Deposed: George Lansbury, the only Labour leader to have been forced to resign, pictured in 1937. Photo: Getty
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Muzzling Blair’s dogs, “Jihadi John” and cricket’s awkward squad

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column. 

It has become impossible to pick up a newspaper or log on to Twitter without learning of assorted Blairites denouncing Ed Miliband. Many complaints are about the admittedly ill-advised proposal for a mansion tax. But they form part of a wider narrative in which Labour peers and mostly anonymous MPs describe their leader as “laughable”, “abysmal” and “complacent” and sing the dreary refrain that he must get “closer to business”. One brave MP told the Times that Miliband needed to see a psychologist and would probably “go down in history as one of the worst leaders”. By some oversight, the paper failed to name him.

Less than eight months from a general election, what do these people think they are up to? Most voters are poorer than they were in 2010. The NHS is close to collapse. The senior party in the coalition is deeply divided. These three factors alone should take Labour to victory, whatever Miliband’s faults, and the chances of success won’t be enhanced by internal denigration and disunity. The chances of a change this late in the electoral cycle are close to zero. Labour will either win under Miliband or lose under him.

The Blairites clearly prefer the losing option. They are now the wreckers, not the hard left, which didn’t rock the boat as Tony Blair rose to power. In his farewell conference speech, Blair said: “Whatever you [Labour] do, I’m always with you . . . Wanting you to win.” If he meant it, he should call off the dogs and tell Miliband’s detractors to stay silent.

Don’t drop the pilot

Labour did once overthrow a leader – or, more precisely, cause him to resign – and only weeks before a general election. At the 1935 annual conference, George Lansbury, agonising over how to reconcile his Christian pacifism with opposition to fascism, was publicly told by his union adversary Ernest Bevin to stop “hawking your conscience around from body to body asking to be told what to do with it”. When the delegates supported sanctions against Italy, which Lansbury regarded as economic warfare, his position became untenable.

The results are not encouraging for those who now think it wise to change leader. Although Labour increased its number of seats, it lost the election. Admittedly, the caretaker leader during the campaign was Clem Attlee, who went on to win the subsequent leadership contest and stayed for 20 years. You could just about imagine Alan Johnson, with his natural diffidence, as an Attlee figure. But Johnson is 64; Attlee was a mere 52. A last-minute change to a palpable stopgap wouldn’t increase Labour’s vote.

Labour gets grand

“Grandees turn on Miliband” was the Times headline over one of many eager reports in the Murdoch press. “Grandee” goes back to 15th-century Spain, where it was used to distinguish the more senior noblemen from the merely rich. In Britain, it was used during the civil war for the Cromwellian army officers, drawn from the landed gentry, who opposed the Levellers. Now it is the kind of word you only ever see in newspapers – one can’t imagine Miliband telling Nick Robinson “I’m worried about the grandees” – and it seems an odd collective noun for those quoted in the Times report, who include Tessa Jowell, John Mann (MP for Bassetlaw) and Lance Price, a former Blair press aide. I had always thought that, on Planet Journalism, only the Tories had grandees. Perhaps the extension of the term to certain Labour “supporters” tells us something.

Jilt Jihadi John

The media were never likely to heed demands from prominent Muslims to stop using “Islamic State” for the terrorists who have just murdered a second British hostage, if only because the suggested alternative, Un-Islamic State, would have created the confusing acronym US. But the press could surely stop referring to the front-man in the murder videos as “Jihadi John”. The name supposedly originated with the hostages who, because of their jailers’ British accents, called them “the Beatles”. The source of this tale is obscure and, as
“Jihadi John” seems to speak with a London accent, it sounds inherently improbable.

“Jihadi John” sounds glamorous, romantic and swashbuckling, particularly, I should think, to the ears of some adolescent Muslims. What about “Subnormal Steve” or “Dopey Donald” instead?

No team in I

Kevin Pietersen is clearly a somewhat abrasive and perhaps mixed-up individual, which I would attribute to childhood canings from his father. But whatever their opinions on his newly published autobiography – which describes the former England cricket coach Andy Flower as “contagiously sour, infectiously dour” and several former team-mates as bullies – millions of people are talking about it. Cricket’s special appeal is that, over long periods of play, it highlights in narrative form the personalities of individuals and how they interact with others. Think of Fred Trueman, Andrew Flintoff and Shane Warne, all men with personal shortcomings who fascinated the public.

Geoffrey Boycott shows that cricketers do not need to be entertaining players to attract such attention. Those who blamelessly “play for the team” are a greater threat to the game’s future than awkward mavericks such as Pietersen. Fortunately, someone like him usually emerges. Ben Stokes, the young all-rounder who broke his hand punching a dressing-room locker, shows great promise.

Tribute cones

The number of cones on the motorways this autumn seems greater than ever. They often stretch miles beyond any visible roadworking activity. Is it time to bring back the cones hotline? John Major, I think, now qualifies as a national treasure but the cones hotline is the only thing most people remember him for. It’s not much of a legacy compared to the NHS or the Open University, but wouldn’t it be a nice gesture for a grateful nation to honour him by restoring it? 

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 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

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