A bit of Kinnock at Christmas. Photo: Getty
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Christmas dinner comes early this year, with goulash, Kinnock and serious plotting

Everything went a bit hazy after that. It had got a bit hazy before, to be perfectly honest, because I had drunk about six bottles of wine and several shot glasses of slivovitz.

The last thing I remember is having an arm around Neil Kinnock, giving him some tips about how he should help Ed Miliband win the next election. I also, for what it was worth, put in a good word for the nearest thing I have to a Labour MP, Hammersmith’s very own Andy Slaughter, who has, as far as I can see – and I have been keeping an eye on him – been doing a very good job. (He’s the nearest thing I have to an MP because my children live in his constituency. The area I live in has never returned anything other than a Tory candidate, and never will.)

However, as I said, everything went a bit hazy after that. It had got a bit hazy before, to be perfectly honest, because I had drunk about six bottles of wine and several shot glasses of slivovitz. The wine was, though not entirely my fault as I will explain in a minute, rather a matter of personal indulgence, as it so often is; but the slivovitz was in the line of duty, as it was being poured for us in order to toast the hard-working staff of the Gay Hussar. And they deserved these toasts, for the restaurant was completely packed out with members of the Goulash Co-operative (look it up), formed by the likes of Martin Rowson in order to buy out and therefore save the restaurant, which will otherwise be sold and turned into a Starbucks or something equally boring.

For those who do not know the Gay Hussar (although I would imagine that this magazine’s core readership has a pretty good idea), it is a restaurant that has been going for 60-odd years, nestling in the armpit of Soho Square and Greek Street, serving an unchanging menu of Hungarian food to a clientele largely composed of Old Labour politicians. The walls are adorned with caricatures of various luminaries; the downstairs dining room alone has some 60 of these, all drawn by Martin Rowson. I suspect the idea was to pay for his meal in kind; that’s a lot of free dinners. Not that I am censorious. I was, after all, his guest; the people on his table had bowed out and Martin, asking himself the question “Whom do I know who would accept an invitation to a free lunch at almost the last possible minute?” came up with my name, for some reason.

It was, however, a happy choice. I have a fondness for Hungary and Hungarians, ever since I worked on a film in Budapest in the mid-1980s (with, let me boast, the actor Marcello Mastroianni, writing additional dialogue for him in English, a language he did not speak. The greatest gentleman Italy has ever produced, he treated me with a courtesy that few have ever treated me with since). I can count to ten in Hungarian still; I can read sentences aloud with such a good accent that few would realise I can’t understand what I’m reading; and I still have some phrases, along with a few ripe expletives that used to come in handy when the kids were young and I wanted to express frustration at some immediate outrage.

Also, my politics are as red and peppery as the restaurant’s goulash. It is telling that Tony Blair never ate there; its old-world atmosphere and menu would have repelled him and he hatched his conspiracies in more intimate surroundings. The Gay Hussar may have been a place for off-the-record conversations, but there is a kind of honesty in having a rendezvous somewhere open to the public, so that even if you’re going to be in a private room, people will have seen you and your co-plotter entering about the same time.

In short, history has been made there, and it is a sign of the end of a certain kind of politics that the restaurant is thinking of giving up.

I also blame the end of a certain kind of lunch. That is, a phenomenally alcoholic one that you don’t pay for. Publishers and agents used to do them very well; now a combination of austerity and prissiness has produced a nation that sits at its desk, dyspeptically nibbling on a Pret sandwich while worrying about being fired. This was one of the grand lunches: between me, Martin, his agent and the Moose (the other last-minute guest), we got through a lake of wine and a pondful of duck and smoked goose. And I’ll pass on the thought that – what with the bill of fare tending as it does towards the robust, and the national colours of Hungary being red, white and green, and the heavily oaked decor of the interior – the Gay Hussar is the kind of place that feels permanently Yule-ish; but in a good way. Let this not be its last year.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.