Andrew Marr left the BBC for the New Statesman in December 2021, at the beginning of the end of Boris Johnson’s premiership. “I was not sure how it would be to express myself in my own voice,” he recalls of giving up the impartiality doctrine. Marr had buried his father during the pandemic, with only six people in attendance – and so that winter’s partygate revelations struck him with particular force. “I remember sitting in [the Labour MP] Jack Dromey’s memorial service and realising, for the first time in 20, 30 years: I can say exactly what I think about Boris Johnson.”
The result was an excoriating cover story, “Why Boris Johnson is beyond saving”, a distinctive blend of the personal and the political which led to Marr being named columnist of the year at the 2022 British Society of Magazine Editors Awards.
His job is very different from the one Jackie Ashley did when she was the NS political editor between 2000 and 2002. Like her husband, she left a high-profile television role – as ITN’s political correspondent – to write a weekly column and interview. But the work, she says, was far simpler then. “I had no team: I was the team. I didn’t have the daily diet of blogs and podcasts.” There was a compulsory lunch every Thursday, attended by Labour ministers and dominated by “the TBGBs” – the never-ending Blair-Brown rivalry. She wrote a memorable column on Labour’s macho work culture – “a democracy run by bullies for male insomniacs” – and recalls being furious when one piece was illustrated with a cartoon of a woman in suspenders.
Marr was then political editor at the BBC. “We had rules about not telling each other until a story was out,” says Ashley. “But because Andrew was on daily programmes and I was on a weekly magazine there wasn’t too much rivalry.” After stints writing for the Guardian and as president of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, Ashley is now chair of the National Brain Appeal.
One aspect that hasn’t changed since Ashley’s day is the lag between finishing a column (on Tuesday) and it appearing in print (on Thursday). “One fears being caught out,” Marr admits. Typically, he spends the weekend mulling his theme, “phoning or coffee’ing contacts. Then I write a first draft on Monday, tear it up, and rewrite on Tuesday. The challenge is trying to measure up to a standard the magazine now takes for granted.”
Jackie Ashley and Andrew Marr will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, 19-23 April; cambridgeliteraryfestival.com. NS readers get a 20 per cent discount on all events: use the code NSSPRING23 at checkout
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This article appears in the 12 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue