Has the Mail on Sunday misread its readers?

25 Apr

So, what were they? Casually sexist? Very drunk? Or just not very bright? The ‘they’ in question, before readers ask, is whichever anonymous Tory MP gave the story to the Mail on Sunday about Angela Rayner crossing and uncrossing her legs to distract the Prime Minister at PMQs. I only ask since the story is so patently absurd, so utterly wrong-headed, and so completely self-destructive that it can’t possibly have been done by any Conservative parliamentarian who was completely compos mentis.

Leaving aside whether the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party was consciously recreating the infamous scene with Sharon Stone from 1992’s Basic Instinct, and the story is really revealed as a load of tosh by the claim that Rayner “knows she can’t compete with Boris’s Oxford Union debating training”. Anyone who has ever had to sit through a Union debate would know they are rather unedifying spectacles, that no training is required, and that they have little resemblance to PMQs. So Rayner not having had to endure one might be quite an asset.

Nevertheless, there is an even bigger question raised from this piece than those about the lack of sanity or experience of the Oxford Union of a nameless MP. That is: what on Earth were the Mail on Sunday thinking by running it? As the above graph from 2020 shows, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday are the most popular titles amongst women, being the paper of choice of 40% of the fairer sex. Although both titles pick up more than a third of 16–24-year-old readers, we can assume the Mail’s female readers tend to be slightly older, since almost half of all newspaper-takers over 65 have it as their paper.

I point this out since I am wondering both what the Mail on Sunday expected its readers to make of the story, and what they did make of it. Were they outraged at the misogyny of the anonymous politician? Were they quietly entertained by Rayner’s alleged methods? After all, she has been the subject of tabloid gossip before. Or was the response of readers the same across both sexes – that this is an obvious piece of Sunday paper nonsense, and not to be taken seriously? One prays for the latter, since I desperately hope that Conservative MPs are a bit better than this.

Profile: Michael Gove – denied a great office of state once again. But given work on which Johnson’s future now depends.

16 Sep

Part of the charm of Michael Gove is that one never quite knows what he is going to do next. He was not expected to become, as we learned yesterday afternoon, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government.

At first glance, this looks like a disappointment. He has not been appointed to one of the great offices of state, either the Home Office, for which he lobbied hard, or the Foreign Office.

At second glance, he has been handed a portfolio where he will have more scope for creative reform than would have been the case in either of those departments.

The perilous issue of planning, imbued with decisions taken in the late 1940s and tensions between the haves and the have-nots, falls to him to resolve.

Are the Conservatives the party of One Nation, or just of the propertied classes, who believe that aspects of the status quo which favour them must be preserved?

This question of national unity runs through other aspects of his brief, mentioned specifically in the notice of his appointment:

“He takes on cross-Government responsibility for levelling up. He retains ministerial responsibility for the Union and elections.”

One of the dangers of the reshuffle was that responsibility for the Union would be forgotten or downplayed. It has not been: it remains in the hands of a Scot who is a passionate and knowledgeable Unionist.

Gove understands the paradox, recently expounded on these pages by Paul Goodman, that the Union depends on making a success of localism.

So does levelling up: it cannot become a synonym for the tepid egalitarianism with which after the Second World War an over-mighty centre sought to justify its power.

Local prosperity, whether in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, cannot be attained by pulling levers in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast.

Mayors can convene local leaders and enlist local energies in a way that ministers cannot. Westminster and the rest have long tried to do far too much, and have undermined local pride and initiative.

Levelling up must not mean imposing uniformity from Whitehall, as so often happened after 1945, with the great industries of the United Kingdom, and its great towns and cities, subjected to the dead hand of central control.

The United Kingdom will flourish best when its constituent parts are free, and no minister is more likely to rejoice in freedom, and in its corollary, variety, than Gove.

Consider this striking passage:

“An exotic background has never been a barrier to success in the Tory Party. Although it is supposedly the party of patriots, and of the family, the leaders it has selected include a Jew, a bachelor, a woman, a Canadian, an American and a clutch of unsuitable Scots.

“Of its historic hierarchy of influences and great names, Burke was in origin an Irish Whig, Disraeli a Jewish adventurer, Churchill half-American and wholly promiscuous in his party allegiance, Bonar Law and Macmillan were both of colonial stock, Heath was the unmarried son of a Broadstairs builder, Thatcher a grocer’s daughter, and John Major the son of a circus trapeze artist who faced financial ruin, and whose forebears lived in America. They may all have had hearts of oak but none was a prototypical John Bull.”

