Charlie Whelan says . . .

Don't believe it - "A secret US meeting and a plan that was two years in the making"

This is how the Observer, in a 2,000-word saga that would have sent the ancient Icelanders to sleep, described Gordon Brown's revival of old Labour tax-and-spend for the NHS. Naturally, this verdict was given in a "focus" history of the preceding week. These focus pieces are an obsession of the Sunday papers, filling up lots of space and lending spurious authenticity to a thumb-sucking piece by the political editor. Most of the "facts" in these impressive-looking articles are bollocks, gleaned over a two-bottle lunch with a thirsty special adviser or a fellow member of the lobby. You have only to look around the Westminster Press Gallery dining room at Friday lunchtime to see that.

But ever since the glory days of the Sunday Times "insight" team (long gone), news desks have demanded a run-through of political events, decked out with plenty of colour and juicy stuff about "secret" meetings that the dailies miraculously missed. Sometimes these pieces read more like John le Carre than the lobby. When I was the Chancellor's press secretary, I had to help the hacks concoct these sensational accounts of events. On at least one occasion, No 10 helped with recovered memories. These focus pieces can achieve book status, and become instant history. Thus Andrew Rawnsley romanced that Blair and Brown had a row in a car returning to Westminster. Inconveniently, the BBC showed pictures of them driving off in opposite directions. Like focus groups, focus articles have had their day. They merely over-dramatise what we already know, and take up time that would be more usefully spent finding out what the buggers are really up to.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Special Report - The great Koran con trick

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.