Politicians’ privates, the Daily Mail’s gentility and Cameron’s “declinable offer” to Ashcroft

What a strange country. Most of us associate pigs with bacon and sausages but Corbyn won’t eat them, while David Cameron has allegedly molested a dead one.

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What a strange country we live in. At last, we have a genuine clash of political opposites, thanks to an opposition leader who believes in rail nationalisation, an end to austerity, the cancellation of Trident, rent controls, the higher taxation of the rich and quantitative easing to fund new schools, hospitals and council houses. Yet newspapers are obsessed with which private organ the Prime Minister may have inserted into which orifice of which animal during his student days decades ago. When they are not probing this matter, they send their fearless investigators to find out whether Jeremy Corbyn “romped” naked in a Cotswolds field in the 1970s with a woman who now serves in his shadow cabinet.

The upshot is that our politicians seem weirder than ever. Most of us associate pigs with bacon and sausages but Corbyn, a vegetarian, won’t eat them, while David Cameron has allegedly molested a dead one. Most of us go to the Cotswolds to enjoy the beautiful countryside and pretty villages but Labour politicians take their clothes off, while the Tories snort cocaine. What those hard-working families we keep hearing about make of all this is anyone’s guess.

 

Purchasing power

The tales of Cameron’s involvement in “louche” drug-taking circles that indulge in “bizarre rituals and sexual excess” – and of his ability to scratch a pig’s back “so effectively that the creature sighs” and to castrate a ram with a pair of pliers – come from a ­biography written by the former Tory party treasurer Lord Ashcroft with Isabel Oakeshott, a former political editor of the Sunday Times. According to the Daily Mail, which is serialising the book, the revelations have “got the world talking” and in Eritrea the people no doubt speak of little else.

The most scandalous revelation, however, has gone almost unremarked upon. Lord Ashcroft apparently believed – and had reason to believe – that in return for his donations to the Tories, he would get a senior government post.

Before the 2010 election, Ashcroft claims, Cameron promised him that he would play a “not . . . insignificant” role in a Tory-led government. (According to one account, not from Ashcroft, he may have expected to be foreign secretary.) He was eventually offered a position as a junior whip but, “after ploughing some £8m into the party, I regarded this as a declinable offer”. Cash for honours is one thing. This would have been cash for power. Strangely, the Mail, usually stern in its denunciation of such dubious practices, sees nothing wrong here, reporting that Ashcroft “had good reason to feel aggrieved” at Cameron’s “act of treachery”.

 

The spy who loved Jeremy

Set against stories of Tory excess and entitlement, Corbyn, despite his possible lapse in the Cotswolds, increasingly seems a breath of fresh air. Labour predictably continues to lag in the polls, yet he seems to have stirred something in the country that extends to surprising quarters. From the heart of rural England, a friend reports on a lunch party hosted by a former British diplomat and ­attended by a former senior member of the secret services. They were, my friend says, “overwhelmingly Corbynistas”. Hide your credit cards, he advises.

 

Top of the props

Years ago, when the English rugby union team was meeting one of the lesser rugby nations, a woman asked how everyone could be so sure that we would win. Wasn’t a “shock” result possible? Certainly not, I replied. Rugby union was a highly technical game in which a team of superior power and skill inevitably won. Unlike football, I elaborated, a lucky 1-0 win for the underdog was impossible, as rugby matches were never decided by a single scoring event.

I would have repeated that explanation if questioned about Japan’s chances of beating South Africa in the World Cup. South Africa, Australia and New Zealand rarely lose to any team except each other and, sometimes, England, France, Wales or Ireland. Japan’s victory – in a match of 14 scoring events – is the rough equivalent of San Marino beating Brazil at football. It completely undermines the conventional rugby wisdom that bigger teams always come out on top. The Japanese, with an average height of 5ft 11in, are the joint smallest team in the tournament and the average weight of their forwards, at 17st 4lb, is 9lb less than that of their South African opponents. We lefties should rejoice. The mighty have been brought low.

 

Unhappy endings

The Daily Mail’s TV critic, reviewing the BBC’s adaptation of The Go-Between, writes that “in the novel, the climax of the love story is coarse and melodramatic” and demands “a subtler ending”. Ye gods! L P Hartley’s masterpiece has survived unbowdlerised for more than 60 years. Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter, in their 1971 film, stayed faithful to its beautifully constructed plot, as did Pete Travis, the director of the BBC version. Now it apparently fails to meet the Mail’s standards of gentility. Will the Mail next demand a rewrite, after more than 2,000 years, of Virgil’s Aeneid – in which Dido and Aeneas also make love in a thunderstorm?

 

Don’t blame Essex

Some readers have questioned my claim to be living quietly and unfashionably in Loughton, Essex. One asks how Loughton can be unfashionable when it is less than 40 minutes away on the Tube from Oxford Circus and includes conservation areas. This is a fair point and I could add that, according to one distinguished historian who lives locally, Loughton in the late 19th century had the cachet that Hampstead later acquired.

But I have never accused Loughton of being unfashionable. I am the guilty party, having been sacked as the Independent on Sunday editor because, I was told, someone more “fashionable and metropolitan” was required. I accepted I was neither of those things. Even in Islington, or Notting Hill, I would live quietly and unfashionably. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 24 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left