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20 March 2019updated 08 Jul 2021 11:04am

First Thoughts: Civil war at the Mail papers, Liz Truss for Tory leader and a winter of sporting shocks

By Peter Wilby

The first edition of Erskine May, the parliamentary rule book, provides, in fine Victorian prose, an apt commentary on the current parliamentary session. “If the same question could be proposed again and again,” wrote May in 1844, “a session would have no end, or only one question could be determined; and it would be resolved first in the affirmative, and then in the negative, according to the accidents or the tricks to which all voting is liable.”

Parliamentary sessions normally last a year but this session, which began in June 2017 after Theresa May’s pyrrhic general election victory, has no end in sight. It has, for all practical purposes, determined only one question – or rather, tried to do so and failed. It has been full of accidents and tricks. John Bercow, the Speaker, is right to say that enough is enough and May cannot introduce her ill-fated Brexit deal for a third time. One sometimes longs for an Oliver Cromwell to say, as he did in 1653 to the Rump Parliament, “you have sat too long for any good you have been doing… let us have done with you”.

Not in their names

Among the slogans on weapons used by Brenton Tarrant to murder 50 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand, were “for Rotherham”. We all recognise the reference to young girls in the town being raped and exploited by gangs of men.

Much of the comment on Rotherham highlighted the men as “Asian” or “Muslim” or “of British-Pakistani heritage”, terms often treated as interchangeable. In this and several similar instances of organised abuse, the offenders’ ethnicity was treated as though it were the most important aspect of their behaviour. Louise Casey, who inspected Rotherham’s children’s services, wrote in the second sentence of her report in 2015: “Children were sexually exploited by men… from the Pakistani heritage community. Not enough was done to acknowledge this.” Sarah Champion, Rotherham’s Labour MP, wrote in 2017: “For too long we have ignored the race of these abusers.”

Nobody thought it important to identify abusers in children’s homes, public schools and churches as “white British men”. Nobody highlighted the Rotherham abusers as taxi drivers (as most were) in the same way as other abusers are highlighted, for example, as Catholic priests. In any case, when the Rotherham abusers were tried, the pictures and names in BBC and other reports made their race and religion clear.

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I am not blaming Casey or Champion for the Christchurch atrocity. But they thought race and/or religion were central to what happened in Rotherham. So did Tarrant. I think that should be noted.

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Kensington gore

The long-standing feud between the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday (MoS) seemed likely to end when Paul Dacre stepped down as editor of the former last year and was succeeded by Geordie Greig, previously editor of the (slightly) more liberal, pro-EU Sunday paper. Not so.

Last month, the MoS, now edited by Dacre’s former deputy Ted Verity, published lengthy extracts from Tom Bower’s hostile biography of Jeremy Corbyn. The daily paper carried a review of the book by its columnist Peter Oborne. Though a Tory sympathiser, he, like Corbyn, opposes British and American interventions in the Middle East. He described Bower’s book as an “inaccurate hatchet job”, full of “tittle-tattle… sneers and distortions”. Later, in the online Middle East Eye, he wrote that the Mail on Sunday’s publication of extracts was “not good enough… we in the British press should care about accuracy and integrity”.

The crossfire continues. According to Bower, writing in the latest issue of the Mail on Sunday, Middle East Eye is “pro-Hamas”. Moreover, Oborne is “an admirer of Corbyn”, once calling him “a hero of democracy”. The level of invective at Northcliffe House, the Mail papers’ Kensington headquarters, has never been higher.

Truss fund kids

In an interview with the Times, Liz Truss, Chief Secretary to the Treasury and self-described “popular free-marketeer” (is such a thing possible?), says that Oxford and Cambridge university interviews are “incredibly off-putting for a lot of students from state schools” whereas privately educated students “have had training”. The answer, she suggests, is to offer the top 100 state school students “from each region” automatic Oxbridge places “without having to apply”.

This is not identical to my own proposal, first outlined nearly 20 years ago in the New Statesman, to allocate one or two elite university places to the top-performing pupils at every school in the country. But it is a step towards it. In the unlikely event of my joining the Conservative Party, Liz Truss (who attended a state comprehensive school in Leeds before reading PPE at Oxford) would have my vote for leader.

Wild winter games

This has been a strange winter of sport. England’s cricketers went to Sri Lanka and unexpectedly won all three Test matches on slow, spinning pitches, the first time they have achieved a “whitewash” in Asia. Then Sri Lanka went to South Africa and became the first Asian side to win a Test series there. Meanwhile, England went to the West Indies, near the bottom of the Test match rankings, and lost 2-1. Now England’s rugby union team, playing at their Twickenham headquarters, where they haven’t lost to their Scottish opponents since 1983, lead 31-0, then collapse to go behind 38-31 and finally scrape a 38-38 draw by scoring a converted try in the final minute.

Could it be that professional sportsmen have become robots, programmed by coaches and analysts telling them exactly what to do? Confronted with the unexpected – opponents changing tactics or introducing new players, unanalysed by the back room staff – the robots suffer a systems failure. Whatever the explanation, these sporting shocks have been great fun.

This article appears in the 20 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, State of emergency