The crown on Richard III's coffin. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
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Labour in a trap, Cameron’s decade debacle, democracy at the Guardian and Leicester’s losers

Plus Richard III interred - and that end-of-term feeling as Parliament closes down.

My nightmare of a decisive Tory election victory refuses to go away. George Osborne’s Budget may have disappointed Tories who hoped for a cut in headline tax rates, and encouraged Labour supporters who think he blundered by failing to mention the NHS. Yet YouGov’s post-Budget polls show his personal ratings rising. Asked who would make the better chancellor, twice as many choose Osborne as choose Ed Balls.

True, the Tories’ poll position hasn’t improved so far, and chancellors’ ratings usually rise immediately after a Budget. But, I fear, the Tories will do themselves no harm whatever by promising more austerity until 2019. Labour’s “responsibility” for the financial crisis and subsequent recession has been firmly (and falsely) implanted in voters’ minds. So has the equally false allegation that Labour’s spending brought Britain close to Greece-style ruin. The more the Tories talk about austerity, therefore, the more voters are reminded of Labour’s supposed recklessness and incompetence. And the longer austerity goes on – or is said to begoing on, given that, in fact, Osborne largely abandoned it in 2012 – the worse Labour’s legacy looks. “They left such a mess that it’s taking us nearly ten years to clear it up,” the Tories will say. Eds Miliband and Balls are caught in a trap that will be hard to escape.

 

End-of-term feeling

No prime minister since Lord Liverpool has served three full terms of office consecutively. The fates of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair tell us that, after a decade, everyone becomes sick of the sight of whoever’s in Downing Street, and the PMs themselves go at least slightly mad. Because the law says a term now has to be five years rather than the more usual four, it was a statement of the obvious for David Cameron to say he wouldn’t serve a third term. But it was still a foolish error – we haven’t given you a second term yet, sunshine, and didn’t really intend you to have a first – which shows again that Cameron rarely thinks through the consequences of what he says and does. Neville Chamberlain was once described as a good lord mayor of Birmingham in a bad year. It may be said of Cameron that he was a good PR of Carlton TV in a bad year.

 

The infantry has spoken

Newspapers’ internal affairs, someone once said to me, are more political than politics (she worked for David Owen when he and David Steel led the SDP-Liberal Alliance, and so she spoke with authority). Several commentators saw lots of politics in Katharine Viner’s success in the staff ballot for the next Guardian editor and her subsequent appointment. The result, they suggested, represented a rejection of the legacy of Alan Rusbridger, the outgoing editor, and particularly of his single-minded focus on Edward Snowden’s revelations about the intelligence agencies. But without denying that such considerations had some influence, I prefer a simpler explanation: Viner is a more charming, more inclusive and less threatening figure than Janine Gibson, who started as the bookies’ and Rusbridger’s favourite.

Viner, a former editor of the Saturday paper and latterly head of the Guardian’s US operation, campaigned vigorously, buttonholing staff in corridors and telling them to vote from the heart. She said staff should get more feedback and career development, and the Guardian should have more “warmth and fun”. She thus won over the poor bloody infantry – reporters, specialist correspondents, sub-editors, all of whom feel desperately insecure and somewhat marginalised as the Guardian transforms itself into an international digital brand – and took the ballot by a thumping margin, with the slightly scary Gibson, boss of the company’s digital journalism, languishing in third place.

 

Insider dealings

The result wasn’t binding on the Scott Trust, which appoints the editor; had Viner won narrowly, it might have gone ahead with its plan to give the job to Gibson. But the rulers of a newspaper that shouts its commitments to democracy and equal opportunities could hardly ignore such a decisive result. Nor, with three plausible female candidates, could it do more than pay Ian Katz, a former deputy editor who moved to edit BBC2’s Newsnight, the compliment of making him runner-up. As for the various Americans it encouraged to apply – they included a former editor of the International Herald Tribune – they all disappeared without trace.

That is the trouble with allowing staff a significant voice. They will always favour an inside candidate – better the devil you know, etc – and outsiders usually want to keep their interest confidential lest they upset their current employers. (Katz, though his application was an open secret, was not on the journalists’ ballot paper.) Proprietors frequently appoint insiders anyway but sometimes newspapers need an editor from outside their culture. Would anybody have voted for Andrew Neil, an obscure Economist hack when Rupert Murdoch made him Sunday Times editor? Or for Max Hastings, best known as a rather self-aggrandising foreign correspondent when Conrad Black installed him at the Telegraph?

 

Pride of Leicester

The English are so stubbornly royalist that they will scatter roses, line the streets and wait hours to file past a coffin for a king who’s been dead more than 500 years. It seems appropriate that Leicester, poised to record the rare double of its football team coming bottom of the Premier League and its cricket team bottom of the County Championship, now turns out to celebrate Richard III, whose life ended in defeat not only for him but for the entire Plantagenet dynasty. Still, my birthplace always makes the best of what J B Priestley, in his curmudgeonly way, called “a very rum mixed list of historical associations”. As readers and viewers of Wolf Hall will know, Cardinal Wolsey died there – another loser, come to think of it – and he was commemorated by a local manufacturer stamping his name on men’s socks and underpants. 

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 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

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