Tuesday, September 28, 2010


We shall learn tomorrow afternoon whether David Miliband intends to serve on his brother’s shadow cabinet team or leave front-line politics, perhaps for good. “Why would he not stand?” you ask. “Isn’t Ed begging him to do so?” Well, of course, Ed is bound to do so for form’s sake. But in many ways, it would make his task a lot clearer, if not necessarily a lot easier, if his elder brother did walk away.

The first and most pressing matter is that of the Shadow Chancellor’s identity. Before one speculates, one must of course make assumptions about who will be standing for election to the Labour front bench – the composition of the leading team is always decided by the parliamentary party when Labour is in opposition – and who of those will prevail. It’s safe to calculate that, provided they stand, all of the following will be elected: David Miliband, Ed Balls, Andy Burnham, Alan Johnson, Hilary Benn, Yvette Cooper, John Denham, Douglas Alexander and Peter Hain. I’m sure Diane Abbott will get in too. Jack Straw and Alistair Darling have already announced their intention to stand down and Harriet Harman, as Deputy Leader (she has not had to face re-election at this conference), is an ex officio member. That leaves another nine places to be filled. At the time of writing, more than forty names have been put forward. Six seats are reserved for women candidates.

"luv u, bro"

During the leadership campaign, Ed Balls made a cogent case – usually implicit but latterly explicit – for himself to be Shadow Chancellor. He is prepared, as no other Labour politician seems to be, to reconsider the deficit reduction target set by the former Chancellor and retiring shadow Alistair Darling. He has also played a strong hand in debate with his present opposite number, Michael Gove the Education Secretary. In his initial address to conference after being elected leader, Ed Miliband paid particularly warm tribute to both Balls and Andy Burnham, suggesting that both have reason to hope for important posts.

Miliband is reported to have offered his brother the shadow chancellorship. David Miliband is not a trained economist. Balls is, and so is his wife Yvette Cooper, another candidate to shadow George Osborne. Moreover, David’s instinct is to cleave to Darling’s caution. But Ed Miliband would be far better advised to mount a strong opposition to the coalition government’s autumn programme of cuts. Even if the Labour stance is – as far as the notion has meaning – “wrong” in economic terms, it is strategically more urgent for the party to position itself where it can be seen as supporting those who will be impoverished as a result of the spending review rather than appearing as merely a paler version of the government by lying somewhere along a continuum of parties ranged against those whose only unequivocal support is the trades unions.

Ed Miliband: the message writ small

The International Monetary Fund yesterday endorsed Osborne’s policy thus far. Naturally, Osborne has trumpeted this support and is fully entitled to do so. But the IMF is not the holy see. It is only one judgment on government policy. And the IMF is not a government, does not have a welfare state to oversee, does not have to balance fiscal policy with social policy and indeed against electability. Put another way, the IMF’s interest is purely monetary. A government’s must also be political, strategic and even moral.

So if I were Ed Miliband, I would discount Ed Balls’ compelling claim on Labour’s economic policy only if I were absolutely sure that a) I wanted to pursue a different but at least equally convincing route to that of Balls; and b) that I will not, by denying a shrewd and combative operator like Balls, be storing up factional trouble for the future. The Tory press would love Balls to be the face of Labour’s attack against the spending review and the refrain of “Two Red Eds” would be trotted out at every verse end. But a confident leader can ride that and, once the electorate’s anger with the cuts is roused, be in position to represent it in parliament and spearhead it on the streets.

Foreign Secretary and friend: those were the days

So why not simply keep David Miliband as Shadow Foreign Secretary? It places him in a policy area that would provoke less media speculation about fraternal disagreement. But the fact is that, to be brutally candid, Shadow Foreign Secretary is a non-job. Having been Foreign Secretary for real for three years, David Miliband knows that better than anyone. The broad strokes of foreign policy are inevitably painted by the Prime Minister, the one who deals directly with fellow first ministers, presidents and, in some cases, monarchs and emperors. Leaders who begin to see their foreign ministers as potentially over-mighty are apt to move them back into domestic concerns. Tony Blair did this to Robin Cook and, from his point of view, was justified when, as Leader of the House, Cook resigned from the government over the imminent invasion of Iraq. Had Cook still been Foreign Secretary in 2003, matters might have panned out differently – more difficult for Blair, certainly. (I imagine Cook would be very content at Ed Miliband’s elevation).

The foreign secretaryship is a very high-powered function of diplomacy. But it is impossible to act at all meaningfully as a diplomat unless you meet people and, moreover, people who are the ones making international decisions (i.e. your opposite numbers). Shadow Foreign Secretaries don’t do that because they are not in power. Looking back on foreign affairs spokesmen in previous shadow cabinets, it’s striking how often the opposition leader of the day has put someone “out of the way” in the role.

Ed ponders his shadow cabinet options

Every Shadow Foreign Secretary in the last half-century who also served as Foreign Secretary in government was either about to do so or had just done so (like Miliband) and was awaiting new shadow dispensations. The one exception is Francis Pym, a previous Shadow Foreign Secretary to whom Margaret Thatcher reluctantly turned in government when Peter Carrington abruptly resigned at the height of the Falklands War. Otherwise, it’s striking how often the Shadow Foreign Secretary was someone who obviously wouldn’t get the role in government: Alf Robens, Nye Bevan, Christopher Soames, Geoffrey Rippon, John Davies, Peter Shore, Gerald Kaufman, Jack Cunningham, John Maples, Francis Maude. Liam Fox was William Hague’s predecessor as Shadow Foreign Secretary and has developed such a scratchy relationship with his leader in government that he may well be lucky to survive Cameron’s first reshuffle as Defence Secretary.

Shadowing the Foreign Office offers few opportunities to make policy, largely because the shadow is uniquely out of the loop on what the government is doing. That is certainly one of the reasons why there is almost always broad consensus between government and opposition parties on foreign affairs, save when those affairs are dividing government – Suez and various matters concerning the EU, for instance. A still-ambitious elder brother twiddling his thumbs over his foreign brief might be fatally tempted into putting more than his two-penn’orth into domestic policy discussions.

The Glenn Miller Band: one of the results of putting 'Miliband' in Google Images

The only other possibility, then, would be for David Miliband to shadow Theresa May at the Home Office. That would work. Home affairs can be a notorious bear trap, tempting its exponents into much more repressive policy than they or anyone else thought they might espouse. Miliband’s mettle would be tested and at least he would have a proper job to do. But to accommodate him, Ed Miliband would have to demote Alan Johnson, Home Secretary in government until the election and a well-respected fellow. Johnson wouldn’t suit foreign affairs and the shadow leadership of the House (as high-profile as consolation prizes come) surely must be reserved for Harriet Harman after her gracious and sure-footed stint as acting leader.

Then there is Andy Burnham to consider. He has made a lot of his Health brief and might be persuaded that letting him develop it further is a just reward. But if discernible promotion is his desire, the Home Office would clearly fill the bill. So Ed Miliband has no shortage of urgent claimants on shadowing the three high offices of state – the Exchequer, the FO and the Home Office – and anything less for his brother would certainly be deemed an insult. It seems that, from Ed Miliband’s viewpoint as well as from that of Davld’s very publicly aggrieved wife, it would be best if the elder brother left the stage. And my guess is that he will.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


Barely has he been Labour leader for five minutes and the Cassandras of the commentariat are writing his political obituary. Ed Miliband must be fed up with the media already, let alone with the Tory Party. The soubriquet ‘Red Ed’ – as though Dave Nellist had returned to the House after a long and thorough fanshen under the combined tutelage of Derek Hatton, Derek Robinson, Linda Bellos, Frances Morrell, Danny Le Rouge, Robin Blackburn, Tariq Ali, Jeremy Corbyn, Eric Heffer, Joan Maynard, Ian Mikardo, the WRP and the Angry Brigade and had promptly mounted the kind of putsch not seen in Labour politics since Ken Livingstone ousted the late Andrew McIntosh from the leadership of the old GLC – is as illiterate as it is puerile.

The other canard that the Tories and the right wing press are striving to establish as fact is that Ed Miliband is the mindless creature of the unions, taking his orders each morning from Moscow via Bob Crowe. Here’s the quote (in full) that Tory MP Priti Patel gave for this morning’s Observer: “As the trade unions exert a vice-like grip on Ed, there will be no fresh thinking as Labour reverts to its ideological comfort zone. Instead of taking responsibility for his part in bringing Britain to the brink of ruin, expect nothing more than Miliband having his strings pulled by union barons”.

It’s tempting to confine one’s response to: “That’s Mr Miliband to you, young lady”. But as this quote was clearly given to her by Tory Central Office and reproduced obediently and verbatim by her, we should pay it heed as reflecting the official line. The evidence for the origin lies in the final two words: Priti (if I may make so familiar) is way too young ever to have had recourse to the phrase “union barons” by herself.

