First Thoughts: What's in a name, Rees-Mogg’s style guide, and a new editor at the Standard

The new Prime Minister has become part of a tradition that is more often the preserve of Labour leaders – that of favouring their middle name

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Can newspaper columnists and feature writers please stop calling the new prime minister “Boris” as though he were some old family friend or a favourite teddy bear? The journalistic convention is to use the given name and family name at first mention, and then only the latter subsequently. Moreover, as every schoolchild must now know, Johnson’s true first name is Alexander. He was called “Al” throughout his childhood.

Like film stars, politicians treat their names as part of their brand. George Osborne, for example, rejected the eternally unfashionable Gideon at 13, while Menzies Campbell ditched Walter, a name that hasn’t been in favour since early last century. Four out of Labour’s six prime ministers dropped their first names in favour of their middle names. Curiously, three of them – Ramsay MacDonald, Harold Wilson and Gordon Brown – rejected James while the fourth preferred it, dropping Leonard and calling himself James Callaghan instead. He probably liked James because it was plain and ordinary while the others wanted something more classy.

As for Johnson, he rejected a name that has grown in popularity since the 1960s, and opted for one that has never been in parents’ top 100 choices. Perhaps he thought “Al” sounded like a gangster. Certainly, nobody would call their teddy bear Al.

Crimes against style

In a writing-style guide for his staff, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the new leader of the Commons, forbids “unacceptable” and “disappointment”. He is right: along with “inappropriate”, they are pompous substitutes for saying you disapprove of something. But he is wrong to ban “meet with”. Though I too once found it an irritating Americanism, I have changed my mind. The bare “meet” could be a brief encounter at a party; “meet with” suggests something longer and deliberately planned.

Unlike Michael Gove, who also issued style guides when he was at the education and justice departments, Rees-Mogg does not advise cutting adjectives. Since the Prime Minister, in his first Commons statement, promised “a clean, green, prosperous, united, confident and ambitious” future, this is probably a wise omission.

Osborne’s farewell

Now that Theresa May has stepped down, expect George Osborne to do the same at the London Evening Standard. His main reason for fitting the editorship into his bulging portfolio of jobs was presumably to deploy it as a platform for his revenge on May, who sacked him as chancellor as soon as she got into Downing Street. For a time, his gleeful chronicling of her stumbling premiership created a buzz around what is otherwise a dull and ailing newspaper. According to Fleet Street rumour, the proprietor Evgeny Lebedev has his eye on a successor: Rachel Johnson, whose Remainer and Lib Dem sympathies will make her views on the premiership of her Brexit-supporting Tory brother Al even more fascinating – and less predictable – than Osborne’s views on May. The paper, which is losing around £10m a year, could certainly do with a lift.

The merits of inaction

No tears from me for any of the Tories who have left ministerial office. But I do regret the loss of Damian Hinds, the best education secretary in three decades to my mind. You may struggle to recall what he did. The answer is almost nothing and that is why he was a great minister. After years of grand schemes to reconstruct the education system, which rarely led to any discernible improvement in state schools, Hinds simply allowed teachers to get on with their jobs. His ambitious successor Gavin Williamson will, I fear, want to make more of a splash.

Burying bad news

You can get a sense of what Downing Street will be like under the new regime by reading blogs by Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s newly appointed special adviser and former director of the Vote Leave campaign. Rambling and frequently incoherent, they suggest that he and Johnson will be living embodiments of chaos theory, flapping heedlessly around like that Amazonian butterfly that is said to cause heatwaves in Norway and storms in Texas. But on the matter of TV news, I agree with Cummings. It contains, he writes, reports that are “a mix of incomprehensible, facile and boring to millions while also usually being at best simplistic and often just wrong when it comes to policy/issues”. Stories about the economy going “down the plughole” or “taking off”, he complains, are illustrated with pictures of water going down a plughole and planes taking off. Interviews are rarely illuminating because, if the politicians don’t know what they are talking about, the interviewers know less, and the more famous they are, the greater their ignorance. “Time spent watching/listening to shows like Newsnight and Today is not just wasted – it is actively distorting reality and making you less informed.” Read books instead, Cummings recommends.

Perhaps he should be taken out of Downing Street and put in charge of BBC news.

Play for today

One reason I love theatre is that it seems to me the most political of all the arts, sometimes in unexpected ways. A few days after President Trump had tweeted that ethnic minority women elected to Congress should “go back [to the] places from which they came”, I saw On Your Feet!, a musical about the Cuban-American musicians Gloria and Emilio Estefan, at the London Coliseum. It shows the couple reacting furiously in the early 1980s when their manager insists that a record of Hispanics singing Latin music in English won’t sell in America. “Look very closely at my face,” says Emilio, “because, whether you know it or not, this is what an American looks like.” The audience whooped and cheered – but they, of course, were a mixture of the metropolitan elite and a few touring citizens of nowhere. 

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 02 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special