These paragraphs are taken from Michael Portillo: The Future of the Right, published in 1995 and written by Gove.

Several points at once emerge. One detects in the as yet obscure young author – he was 28, and working as a reporter on the Today programme – a certain impudent brio; a delight in the knowledge that improbable outsiders have often risen to the leadership of the Tory Party; and a willingness to take the risk of backing, in Michael Portillo, what turned out to be the wrong horse.

Not that it was by any means clear in 1995, or for many years afterwards, who was the right horse, let alone the Right horse.

Gove himself ran, in the Conservative leadership elections of 2016 and 2019, as one of the Right horses, and on both occasions finished third.

The term “obscure” had long since ceased to apply. The nation has recently rejoiced to see some grainy footage of him dancing in an Aberdeen night club.

He has served longer in the Cabinet than any other minister, and since the summer of 2019 has been responsible, as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, for a bewildering range of important tasks.

Whenever a tricky problem was in the news, Gove was as likely as not to be asked to tackle it. On Tuesday of this week, he was put in charge of the task force charged with sorting out problems in the supply chain.

An old friend says of him:

“He is now a true man of affairs – a man of business, more than ideology. He is now unfazeable – there is nothing anyone in the blob can do to faze him. He is wiser, but also sadder.”

No parliamentarian has a more abundant gift for raising Tory spirits. His winding-up speech on 19th January 2019, delivered at a low point in the fortunes of the Theresa May government, still provokes a kind of incredulous laughter at the sheer rudeness, and accuracy, of the ridicule he poured on Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson.

Gove put fresh heart into despondent Tory footsoldiers by showing them that despite the disconcerting processes of modernisation, despite every concession made by their party to the spirit of the age, an old-fashioned Oxford Union speech still has its place in the Tory armoury.

A ministerial colleague says of him:

“He is very brilliant, kind, thoughtful and intelligent – one of the most amusing people in politics, and one of the politest. From what I’ve been saying, you’d think he was a saint. The flaw is that he is still at heart a student politician – he loves the mechanisms of power, which stops him being able to do the great things he might do.”

During the Conservative leadership election of 2016, Gove knifed Boris Johnson: an act which in a student election might have enabled the assassin to seize the crown, but which in the glare of national publicity looked unforgiveable.

And yet he was soon forgiven; was brought back by May as Environment Secretary to strengthen the Government after the debacle of the 2017 general election; and has been treated by Johnson with magnanimity.

David Cameron could not find it in himself, when he published his memoirs, to be magnanimous about Gove’s decision to back the Leave side in the EU Referendum:

“One quality shone through, disloyalty. Disloyalty to me and, later, disloyalty to Boris.”

A friend of Gove says:

“Cameron treated him more harshly than Boris Johnson. There was a class element – Michael owes so much to us, we made him. But they didn’t make him. He’s a bloody talented bloke. And it’s a myth that he lied to Cameron. Michael always was a Brexiteer. He didn’t fess up because he knew it would be an unbearable clash.”

Gove and his wife, Sarah Vine, from whom recently to his sorrow he has parted, had become good friends of David and Samantha Cameron.

Yet in many ways, Gove has more in common with Johnson. Both of them delight in using humour to subversive effect, and both have a gift for spotting and encouraging talented people.

They like being surrounded by very clever advisers, and have known each other for a long time. Dominic Cummings was Gove’s accomplice long before he came to work for Johnson, and the same is true of such figures as Simone Finn and Henry Newman, still at the heart of the Downing Street machine.

Gove was born in 1967 in Aberdeen, taken into care, and adopted at the age of four months by Ernest and Christine Gove. They sent him to Robert Gordon’s College, where he blossomed into an accomplished debater, and from which he won a place to read English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.

He at once recognised the brilliance of Johnson, three years older than him, and backed him to become President of the Oxford Union. Gove went on to win that distinction himself, and proceeded to make his way in journalism, ascending to a high level on The Times and winning the esteem of Rupert Murdoch.

In 2005, he entered the Commons as MP for Surrey Heath and a member of the gilded Notting Hill set, clustered round the new leader of the party, David Cameron.