Ed in tooth and claw

So the Tory line – hot-wired into those of today’s Tory papers that I have set eyes on (The Sunday Times as hard copy and The Sunday Telegraph on line) – is that Ed Miliband’s warning to his brother against a return to the “comfort zone” of New Labour is to be twisted round and used against him, that Labour disagreeing with any of the Con-Dem measures to reduce the deficit is evidence of Labour recidivism (so forget “the opposition’s duty to oppose” of hallowed tradition, as well as the fact that Miliband has said he will not oppose any measure purely for the sake of it), and that Miliband cannot be taken seriously until he has done personal penance for all Labour’s misdemeanours, including enclosures, the Glencoe Massacre, Suez, the sinking of the Belgrano, poll tax, Cecil Parkinson, David Mellor and Neil Hamilton.

But let’s look at this seriously. The “unions’ vice-like grip” is the one that – if the evidence of steadier news outlets like the BBC be any guide – is going to be hardest to shrug off. So what is the evidence? Well, Ed Miliband is sponsored as an MP by the T&G. So are Ed Balls and Andy Burnham. So are Gordon Brown and Harriet Harman. So is Frank Field, who is now doing a job for the Con-Dem coalition, David Cameron having decided to perpetuate the “big tent” policy of Brown and Blair before him. Blair was also sponsored by the T&G. Burnham is further sponsored by Unison, as is Miliband’s close ally Sadiq Khan.

And anyway look at the voting patterns in the leadership ballot. In the first count, before Diane Abbott was eliminated, Ed Miliband got only 4.5 percent more of the union vote than did his brother and only 6.5 percent more when the elimination of Ed Balls had led to the last configuration of the numbers. To make such sweepingly categorical claims for what the vote means when it is so close – only 1.3 percent difference in the whole voting college – is mere ignorant folly.

Ed Miliband addresses conference

Still scared of Miliband’s strings being pulled by the unions? The fact is that Labour depends on financial help from those unions, just as the Tories and the Lib Dems need funding from business. The difference is that union funding is open and transparent and comes with no detectable strings attached, pulled or otherwise. If Ms Patel can point to any legislation in history enacted by a Labour government and show that it was dictated by unions in the teeth of what Labour MPs and/or the party membership wanted, I will eat my cloth cap.

There was a resonant exchange on BBC1’s Question Time ten days ago, a special edition featuring all five Labour leadership candidates. A London firefighter in the audience said that she and her work colleagues were being “sacked on November 25th and forced to sign a new contract with unfair working conditions”. Moderator David Dimbleby asked the panel if firefighters were justified in going on strike. Diane Abbott waded in on “what ordinary workers have to do when faced with losing their jobs”. Perhaps believing that he had had a good shake on an earlier question, Dimbleby permitted Andy Burnham only a yes-or-no answer and he said yes. David Miliband was more cautious which drew a few groans from the audience and spurred him to say sharply: “any politician saying yes glibly to firefighters going on strike has to think very, very carefully about the consequences”. Ed Balls agreed, sticking to points he’d already made about the importance of negotiation. And Ed Miliband agreed too, emphasising that “a responsible government and a responsible fire authority would do everything possible to get round the table and discuss”. Not much evidence of union string-pulling there.

I wished Dimbleby had permitted Burnham and Abbott to speak further to their supportive instinct for firefighters downing tools, if that is what it comes to. It has always seemed to me that denying workers in supposedly essential services the right to strike is no more than a means to reduce their rights. Withdrawal of labour is the only action workers possess that is as powerful in their hands as dismissal is in the hands of management. If health workers, police, firefighters and other front line services are penalized by management because management can, because the workers have no power to fight for their rights, the inevitable upshot will be that workers will leave the service and that management will be obliged to seek cheap labour from overseas. Such measures bring their own complications.

The Miliband brothers take distinctive stances

Strike action is habitually portrayed in the media as a deplorable eventuality because it inconveniences the public. The implication – often very clearly intended – is that the workers are at fault in resorting to stoppages. Look at the coverage of action by staff at BA, for instance. But industrial action is frequently precipitated by management intransigence, insensitivity and sometimes deliberate provocation, all eventualities impossible to illustrate in news footage and newspaper shots. Because this cannot be shown, reporters lazily portray the calling of strike action as the moment of breakdown so that unions are habitually seen as the aggressors. If Ed Miliband really wants to do unions a favour, he should sit down with news managers and hammer out a new approach to the way industrial relations are portrayed in the media.

