Staggers envy, being rejected by Martin Amis, and why the left hated Maggie so much

Boris Johnson explains why the <em>New Statesman </em> used to keep him up at night.

I used to be petrified of the Staggers. I mean it. It was just after I became the editor of the Spectator – and I was under great pressure to make an impact with scoops, big-name pieces, and so on. I used to sit there racking my brains and people would torture me about the latest triumph of our supposed rival on the left. “Did you see that terrific piece in the New Statesman?” someone would say. I pathetically rang Charles Moore in the hope of reassurance. “I say, Charles, have you noticed any good pieces in the Staggers recently? Looks like a load of lefty bilge to me,” I said tentatively. “Oh, yes,” he drawled, “everyone says there are some terrific pieces these days . . .”

Sincerest form of flattery

Trembling, I put down the phone and looked over at our genius deputy editor, Stuart Reid. He was peering at something through his magenta specs. “Terrific piece,” he said, tapping the blasted New Statesman with his earpieces. Then I remembered some advice I was given by Paul Johnson, the great man of letters and Spec columnist who, in his time, had flogged the New Statesman circulation to a record high. “You need to bring in the best writers,” he said. “Flatter them. If I were you, I would lay it on with a trowel.”

Toynbee or not Toynbee

That was it! I was going to poach the cream of Staggers talent – London’s leading literary lefties. I was going to lure them ruthlessly to the Spectator. I began, obviously, with Martin Amis, one of this magazine’s most brilliant hirings from the age of Tony Howard. I wrote obsequious letters. I rang him at home and had long and fruitless conversations with the gorgeous Isabel Fonseca, his wife. I became so persistent that poor Amis could take it no more. He wrote a rather kind letter that began, “You are one of nature’s optimists,” and explained that he was a Staggers man to the core, wouldn’t be seen dead in the Spec. It was a matter of principle, he said. Next, in my delusion and despair, I tried dear Polly Toynbee. She told me to bog off in no uncertain terms. I can’t even pretend that she tried to string me along.

At the end of a harrowing conversation, she said: “You don’t understand. You think this is all some game, some debating forum for civilised adults. But this is serious. You are on one side and I am on the other.” Shortly afterwards, she vented a volcanic piece, accusing everyone at the Spectator of being effete, slimy, bullying creeps. The article was illustrated by a picture of Auberon Waugh as a human turd about to be flushed down the pan – and the poor chap had only just died.

Sinister purge

This makes me think that there is an interesting psychological difference between left-wingers and right-wingers. On the whole, right-wingers are prepared to indulge left-wingers on the grounds that they may be wrong and misguided but are still perfectly nice. Lefties, on the other hand, are much more likely to think right-wingers are genuinely evil.

Look at the hate, hate, hate that is erupting at the sad death of Margaret Thatcher. When the left come to power, they purge the place of Tories. They liquidate them with Stalinist zeal. When the Tory-led coalition got in, however, there was no symmetry – no purge of the New Labour establishment – and that has cheesed off Tories hoping for jobs. They can see the lefties still in place; and the lefty quango­crats beam and nod – and secretly they think it will be just a couple of years before they have a nice, splurging Labour government again.

Needing a creed

As it happens, I think they are wrong. The past few days have been bad for Labour. George Osborne managed to say something that the majority were privately thinking – and all Labour could do was denounce him as evil for even raising a question. That won’t work. You can’t tell a large chunk of the population that they are evil and heartless for asking whether the operation of the benefits system could be improved.

People can see there is a problem: they want to know how Labour would fix it. That is why, in its 100th glorious year, we need the Staggers more than ever. Or rather the Labour Party needs this magazine, because at the moment Ed Miliband is saying nothing of interest about anything and what I think he needs is one of those terrific pieces that will help him to develop his currently non-existent policies. Come on, New Statesman – give that man a creed.

Slippery wicket

My paranoia about the New Statesman and its terrific pieces went on for some months, until we finally met for physical combat, in the form of a cricket match. It was a torrid afternoon and I was full of nerves. Bernard Levin had come to watch, for heaven’s sake, and the New Statesman’s captain, Christian Wolmar, displayed what I am forced to call gamesmanship. At last we prevailed, thanks to a last-wicket stand by Alex van Straubenzee, our circulation manager, and myself.

I cannot resist adding that by the time Alex and I came figuratively to end our innings at the Spec, we had pushed the circulation to an all-time high of 70,000. So perhaps we didn’t need Martin and Polly, after all. Happy birthday, dear Staggers, and vive la différence.

Polly Toynbee (in 1965): Boris's dream woman. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.