He became shadow Minister for Housing, and soon afterward shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, the somewhat authoritarian title conferred by Gordon Brown on Ed Balls.

Gove was now senior to Johnson, who had entered the Commons in 2001, but had suffered various disasters at the end of 2004, realised he was going to get nowhere much at Westminster as long as Cameron was leader, and went off to run for Mayor of London.

Cameron protected Gove during the expenses scandal of 2009 (when Gove was found to have ordered a number of expensive items from a shop owned by the Tory leader’s mother in law), and after the election victory of 2010 made him Education Secretary.

In that post Gove won his spurs by taking on and defeating the educational Establishment, but by 2014 he had become so unpopular with teachers that Cameron moved him to the post of Chief Whip.

After the Conservative victory of 2015 Gove was appointed Justice Secretary, a role in which he won golden opinions. The following year he broke with Cameron by backing Vote Leave, a decision which paved the way for Johnson to come out as a Leaver.

Perhaps someone will one day write a joint biography of these two statesmen. For the success of Johnson’s domestic agenda, his ability to demonstrate progress in the fields of housing, levelling up and defending the Union, now depends to a great extent on Gove.

Ashcroft goes in search of the real Starmer

21 Aug

Red Knight: The Unauthorised Biography of Sir Keir Starmer by Michael Ashcroft

Michael Ashcroft specialises in getting there first. Within the last two years he has brought out the first biographies of Rishi Sunak (reviewed here) and Jacob Rees-Mogg (reviewed here), this week he offers us the first life of Sir Keir Starmer, and he has promised that “early in 2022” we shall get his account of Carrie Johnson.

There is an excitement in being first. One feels like an archaeologist excavating a site which no rival has yet touched.

I had this experience in 2004, when I began researching the early life of Boris Johnson, tipped at that time as the next Conservative Prime Minister.

Starmer has led a quieter life than Johnson. A search of all 72 issues of The Leeds Student (the weekly newspaper for Leeds University) published during Starmer’s time reading law there (1982-85) yielded a single reference to him, published in the “Personals” column on 27 January 1984:

“Keir Starmer, King of Middle-Class Radicals.”

As Ashcroft writes, this arresting phrase “was almost certainly an in-joke between friends”. He uses it as the title for a chapter, and speculates that Starmer was already “fending off accusations of being more bourgeois than he would care to admit”.

While at Leeds, Ashcroft concludes, Starmer “did not seek the spotlight, but was instead cautious, modest and restrained”, and concentrated on getting a good degree.

Which he did, taking a first and proceeding to postgraduate law studies at Oxford University, where he was at St Edmund Hall from 1985-86.

During this period, “Oxford was awash with future front-rank politicians”, including David Cameron, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Radek Sikorski, Ed Balls and David Miliband.

Johnson, regarded by many of his contemporaries as a future Prime Minister, was at that stage the best known of these aspirants. In early 1986 he was elected (at the second attempt) President of the Oxford Union, and the following year just failed (to his bitter disappointment) to take a first in classics, having done almost no academic work except for an inadequate last-minute spurt.

Starmer spent, by his own account, “an intense year studying” in Oxford, which “confirmed me in my choice of pursuing a career as a human rights advocate, both here in the UK and abroad.”

It is not hard to think of circumstances in which this contrast could work to Starmer’s advantage. One can well imagine that Johnson’s mastery of the theatre of politics, and patchy approach to study, might create a reaction in favour of a less dramatic but more conscientious Prime Minister.

On the other hand, if it does, the Conservatives will attempt to install a less dramatic but more conscientious figure of their own.

Starmer has long been at pains to emphasise his working-class origins. Ashcroft looks into this class question with great care, and suggests that petit bourgeois would be a more accurate term, though that implies a cultural narrowness of which there is no sign.

For Starmer won a place at Reigate Grammar School in 1974, at a time when it was still, just, “a proper state grammar school”, as one of the teachers recalls, where “the ability level of the pupils was amazingly high”.

Starmer was a gifted musician, “good enough at the flute to be an exhibitioner at the Junior Guildhall School of Music”, to which he travelled for lessons on Saturday mornings.

He was also an accomplished footballer, who captained the school team in his last year “and proved a good leader both on and off the field”.

