviewed some war veterans, who told me what it was like to join the Dambusters in 1945; sure, they were good pilots, but they were meeting these people who had done 4, 5 times as many missions as they had. Obviously, no-one is asking me to bomb a nazi rocket factory, but still, afterwards I had a vague idea of how they felt.

I'm at home now, writing the experience up - but she's still at the grindstone, and will be until eleven PM tonight. She's a lovely, bold, devil-may-care, heroic, swashbuckling (if slightly crazy) lady and she deserves to raise a fortune for charity.

You can follow the remaining dates online via Twitter @ C_T_S; donate to her here or text "date52 £5" to 70070 and show her (and me) some love. Back to normal service next week!

Last week's promised dates - Guardian Soulmates & Cougar Dating - are still pending approval from the ladies in question. One drawback of being ethical is of course, it makes a timetable hard to stick to!

A cupcake. Photograph: Getty Images

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

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