Not that he would get very far. The media is far more interested in David Miliband’s next move than in any statements of policy or philosophy by the new party leader, certainly if Nick Robinson’s reports for the BBC today have been any guide. What job will Ed offer David? What job does he want? Will he walk away? This is all ludicrously presumptuous. Voting on the composition of the shadow cabinet does not begin until October 4th. Ed Miliband will not decide on filling the posts until he sees to whom he has to offer them. He may well have some dispensations in mind but the MPs’ election of the cabinet members can spring some intriguing surprises. It would be good if reporters could put their soap opera instincts to one side and stop writing about the Miliband brothers as though they might be some kind of grown-up version of the Mitchell brothers in EastEnders.

Finally there is this constant refrain about Labour “taking responsibility” – and, worse, “apologizing” – for the conditions that furnish the rationale for the Con-Dem coalition to make its ideological assault on public services. Miliband is wise to stick to his line that the Labour government made mistakes and that ‘New Labour’ is dead and buried and it’s time to move on. But he has nothing to apologize for concerning Labour’s handling of the economy. He needs to remind the coalition that the then wholly independent banking sector was not implementing Labour government policy when it financed bad debts in Britain and especially in the USA. Alistair Darling kept Britain out of double dip recession, something George Osborne may yet prove unable to do.

In any case, this politics of the gesture that butters no parsnips is not for grown-ups. The coalition will soon enough have plenty of mistakes of its own to be sorry for.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


The state visit of Joseph Ratzinger to Britain has prompted in me some further reflection on religion, just as any Pope worth his salt would hope. The major theme his holiness developed while here was the danger of “aggressive secularism” overtaking these islands. I do not think it unreasonable to suggest that the deliverance of such a critical assessment strays beyond the purview of the good manners traditionally expected of a guest, but that’s the modern world for you.

One does know what he means, of course. The history of aggressive secularism in the west is baleful at best. Think of the Crusades, a succession of vicious attacks by atheists on innocent Moslems. Then there were the Marian Persecutions, perpetrated by non-believers on English Protestants. The Massacre of the Huguenots was conducted by adherents of paganism, the Thirty Years’ War was entirely devoid of religious content and. in our own time, there has been the murderous conflict between Humanists and Rationalists in Northern Ireland. And no one expects the Secular Inquisition.

It was two notably unbelieving leaders who dragged the west into two invasions of Middle East countries, Mr Bush and Mr Blair. The aggressive secularism of these two men has underlined the deplorable absence of Catholicism in the modern world. Nations such as Spain, Italy, France, Poland, Portugal, Germany, the Irish Republic, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latin America, the South American continent and large swathes of Africa have been wholly purged of Roman influence. Secularism is indeed rampant everywhere.

Ratzinger in working togs

Should we mourn supernatural superstition? I have cogitated on the matter anew but it remains my conviction that the more rational are the people and their leaders, the better is their chance of surviving into the 22nd century. And what is the nature of the dogma to which Ratzinger cleaves? It is, it seems to me, an earnest of a mind’s desire never to grow up. It is a sort of outward show of stunted development. An adult’s delusion about a divinity is a close parallel to a child’s entertainment of the notion of Father Christmas: the main distinction is that parents promulgate the myth of the benign old gentleman in the sky who bestows gifts with a certain amount of tongue in cheek. And of course nations do not go to war over Saint Nicholas (though the only time I seriously came to blows in my childhood was in defence of my Yuletide idol’s honour).

People like Ratzinger, who make a good living out of the supernatural, are – in Catholicism, Buddhism, the Shakers, the Brahmacharya state in the Sannyasa order of Hinduism and so on – celibates. They are in effect pre-pubescent. How can they know anything about life in the world if they have never experienced a full relationship with another adult? No doubt they will counter that their spiritual calling is a greater and purer existence. It isn’t; it’s a safer, smaller and more ignorant existence. We who live in mature relationships know that better than they ever can.

St Peter's Basilica – perhaps a gnat's overstated?

Life in the Vatican is not so much pure and spiritual as opulent, cushioned and self-important, like that of some caliph ruling over a barbaric kingdom. Ratzinger the fabled intellectual may pass his days tickling the ivories in Mozart fantasias, poring over illuminated manuscript and sucking quail’s eggs from between the buttocks of choristers but he doesn’t get to engage with the real world, save by waving from his bullet-proof popemobile and swapping sermons with the heads of rival churches like Rowan Williams. I don’t imagine he takes Private Eye or even The New Yorker. Do you see him reading Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy or Sarah Waters or indeed Günter Grass, Umberto Eco or (ha ha) Aldo Busi? Has he watched The Sopranos? Has he any idea what the world is like?

