Jacqui Smith's rise, no thanks to me

It would need a line of unrivalled wisdom to top the thoughts of Eric Hobsbawm. So I went in search

This has been a summer of sermons and each has left its mark. First up was Chicago University, where I sat one Saturday morning for four hours in the baking heat, watching a procession of students, including my British nephew and thousands of Chinese, walk solemnly on and off the stage. By way of introduction, the chaplain (they seemingly couldn't afford either Bill Gates or Bill Clinton) ventured the following advice to the new graduates: "Be animated by a knowledge that is not yours." Her words may be pertinent for journalists who spend too much time opining and too little finding out what is going on.

On to the equally grand confines of the Austrian embassy in London for a 90th birthday celebration to honour the remarkable Eric Hobsbawm. He offered this from the dramatist and actor Johann Nestroy: "Have we yet discovered how far the promontories of the possible extend into the oceans of the impossible?" It would need a line of unrivalled wisdom to top that. So I went in search the next day at Glastonbury, where I found this (the quote is approximate, as my pen fell in the mud): "What I hate are estate agents who rip you off, women's magazine editors who try to turn you into a skinny bitch, almost everything about America, and most of all, poli-fuckin'-ticians." The words of Miss Lily Allen.

No vics here

Convincing people of the merits of his trade is one of the many challenges facing Gordon Brown. He won't get very far unless he addresses issues of trust and veracity that Iraq has bequeathed him. So it was with some curiosity that I ventured to the launch of Christopher Hitchens's anti-God missive at Soho House. No vics were in attendance, but many a neo-Con and quite a smattering of Blairite ultras, too. In one respect the former prime minister might have been prescient: political cross-dressing is much in vogue.

How else can I explain my relationship with both Hitchens brothers? Chris, once of this parish and for so long an icon of the left, marked a much-welcomed return to the NS with a piece in this slot last week. And yet, while his writings on religion strike a chord with many, few will concur with his musings on the great Blair-Bush Middle East misadventure. As for his brother, "bonkers" Peter, I have to confess that, if you ignore the social conservatism and the Europhobia, on matters of war and peace, there is a certain uncomfortable meeting of minds. After all, which weekly recently led its front page with a story about the secret American rendition flights? The Mail on Sunday. I would have been happy to run that piece.


And so to "thank" Lord Levy. I was somewhat alarmed when such an invitation landed on my desk. To thank him for what? But nosiness won out. Who would not want to attend a wake of the Blairites? Still, it was with some trepidation that I walked the gauntlet of cameramen and diarists outside the entrance to Clarence House. When they asked me why I was there, I admitted nervously that I had no idea. I was reassured to find a dozen or so other hacks present under the marquee.

I must confess that over the years I have had a number of conversations with Lord Cashpoint about the Middle East and his various secret and semi-secret sojourns to Israel, Syria and elsewhere, and have always found him courteous and knowledgeable. Perhaps that's because I never brought my chequebook with me.

Gallant losers

Not many people can boast their non-role in someone's rise, but that honour falls to me. In 1984, I wrote Labour's manifesto for the presidency of the Oxford University Students Union. What a shockingly dull document it is. It features a photograph of a certain Jacqui Smith in unprepossessing cardigan with her deputy, a certain Ben Rich, in similar attire. Rich went on to the GLC and is now deputy editor of the BBC Six O'Clock News. Smith, "an active sportswoman and keen rower" (so I wrote), went on to become a teacher and eventually found her way to Home Secretary and the woman in charge of the nation's security. No thanks to me. The pair lost to the Liberals.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The new terror