A gong for Elton?

Profile - Stephen Smith wonders why an old lefty is now singing for the Republicans

As you read this, I have every confidence that Washington is still resounding to the cheers that will surely have greeted the end of Ben Elton's song, "Let Us Love In Peace". Musicologists have been scratching their heads to come up with a precedent for Elton's booking at George W Bush's inauguration. When did an artist last put his talents at the disposal of a head of state in such a way? Some critics may feel that there hasn't been a case like it since Stalin made Shostakovich his pet composer. But that would be terribly unfair. Poor old Shostakovich had no choice in the matter, whereas Elton rushed into the presidential clutches as if on castors. (That's to say nothing of what we might call the musical differences between the pair.) Bush had apparently requested a snatch of Elton's operetta about Belfast and football, the product of his collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber. Elton explained: "When we wrote The Beautiful Game, we wanted to cover issues that could come out of the conflicts in Kosovo and Afghanistan as much as Northern Ireland. Presenting the musical in Washington reinforces that context."

For a closer precedent of a prodigy laying his skills before a head of state, we might turn to Noel Coward. He also agreed to perform a small service on behalf of the United States government. "Lunched at the White House. Mrs Roosevelt as nice as ever and the President full of vitality," Coward told his diary in the dark days of December 1943. "After lunch I sang "Germans", which the President enjoyed keenly. Morgenthau [US Secretary of the Treasury] has asked me to make a recording of it for the government broadcast, which of course I shall do." Elton has said that he is an admirer of the master. He shares Coward's ubiquity - Elton has variously been a television scriptwriter, novelist, director and librettist - and appears to fancy himself a breezily irresistible wordsmith in the Coward vein. "I love playing with words," he said last year. "If you look at Blackadder or The Young Ones, I think some of the comic rhythms have entered the language. I'm proud of that."

Elton first made his name as an agitprop comedian: he put the stand-up in stand-up argument. His prime target was Margaret Thatcher, or "Thatch". Julian Barnes remembers a friend consulting a doctor, in the 1980s, about possible brain damage. The patient was asked: "Can you tell me who is the Prime Minister?"

" 'Everyone knows that,' my friend answered, half triumphant, half derisive. 'It's Thatch.' " The physician's question was a stock one, so it's a rare kind of feat to which Elton can lay claim: patenting the stock reply.

He test-piloted his premier-baiting routines as a hard-up wannabe at the Comedy Store in London. In a prescient essay on the future nabobs of alternative comedy who graduated from this environment, Ian Hamilton saw them diversifying into LPs (as they then were), not to mention tours and movies. But not even he anticipated comedians doing PAs at world leaders' gigs. An informal portrait snapped at No 10 in the late Nineties shows Elton and Mick Hucknall rubbing tailored shoulders with the Blairs (a shot reportedly referred to on one picture desk later the same evening as "the balloon-debate tag-team from hell").

Now that Elton is happy to do a benefit for a right-wing politician, work that several entertainers of the old school have hitherto regarded as their own, is it absurd to imagine him emulating them in other respects, such as threatening to leave the country if the lefties get in? We may be there already. Elton, the one-time whipper-in of Neil Kinnock's vote, told the Daily Express last May that he wouldn't be placing his cross in London's mayoral contest. "To be honest, sometimes you have other things on your mind," he said, with the air of a man whose steamer trunk is packed.

The former "motormouth" was reluctant even to discuss the contest. His interviewer commented: "It would only be 'Ben backs Ken' or 'Ben slags Ken'." Refusing to let the L-word pass his lips will have done Elton no harm in Downing Street. There's no suggestion that there was anything in it for him. However, it is well documented that indulgent Labour governments make a habit of rewarding the nation's showbiz favourites. Elton's hero, Noel Coward, signs off his diary with an account of another lunch, this time at Buckingham Palace in 1969. "During lunch the Queen asked me whether I would accept Mr Wilson's offer of a knighthood. I kissed her hand and said, in a rather strangulated voice, 'Yes, Ma'am'."

A gong for Elton? Remember where you read it first. His fans would say that he deserves it, not least for the stick he has taken since joining forces with Lord Lloyd Webber. As one first-nighter said: "It's not as if he's done a musical comedy with Dr Harold Shipman." Elton is popular and wealthy, and entitled to think that a lot of the criticism is sour grapes. When the Times raised the question of whether he had gone soft, he said: "Of course I answer, nonsense. I know that I've pursued the same principles and vision, whatever ridiculously overblown terms you might like to use to describe somebody who writes comedy. But I certainly have no complaints. Anyone who complains about the small inconvenience of having managed to be successful, young and make a lasting impression on people is very foolish."

Why is it always about you? It doesn't seem to occur to Elton that, as a writer who has traded on what used to be called a social conscience, he has to take care where he pitches his stall. To raise only one example, how does it look for the author of Gasping, a satire about greedy corporations franchising the air we breathe, to don the motley for a former governor of Texas who has been accused of favouring his friends in the petrochemical industry at the expense of the environment? Not the least irony in all of this is that the Ben Elton of 20 or even ten years ago would have seen it as grist to his mill. On second thoughts, the story of a left-wing rabble-rouser who embraces a Conservative peer as Rodgers to his Hammerstein, before serenading a polluting, convict-exterminating Republican, is beyond even Elton's satirical gifts.

Stephen Smith is a Channel 4 News reporter. His book Cocaine Train is published by Abacus (£7.99)

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Mandelson

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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.