First Thoughts: My parents the anti-vaxxers, Paul Dacre on TV, and why Labour isn’t ready for an election

Sometimes it’s helpful to have a rabble-rousing journalist as prime minister.

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When bien pensant opinion is united against somebody, my instinct is to find something to say in their favour. This has not been easy in Boris Johnson’s case, but I have now found it: at least he’s not an anti-vaxxer.

You may say this is not much in his favour – he’s probably not a flat-Earther either – but it’s of personal interest to me. My parents were anti-vaxxers. They were not religious but they were right-wing and objected to being told by the government and professional experts what to do. My father muttered something about how the vaccination industry was designed “just to keep people in good jobs”. Admittedly, he and my mother ensured I got the anti-polio vaccine, presumably because the effects of the disease were then all too visible. But unlike every other child in my class, I wasn’t allowed an anti-tuberculosis vaccination – vaccines against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) weren’t then available – and I got an anti-smallpox vaccination, needed for a school trip abroad, only after several shouting matches.

Whether my parents would have been swayed by Johnson I cannot say. But he is the sort of politician that many people listen to, because he can be direct. With one in four London five-year-olds estimated to have missed the full course of MMR immunisation, and measles cases rising across Europe, Johnson struck the right note on a visit to a Cornwall hospital. “I’m afraid people have been listening to that superstitious mumbo-jumbo on the internet… and thinking that the MMR vaccine is a bad idea. That’s wrong, please get your kids vaccinated.”

You can’t imagine Theresa May using the phrase “superstitious mumbo-jumbo”. Sometimes it’s helpful to have a rabble-rousing journalist as prime minister.

Slow on the trigger

Is Labour ready for a general election? Most reports focus on how, as Johnson prepares for electoral battle, Labour plans autumn “trigger ballots” whereby the party’s sitting MPs can be deselected. But it’s worse than that, I have discovered. In the Yorkshire constituency of Penistone and Stocksbridge, the sitting MP, Angela Smith, joined Change UK and resigned from Labour in February. A recent newsletter written by Nick Bradley, Labour’s constituency chair, states that local officers can’t get approval from headquarters to choose a new candidate. The regional office, he reports, says that “new selections will not commence until November”. He points out that the Tories and Lib Dems (and, he could have added, the Brexit Party) have selected candidates who are “already very active in the constituency”. Meanwhile, Smith, who now sits as an independent, remains the MP.

Penistone and Stocksbridge is a marginal where Smith’s majority in 2017 was only 1,322. What is Labour playing at?

Alpha Mail

A Channel 4 news release promises a series of three programmes in 2021 called “The World According to Paul Dacre”. It says Dacre, who was eased out from the Daily Mail editorship last year, will “lift the lid” on his 26 years in the chair and “share his unique insights”. Danny Horan, Channel 4’s head of factual [sic], says: “Everything we thought we knew is about to be turned on its head.”

I can see why Horan is excited. Apart from going on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, Dacre kept almost entirely in the shadows during his editorship. But don’t expect anything new. Like most journalists, he doesn’t do reflection on or analysis of his trade. On the rare occasions he has given a public lecture, even when it was a “valedictory” address to the Society of Editors, he has launched another rant against his favourite enemies: the BBC and the Guardian.

Soap villains

Royalty is a soap opera that usefully, particularly at times like this, replaces religion as the opium of the people. And all soap operas need a disreputable character who keeps bad company, gets into scrapes and allows newspapers to run headlines about “the questions he/she must answer”. Princess Margaret fulfilled that role to perfection. But her smoking, drinking and relationships with unsuitable men would scarcely turn a hair nowadays. Anything to do with Parisian brothels, which Edward VII visited when he was Prince of Wales, would just seem quaint. To be certain of public revulsion, the rogue royal now needs an association with a convicted paedophile and seedy financier, as well as lots of climate-destroying flights. I hope Prince Andrew isn’t finding it too much of a strain.

Batsman to the rescue

My theory that Test match bowlers are now essentially robots programmed by coaches and analysts – and that, confronted by the unexpected, they are clueless – received further support from the gripping Lord’s Test against Australia. Facing defeat, the visitors were rescued largely by Marnus Labuschagne, the first substitute batsman in Test cricket history. Under new regulations, he was allowed to play on the final day because Steve Smith, by far Australia’s best batsman, was suffering from concussion. Labuschagne had previously played only five Tests in which he faced just 432 balls. Yet at Lord’s he became the only Australian batsman apart from Smith to pass 50 and face 100 balls in either innings.

Though he has played county cricket this summer with Glamorgan, England had insufficient time and video evidence to pinpoint his weaknesses. Where was he most likely to hit the ball in the air? Was he most vulnerable to fast or slow bowling? Did he score runs mostly on the offside or legside? England’s captain and bowlers had no idea and Labuschagne –even the pronunciation of whose name was a mystery to the all-knowing Sky TV commentators – survived long enough to help secure a draw.

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 21 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great university con