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8 March 2023

Iain Dale’s Diary: An eerie Washington DC, Keir Starmer’s own goal, and the conundrum of Isabel Oakeshott

The Labour leader fumbled his justifications on LBC – but much of the outrage over Sue Gray’s appointment is confected.

By Iain Dale

I have always wondered how people get upgraded on planes. Now I know the secret. Recently I was travelling to Washington DC to launch the US edition of my book, The Presidents. I was in my seat (premium economy, since you ask) when I heard someone say: “Hello Iain.” It was Gary Smith, the head of the GMB union, who I’ve interviewed a couple of times.

We exchanged some merry banter until one of the flight crew asked if I’d like to be upgraded to business. “We appreciate you supporting us in our dispute over fire and rehire,” was the explanation. Two years ago I had been very vocal in criticising British Airways management over the disgraceful treatment of their staff. As I got up to move, I whispered to Gary, “Don’t be jealous. Nothing’s too good for the workers.” If looks could kill.

[See also: Joanna Cherry’s Diary: Identity politics, squabbles in the SNP, and my position on the leadership race]

A city in decline

I first went to Washington DC in 1990 and I loved it. Since then I’ve been back at least 15 times, although not since covering Trump’s inauguration in 2017. Unlike London, DC has not recovered from Covid-19. It’s so quiet, almost eerily so. Seventy per cent of government workers have not returned to their desks. Many shops and restaurants have not reopened. There’s a total lack of the buzz that thriving cities have. A lot of my favourite haunts are no longer there, including the Central Café at Union Station and the Barnes & Noble bookshop in Georgetown. It’s a city in decline and there’s no sign of the momentum reversing any time soon.

Washington royalty

The high point of my trip was a book launch reception, hosted by the British ambassador Karen Pierce. It’s not often you meet a Roosevelt and a Biden in the same room, but that’s what I did, and my imposter syndrome reached stratospheric levels. Teddy Roosevelt’s granddaughter-in-law “Lucky”, who had been Ronald Reagan’s head of protocol, was quite a character, and Joe Biden’s sister, Valerie, was rather concerned as to what my book said about her brother. “You needn’t worry,” I reassured her, “the chapter on Joe was written by Andrew Adonis, a close adviser to Tony Blair.”

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Feeling sorry for Matt Hancock

From the glamour of a Washington high society do, I then headed to, er, Leeds to speak at the literary festival and to co-host a live version of my For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith. David Davis was our special guest, a man of whom Jacqui had never had a very high opinion. Still, at least she resisted the temptation to tell him to “shut up”, as she did to Isabel Oakeshott the previous week.

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I am responsible for publishing three of the books Oakeshott has ghosted for others, and believe me, it’s something I wish had said on many an occasion. If there is a more slippery figure in British journalism, I am yet to come across them. How someone who works for News UK (she is a presenter on the company’s channel TalkTV) gets away with giving the Matt Hancock WhatsApp messages to a rival newspaper, I can only speculate. Quite why News UK’s CEO Rebekah Brooks or her boss Rupert Murdoch haven’t sacked Oakeshott, only they can know. If her revelations truly were in the public interest, would she have gone about sharing them in this way? She said she worked on Hancock’s book “pro bono” but has admitted to taking her share of the substantial fee when the book was serialised in the Daily Mail. Her behaviour smacks of hypocrisy. It comes to something when she makes you feel sorry for Hancock.

Sue Gray, the most powerful woman in Britain

Listening to Keir Starmer tie himself up in knots on his “Call Keir” LBC phone-in with Nick Ferrari was painful. Ferrari wanted to know when Starmer had first approached Sue Gray to be his new chief of staff. A perfectly reasonable question, I would have thought, which ought to have been easily answered. Instead, Starmer protested that nothing inappropriate had happened. No one had suggested it had, but his repeated evasion in answering the question has led people to think something was up. A total own goal.

It has to be said that much of the outrage over Gray’s appointment is confected. I dealt with her many times when I was a publisher, and know a lot of politicians who have worked with her. Not a single one of them has anything negative to say. When she was head of ethics in the Cabinet Office, Oliver Letwin described Gray as “the most powerful woman in Britain”. If she is chief of staff in a Starmer government, history may well repeat itself.

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio. “The Presidents: 250 Years of American Political Leadership” is published by Hodder & Stoughton

[See also: Andrew Murray’s Diary: Back to my old Commons beat, recalling the bellowing-booth and lessons from the Iraq War]

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This article appears in the 08 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why universities are making us stupid