What strange people Tories are. When they (I mean Tory backbenchers and activists, rather than David Cameron and George Osborne, who are strange in a different way) are not going goggle-eyed about the need to protect our “independence” from Europe, they are ready to die in the last ditch to defend that uniquely British institution, the House of Lords. These two obsessions, which seem to move Tory activists and backbench MPs more than anything to do with unemployment, housing or poverty, sit oddly together. The European Union is denounced as undemocratic, but an unelected second chamber is apparently to be admired and preserved.
In the worst economic crisis for at least 80 years, Cameron’s foot soldiers may argue that he should have higher priorities than Lords reform. I am inclined to agree, particularly since we shall probably end up with another botched compromise that entails a significant unelected element. But the Liberal Democrats seem desperately to want a reformed second chamber and, if Cameron let them have it, they would probably support another round of welfare cuts. We should all be thankful that the Tories are too stupid to make this calculation.
Out to launch
Political correspondents advise that, in the wake of the local election results, Cameron and Nick Clegg are “relaunching” their coalition. This is a sure sign that the government is in deep trouble. Though New Labour, as the Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley put it, “ever had a palpitating heart”, it did not feel the need to relaunch until it had been in office seven years and had slaughtered tens of thousands in ill-advised foreign wars. The great relaunchers of recent history were John Major and Gordon Brown, whose spin doctors briefed the Westminster lobby almost every other week that a thrilling new era was at hand. They carried on relaunching until the electorate sent them packing. For the first time, I feel hopeful, even confident, that we shall see Ed Miliband in Downing Street by 2015 at the latest.
Geeks bearing gifts
Miliband is often charged with having a geeky, unglamorous persona that is said to make him unelectable. So François Hollande’s triumph across the Channel should encourage him even more than the coalition’s travails. Hollande is obviously less charismatic than his defeated rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, whose assets include a glamorous third wife and a father who claims to have seduced his nanny when he was 11 – an age at which Miliband’s father, Ralph, a London School of Economics lecturer, was probably deep into Marx’s Das Kapital. But Hollande is also less charismatic than the large majority of Frenchmen. Is this the first example in the television age of people electing someone more boring than themselves? If that is the trend, it is bad news for Boris Johnson and his Tory leadership ambitions.
Race to the bottom
Johnson, however, has a keen eye for the spurious, headline-grabbing initiative. On being re-elected Mayor of London, he announced an inquiry into “the failures of the labour market”, which means he wants to know why foreigners get jobs in restaurants and coffee bars, rather than British-born Londoners. No inquiry is necessary. The reasons are entirely unmysterious and have been for years. Just as employers outsource manufacturing overseas so that they can use people who work longer hours for less money, so they do exactly the same in the service sector. The only difference is that the service sector brings overseas workers here.
Nearly all solutions, including stricter immigration control, involve slashing profits by denying employers cheap labour. The only alternative is to reduce the living standards of British workers and bring them closer to those in developing countries. I am sure that is the answer Johnson wants from his “inquiry”.
In February, I revealed in this column that in September 2007 the Daily Express paid the private detective Steve Whittamore £963.50 for information about a certain “P Wilby”. This followed a Guardian article in which I described the Express as “a hopeless newspaper that couldn’t tell you the time of day”.
Now, thanks to my former colleague Brian Cathcart, who blogs on the Hacked Off website, I have further details. The then Express editor, Peter Hill, was so enraged by my comments, he immediately banned the Guardian from the paper’s offices. So it is hardly surprising that somebody at the Express (not necessarily Hill) decided to engage Whittamore to dig dirt. The detective’s daily rate suggests I was placed under surveillance for four days. I have unearthed my diary for the relevant period. It records that I wrote an NS column on public schools, lunched with the NS production editor, attended a party held by a Quaker and bought a small loaf of granary bread from my local baker in Loughton, Essex, where I live quietly and unfashionably.
Whittamore was presumably too bored to continue. He should have hung around. A few days later, I lunched at the Garrick Club with Alexander Chancellor, a former Spectator editor and Old Etonian, surely a disreputable venue and dubious company for a left-wing writer.
Toeing the line
Is the PM congenitally accident-prone? Visiting the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford the other day, friends encountered Cameron and Osborne with their children in tow. The former, looking stressed and red-faced, pushed a buggy so aggressively he ran over my friends’ son’s toe and had to apologise. If he’d consulted the museum’s website, he would have learned that it is “quite dark in places” and “a torch will help you find your way”. He and Osborne may also find this useful advice for running the country.