Harriet Harman at a Hacked Off event in 2013. She has recently come under fire for her PIE connections
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Containing Putin, Paul Dacre’s revenge on Labour, and parenting advice from Boris

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts.

If you want to understand why Ukraine matters to Vladimir Putin, take a look at a map. The historic heart of Russia has a long land frontier, with plains stretching east, south and west, and few natural defences except the brutality of its winters. Since the Mongols overran Russia from the east in the 13th century and Europeans then helped themselves to its territories from the west, its rulers have feared encirclement and land invasion. In recent years, the US has brought 12 of the Soviet Union’s former central European allies into Nato. Rightly or wrongly, Russians fear that Nato will eventually include Georgia and Ukraine, with which the US already has a “strategic partnership” or “security relationship”.

Putin is the unpleasant head of an unpleasant regime and the Russians’ preference for strong and aggressive leaders (think Ivan the Terrible) is another result of their insecure history. Yet how would we feel if, in a decade or so, an independent Scotland formed a “security relationship” with Russia? How did the US respond in the 1960s to Cuba’s alliance with Moscow?

Recently, on CNN, the former Princeton University professor of Russian studies Stephen Cohen said: “We are witnessing . . . the making possibly of the worst history of our lifetime.” He recalled that the late US diplomat George Kennan, an architect of the cold war “containment” policy, had warned in the 1990s that the expansion of Nato was a fateful mistake. It would, Kennan had said, lead to a new cold war, with the border this time not in Berlin but much further east.

 

Alpha Mail

I doubt the exposure of Harriet Harman’s “links” in the 1970s with the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) will do her any long-term damage other than reminding us that she has a patrician distaste for admitting intellectual error or moral shortcoming to a mass audience.

Regardless of one’s views about Harman’s culpability, one is bound, however reluctantly, to admire once more the Daily Mail and its editor, Paul Dacre. The PIE and its so-called links with lefties and civil libertarians is a story that surfaces, on average, every other year. Dacre presumably revived it in revenge for Labour forcing a limited, grudging retraction of allegations that Ed Miliband’s late father hated Britain.

The Mail first splashed the PIE story across its front page on 19 February. Everyone ignored it. Many editors might think that their news sense was temporarily malfunctioning. Not Dacre. In the following seven days, the Mail splashed on “Labour links to child sex group” three more times, shouting ever louder.

Eventually, the media chatterers could talk of little else. Even the Guardian ran PIE “exposures”. Dacre, paranoid and chippy, may be the Putin of Fleet Street but he demonstrates repeatedly that newspapers are far from dead.

 

Bringing up baby

Always ready to turn a good case into a bad one, Boris Johnson, writing in his Daily Telegraph column, compared Harman’s blindness to the dangers of the PIE to the current “tolerance” of Islamic radicalisation. Only “political correctness”, he argued, prevents the authorities taking into care children who are taught “crazy stuff” and “habituated” by their parents to “this utterly bleak and nihilistic view of the world”.

I, too, would prefer children not to be brought up as Islamist radicals. I would also prefer them not to be raised as Tories, prepared to throw poor people out of their home for having too many bedrooms; as Ukip supporters, uncomfortable with hearing any language other than English; or as Blairites, believing crazy stuff about invading countries with governments we don’t like. No wonder the Telegraph website doesn’t show any readers’ comments on Johnson’s column.

 

Sacred and profane

One problem for those who want a non-religious send-off when they die is that churches own most of the best venues. This may explain why a recent memorial service for a non-believer – attended mainly by left-leaning agnostics and atheists, some very militant indeed – was held in a Nonconformist chapel.

The result was a curious truce between the devout and the secular. The resident vicar began with a sort of apology for his presence in, as it were, his own home and hoped we wouldn’t mind a few hymns. I can best describe the singing as less than lusty but there was nothing hushed about the deceased’s friends and colleagues as they spoke in celebration of her life: a fellow mourner counted four uses of the F-word, two of the C-word and one Jesus in the blasphemous sense. In each case, the vicar laughed ostentatiously.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories