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2 September 2020

Steve Richards’ Diary: Back onstage, why Boris Johnson will be miserable, and fear at the BBC

During lockdown I realised the stage is my favourite outlet, and just how different the Prime Minister is from all his recent predecessors.

By Steve Richards

There are many dark images from the Covid era, but those of empty theatres are among the more vivid. They show the killing of collective exuberance. Fortunately, some theatres and arts venues are opening again. This is good news for the obvious reason that many of them faced the threat of permanent closure, but for me there is another, more selfish consideration. Before the theatres closed I performed a regular one-man show, Rock ‘n’ Roll Politics, an (unreliable) guide to what was happening in the increasingly strange political world. I enjoyed the shows but saw them as little more than a hobby, the equivalent of playing golf. During lockdown I realised that I was hooked – that the good old-fashioned stage is my favourite outlet in the modern media era. With theatres closed, I performed live streams instead, and thousands paid to tune in.

It’s an interesting economic model, but staring at a computer is not the same as being with an audience. In its unpredictability the live show is a better representation of the wild waves of politics than the controlled structure of a column or the choreographed rhythms of the broadcasting studio. I have always wanted to be a politician and this is the closest I get. Virus restrictions permitting, I will be surfing the waves later this month, reopening in the main hall at Kings Place in north London, and performing for the first time at the Greenwich Theatre.

Bias at the BBC

The BBC is often unfairly accused of bias. But decisions such as what is sung at the Last Night of the Proms are driven more by fear. In this case, a worry about reflecting sensitivities in relation to the UK’s past collides with a terror of Tory-supporting newspapers and the right on Twitter. “How do we get out of this?” is a more likely proclamation within the layers of BBC management than any assertions of personal opinion.

Nonetheless, parts of the BBC do have a bias that is rarely considered: some programmes seem to be against letting items breathe for long. I remember taking part in a discussion on Today at the height of the financial crash. John Humphrys read the introduction: “It’s three minutes to nine. Has the financial crash changed British politics forever, and perhaps politics around the industrialised world? Joining me is the Economist’s Anne McElvoy and the Independent’s Steve Richards.”

Anne answered first with speedy precision. When it was my turn, I noticed it was now one minute to nine. I began with a flourish. “All fashionable assumptions since the early 1980s have been turned on their head by what has happened…” Humphrys had no choice but to interrupt and declare, “That’s all we’ve got time for.” Similar time constraints still apply too often. There’s more space on a live stage.

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All in the delivery

When Ed Miliband was leader of the Labour Party, he raised with me an interesting question. Why is it that sometimes a speech or a performance is a great hit, while another address, prepared with the same assiduous care, can leave an audience offering “cricket applause” or worse?

Before the pandemic I would occasionally watch the same live stand-up show several times. Although the carefully rehearsed substance was the same, each performance was different. I could never work out why, and I bet the performer couldn’t either.

Unfavourable comparisons

Before Boris Johnson, all modern prime ministers agonised over their annual conference speeches, often until the early hours on the day of delivery. It is an example of how Johnson differs greatly from his predecessors. His first conference speech as prime minister in Manchester last year was evidently composed hurriedly. I cannot remember a single phrase or argument.

Writing an updated version of my book on modern prime ministers, I am struck by quite how different Johnson is from all his recent predecessors. The frantic U-turns over exams and the wearing of masks are an example. Most prime ministers plan ahead neurotically, exploring all possible eventualities. Johnson and his advisers proclaim their unyielding intention to stick to obviously fragile plans until the moment they scrap them.

There are other big differences. In hung parliaments, previous prime ministers reached out to other parties and wooed internal dissenters. By contrast, Johnson behaved like an emperor, removing the whip from rebels and accusing other parties of defying the will of “the people”.

In addition, previous prime ministers felt compelled to sack colleagues whom they rated. Tony Blair dumped his friend Peter Mandelson twice. Theresa May dismissed Damian Green, a rare confidant and unofficial deputy prime minister. Dominic Cummings and co remain in place.

Wyatt’s wisdom

For lockdown escapism I have been reading the diaries of Woodrow Wyatt, a columnist known as “the voice of reason” in the 1980s and 1990s – which is one way of describing a man who displayed doting loyalty to Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Wyatt spoke to both prime ministers weekly.

The diaries are known for the light they shine on the ruling political and media establishment. More revealing for me is how vulnerable Thatcher appeared to be when she confided in Wyatt. She appears to have been down a lot of the time, worried about newspaper coverage, opinion polls and treacherous colleagues, even though she enjoyed herself much more than most prime ministers. I am struck by how insecure and miserable prime ministers are a lot of the time, often with good cause. Boris Johnson faces bigger challenges than any of them. If he is not feeling insecure and miserable yet, he will be soon. On this, at least, he is not so different. 

Steve Richards’ latest book is “The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to Johnson” (Atlantic)