On the bus each morning to school, Starmer, a member of the East Surrey Young Socialists and an atheist, honed his wits in a running argument about politics, and also about religion, with a fellow pupil, Andrew Sullivan, a liberal conservative and Roman Catholic who was elected president of the Oxford Union and has since become a well-known commentator in the United States.

In 1976 Reigate Grammar School escaped abolition by going independent (though under the transitional arrangements Starmer continued to attend without his parents having to pay fees).

Andrew Adonis recently pointed out, in a piece for Prospect entitled “Boris Johnson: The Prime Etonian”, that in the 1970s, “having been for centuries essentially a comprehensive for the aristocracy, Eton changed into an oligarchical grammar school”:

“Just as Eton and the other top public schools were mutating into warped meritocracies, the grammar schools were abolished, so the competition largely left the field. It was strangely unrealised by Labour politicians of the era that the esprit de corps and academic prowess of the grammar schools had been vital to the left’s ability to take on the Tory public school elite on equal terms.

“The main political casualty of Labour’s comprehensivisation of education turned out to be the Labour Party itself, which thereafter lacked leaders with the confidence to match the gilded grammar school generation of Wilson, Healey and Jenkins, while the new breed of ‘meritocratic’ Etonians and fellow public school boys—girls were still rare, and girl Etonians non-existent—remained deep blue.”

Johnson used quite often to declare, with passionate sincerity, that competition is an essential part of education, so is academic selection, and so is studying subjects, such as Greek and Latin grammar, where there are right and wrong answers.

Competition suited him, and it suited Starmer, though the latter’s subjects at A level seem to have been maths, physics and chemistry, in which there are likewise right and wrong answers.

Conservatives still argue rather fruitlessly about grammar schools, but for Labour the whole subject of education, and how to reconcile the democratic thirst for equality with unequal distribution of ability and society’s need for a highly educated elite, is even more difficult.

Starmer’s parents were keen supporters of their local theatre, the Barn in Oxted, and attended plays and concerts all over Surrey. His father, a toolmaker, had his own business, and cared devotedly for Keir’s mother, born in 1939, who at the age of 11 was found to be suffering from Still’s disease.

Her consultant at Guy’s Hospital, Dr Kenneth Maclean, received her parents’ permission to administer the new steroid cortisone to her, which for a long time enabled her to live a much fuller life than had been expected.

Keir did not have a close relationship with his father, a man of rugged independence who late in life sent a round robin Christmas letter in which he remarked of “some of the residents in Oxted”:

“The posher the voice, the more vulgar they are.”

Ashcroft finds this “rather gratuitous”, but I find it admirable, an expression of the Englishman’s ancient right to be as rude as he likes about those who give themselves airs.

I would guess Starmer finds Johnson vulgar, but doesn’t quite know how to say this. One of the melancholy conclusions to be drawn from this book is that Starmer has yet to offer any phrases to the world which are likely to survive him.

Ashcroft takes us through Starmer’s increasingly successful legal career, culminating, after he has served as Director of Public Prosecutions, in a knighthood. His parents drive up from Surrey for the ceremony, bringing with them a Great Dane, a rescue dog called Chip, who they are told they cannot bring into Buckingham Palace, until Chip licks the police inspector’s face and they are all allowed through, with a member of staff volunteering to look after the dog.

The Starmers, she by now confined to a wheelchair, watch their son kneel in front of Prince Charles and reckon they are “the proudest parents there”. This is the stuff to give voters in the Red Wall seats who doubt whether Labour is still patriotic.

But it is also something their son feels an overwhelming urge to play down, for like most members of the modern Establishment, he wants somehow to deny that he belongs to it, and to emphasise his ordinariness.

As Ashcroft points out, this makes it impossible for Labour to talk convincingly about aspiration, the opportunities to better oneself which industry and ability can open to anyone in this country.

Unwearying egalitarianism undermines pride in individual achievement. Of course, any individual achievement also reflects credit on family, school, friends, colleagues etcetera.

But Starmer comes across as a bit of a bore (which actually he isn’t) because he feels a moral obligation virtually never to give credit to individuals, and to the difference they can make, but always to be collective and inclusive.

Until recently, Starmer could have served as a barrister and an MP at the same time, which would have given him more practice at speaking like a politician rather than a human rights lawyer.

This book will be found invaluable by anyone seeking to work out what kind of a person Starmer really is.