The Morning Briefing is a Westminster institution for the smartphone age. Photo: Getty
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My year as Benedict Brogan’s “little slave”

Now that Benedict Brogan has departed the Telegraph, Tim Wigmore – who used to help write his Morning Briefing email – remembers how it used to come together.

Few places do tradition like Westminster. For the past three years, politicos had a new ritual. Just before 8.30am – and it had to be just before, to arrive in time for the first Downing Street meeting of the day – Benedict Brogan’s Morning Briefing would land in in-boxes.

When the email began, it was circulated to 500 of Benedict’s political contacts. By the time he left the Daily Telegraph on 18 June, the number of subscribers had grown to 25,000. Yet the email’s importance lay in who read it: there were 50 subscribers in No 10 alone.

If the impression was of a well-oiled machine, the truth was very different. For a year from last May, I worked with Benedict on his briefing. To the BBC’s Daily Politics show, which did a feature on the email, I was his “little slave”. Every morning presented a battle against capricious alarm clocks, sleep deprivation, dodgy phone signal and lousy IT software.

My day would begin at 5am, as I stumbled out of bed, and seven minutes later – I learned to savour every possible minute of sleep – into a cab bound for the Telegraph’s offices in Victoria. I was met by a bundle of morning papers, which passed for company in an otherwise deserted office.

A little after 6am came my first human contact when Benedict and I discussed, usually by email, the most important stories of the day. While waiting for him to punch out the top items on his BlackBerry as he took his daughter to school on the number 344 bus, I wrote the smaller news items, in between wrestling with the software’s infuriating penchant for making all the text bold.

As my stint on the briefing progressed, I honed my ability to mimic Benedict’s style, coming to treasure his idiosyncrasies – Tony Blair was always “Mr Tony”, Ed Miliband was “Mili E” – as my own. We even had the same taste in holidays: we both went to Hvar in August, though, mercifully, not at the same time.

Above all, I learned never to be surprised when something went wrong. Simply waking up was the first obstacle. On several occasions when my alarm clock failed, there might never have been a briefing had it not been for the cab driver ringing the doorbell. (My mum was less grateful for his persistence.)

Even Benedict was not immune to finding the hours a challenge. One morning during the Liberal Democrat conference, I didn’t hear from him until almost 8am; he confessed to having had a whisky too many. But because he had written a column for the day’s paper I was well briefed on his thoughts.

Unreliable phone signal, in places from Afghanistan to the south of France, was another challenge posed by Benedict’s onerous schedule. Particularly problematic was his trip to China with George Osborne, when he feared (correctly, it turned out) that his computer had been bugged. Not that this stopped him filing despatches by BlackBerry.

It was gratifying to learn that our efforts were noticed. Ed Miliband’s leading adviser, Stewart Wood, was among those most inclined to take issue with the email’s wording, frequently voicing his displeasure within minutes of receiving the briefing. Mili E may claim that he doesn’t follow the day-to-day news but his team does. The daily emails and tweets from politicians looking to influence the briefing affirmed its clout.

Yet it was more than just a respected email. As the outpouring of thanks to Benedict on Twitter from across the political spectrum showed, his Morning Briefing (now ably produced by Stephen Bush) was a Westminster institution for the smartphone age.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser