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6 October 2021

Steve Richards’ Diary: Joining the veterans’ club, the lessons of the political past, and why “future leaders” fail

When I joined the New Statesman aged 34, I was called “youthful”. Now my tendency to reflect on the past works against me.

By Steve Richards

A curious characteristic of political journalists is that while we criticise politicians with an often wounding brutality, we struggle to put up with even a minor barb against ourselves. I recall witnessing a former editor of the New Statesman, Peter Wilby, reading a media column from a rival magazine in which his raincoat was the subject of an unflattering comment. Peter can go after politicians with an elegant force and yet he was deeply hurt by the attack. “There’s nothing wrong with my raincoat!” he declared furiously and frequently. I have discovered recently that I am even more sensitive than him.

Or at least I am when a particular adjective is applied to me. In a couple of reviews of my latest book, The Prime Ministers We Never Had, I am described as a “veteran” political journalist. I erupt with rage as that wretched word heads towards me like a missile. When I joined the New Statesman at the age of 34, I was sometimes referred to as the “youthful” new political editor. I could put up with that, although the term seemed a little patronising. But “veteran” is in another league of dismissive imprecision. Here I am performing regular one-man shows in London and, pre-pandemic, at the Edinburgh festival, more likely to watch performances at the Soho Theatre than at the Royal Opera House, cycling everywhere youthfully – and yet there it is, in print forever. Apparently these are the endeavours of a veteran.

[See also: Jeremy Bowen’s Diary: Where the West went wrong in Afghanistan, the ruins of Helmand, and my sharp new attire]

During an epic speech in 1979, the last to be delivered in the Commons by a Labour cabinet minister for 18 years, Michael Foot noted of the then Liberal leader, David Steel: “He’s passed from rising hope to elder statesman without any intervening period whatsoever.” I was not even a rising hope.

History repeating

Probably the reason why I am so unjustly abused is that when I write about today’s politics I tend to contextualise, going well beyond the recent past. When John Birt was director-general of the BBC he argued that a key role of a constrained impartial media organisation was to place fast-moving events into context. Only then could the significance of a news story be recognised. There are still a noble few at the BBC that attempt to contextualise, but on the whole such notions are out of fashion there. Sometimes  I hear reports suggesting politics is one disconnected event after another, but there are always deep reasons why politicians behave as they do. They are framed by how they choose to learn from previous decades. The present only makes sense by understanding the past.

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Leading by example

To weigh up the chances of Rishi Sunak becoming prime minister – a current favourite theme – it is necessary to explore why other chancellors seen as likely leaders failed to seize the crown. Why did Rab Butler, Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey and Ken Clarke, all of them formidable chancellors, not reach the top in spite of a widespread assumption they would do so? We tend to view politics in terms of “future leaders” and yet the hopes of such figures are usually dashed. I heard much talk during the Labour conference hailing the leadership chances of Rachel Reeves, Angela Rayner and Andy Burnham. As well as Sunak, Liz Truss is up there as a possible Tory leader. Michael Gove has been seen in such terms since around the mid-1840s. (By the way, why is he not described as the veteran Michael Gove?)

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[See also: Victoria Newton’s Diary: An evening with Prince William, and how the Labour Party could win again]

Prime ministers are much harder to remove than is assumed in all the speculation about their successors.  I make the observation having written and read around a thousand columns from 2001 wondering whether Gordon Brown was about to take over from Tony Blair and another 500 on when Theresa May would fall after the 2017 election. Blair lasted until 2007 and May was in No 10 until July 2019, when Boris Johnson took over. Johnson’s ascendancy highlights the fundamental lesson of leadership in a party-based system. Potential leaders only become leaders if they are at one with their parties on the big issues of the day.

Access all eras

An early press release that accompanied the publication of my new book declared I had “unique access” to the prime ministers we never had. Perhaps some reviewers assume I am as old as Rab Butler would have been if he were still alive. This is more plausible,  I guess, than my having had unique access to him from a cot in north London. But I am falling into a terrible trap. Looking back on this diary I have referred to Foot, Steel, Butler, Jenkins and Healey – figures of the past, but of huge ongoing significance. I can feel that deadly missile heading towards me once again.

Steve Richards presents “Rock ’n’ Roll Politics” live at Kings Place, London, on 11 October. “The Prime Ministers We Never Had” is published by Atlantic Books

This article appears in the 06 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Unsafe Places