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6 November 2019

First Thoughts: The Tory-Brexit Party pact, Putin’s “iron grip” and Steve Bannon eyes up the Telegraph

The Conservatives’ secret is that they never allow a rival on the right or centre right to gain traction. 

By Peter Wilby

There will be no pact between Boris Johnson’s Tories and Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. The Conservatives are the most consistently successful right-wing party in Europe. Their secret is that they never allow a rival on the right or centre right to gain traction. Whichever direction the wind is blowing – towards free markets or collectivism, free trade or tariffs, traditional or liberal social values, Europhobia or Europhilia – the Tories follow. When there are worries about economic growth, the Tories trumpet their support for “wealth creators”; when the worries focus on poverty-level wages, they promise support for “the left behind”.

Most Tory MPs back Johnson because they think he can not just win the election but crush their Europhobic rivals. British politics, we are constantly told, is close to a great realignment. A new centre party is always about to be launched. That won’t happen either. Our political system is based on an established duopoly and our voting system dictates it will stay that way.

In Putin’s pocket

Why is Boris Johnson reluctant to release the intelligence and security committee report on Russian meddling in British politics? Isn’t Jeremy Corbyn supposed to be the leader in thrall to the Russians? He was pilloried for suggesting that Vladimir Putin might be innocent of the Salisbury poisoning; he is regularly charged with being a threat to national security; he was reported by the Daily Telegraph, only two months ago, to be likely “to pass classified US intelligence to Russia”. According to the Daily Mail, his director of strategy and communications, the ex-Guardian columnist Seumas Milne, was “held in Putin’s iron grip at propaganda summit” (ie, they shook hands) on the Black Sea coast in 2014.

Surely, Labour, not the Tories, would benefit from Russian meddling. Or has Labour failed to call in the favours its leading figures have allegedly done for the Kremlin? This looks like strategic failure. Wake up, Milne!

An alt-right proprietor?

Though, as I wrote last week, nobody should mourn the decision of David and Frederick Barclay to sell the Telegraph, it is always possible to find a worse proprietor and newspapers usually do. Take the Daily Express. When Lord Beaverbrook owned it, everybody, even the Duke of Edinburgh – who described it as “vicious… full of lies, scandal and imagination” – thought it a dreadful paper, always banging on about empire. All succeeding owners turned out worse, particularly Richard Desmond, proprietor from 2000 to 2018, who made his money from pornography.

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Now, it is reported, Steve Bannon, the alt-right former Donald Trump aide who once declared that the media was “the real opposition” and “the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit”, has the Telegraph in his sights. It says everything about British press ownership that the paper’s best prospect is a successful bid from Lord Rothermere, the Daily Mail owner.

Beginning, middle and end

Somebody once said that life is one damn thing after another. But not in modern novels, still less plays, which switch bewilderingly between future, present and past, and between reality and fantasy. To my amazement, The Son, the latest play from Florian Zeller – which I saw recently at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London – adopts the traditional narrative structure. Though Zeller’s previous plays were labyrinths (his word), this one has a beginning, a middle and an end. That had three consequences. First, it didn’t give me a headache. Second, audience members said, as they left, that they had never been so riveted in the theatre. Third, the play’s solitary departure from reality was all the more effective.

Lower expectations

England lost rugby union’s World Cup final not despite playing so well in beating New Zealand in the semi-final, but because of it. Perfection, which England came close to attaining, is hard to repeat. If you try to repeat it, frustration and error inevitably follow. “Improve,” the coach, Eddie Jones, told his players. He should have told them to lower their sights.

This article appears in the 06 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What went wrong