“There was a certain rich man,” writes Saint Luke in his Gospel, “which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day” [17:19]. But he goes to hell and the beggar who lies at his gate ascends to heaven. I have no idea whether Ratzinger is in his own right a rich man but he has the papal benefice for life and he will live in splendour all his days. The Catholic church rarely has much to say on the matter of world poverty, probably because of its own conspicuous wealth. No church has ever followed the teaching of Christ in this regard: “Go thy way, sell whatever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven” [Mark 10:21]. It is from this chapter that the famous homily derives: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” [10:25].

Not your neighbourhood library but the one in the Vatican Museum

The entire trick of supernatural delusion was to construct an unverifiable promise of reward in the hereafter, what unionists and other capitalism sceptics traditionally call “jam tomorrow” (actually a phrase of Lewis Carroll’s). The promise was designed to throw a misleading crumb to the underprivileged and deprived while the clerics lived on velvet as their reward from the privileged and depraved for their part in keeping the peasants quiescent. It’s a nifty trick and it clearly still works, even with all that we know about physiognomy and psychology.

What it doesn’t do, though, is address real problems. Having put its philosophical responsibilities in the hands of immature, unworldly men, the Catholic church blithely decides that the only function of the sexual act is procreation and that therefore birth control is “sinful” because it condones unproductive lust; thereby the church condemns countless generations of dogma-fearing peasants to swarms of unwanted children that they cannot afford to feed. The church congratulates itself on swelling its numbers by encouraging its adherents to breed like rabbits.

The crown of the holy Roman expire, a nice little bauble in the Vatican collection

Ratzinger has nothing useful to say about population control, about planned parenthood, about HIV/Aids and other diseases spread by anal penetration of women by men (the customary method of avoiding conception in Africa), or indeed about climate change, globalization, international capital, food distribution, starvation, sub-prime mortgage lending or any of the other pressing concerns on which a papal edict might discomfort the church’s rich friends. And don’t get me started on child abuse. It butters no parsnips for Ratzinger to meet and listen politely to a few carefully chosen “victims” or to express his “sorrow” – the BBC’s James Robbins called it “the Pope’s most outspoken apology to date”, a strange choice of adjective. What the church must do is take responsibility for its own long history of cover-up, to hand offending clerics over to the civil authorities instead of giving them sanctuary, hiding them in obscure parishes and handing them mild penances, and to make practical and substantial reparations to all the victims in a manner that may be seen in some serious way to cost the holy see.

Friday, September 17, 2010

NO PIPE of PEACE for the TEA P

I worry about the Democrats. The conventional wisdom in the party right now is that the continuing and seemingly irresistible invasion of the Republicans by outsiders backed by the so-called Tea Party in general and Sarah Palin in particular is in fact good for the Obama administration. How so? Because, Democrats argue, these “extremists” will repel mainstream opinion in the mid-term elections and preserve the hold on Congress if not the Senate for the Democrats. Well, I wouldn’t bank on it.

In the American system, party nominations for office are chosen in most states by ballots held during the summer of election year and open to any voter registered with the party. These votes determine who gets to fight the Democrat v Republican run-offs in November. The system ensures that, however slick and/or corrupt the party machine might be in any particular state, outsiders who have the money and/or catch a wave can still snatch the right to represent the party in the real election. So far, eight establishment Republican senatorial candidates have been knocked out of those run-offs by candidates without experience of office but with Tea Party and/or Palin backing. Gubernatorial and congressional scalps have also been taken in this insurgency. The views of all of these candidates are more or less off the chart of the politics known to Washington.

Take a look at the website of Carl Paladino who, in Tuesday’s ballot, secured the Republican nomination for the governorship of New York State: it’s at http://paladinoforthepeople.com. His opening foray, concerning the nomination, goes [his caps and bold]: IF WE LEARNED ANYTHING TONIGHT, IT’S THAT NEW YORKERS ARE MAD AS HELL, AND WE'RE NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANYMORE! It’s tempting to counter: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” or perhaps “Hooray for Captain Spalding”. But what’s scary about Paladino is that he certainly means it. If you click on ‘Play Video’ on his site, the man himself rises up and addresses you and it’s like you’re being shaken down by the mob.

Paladino: an offer New Yorkers should refuse

And just in case you imagine that being governor will satisfy him, he has included a mugshot of that most reactionary of Democratic presidents, Grover Cleveland, with the tagline: “the last NY governor from Buffalo became President of the United States”. Under Cleveland’s uncompromising gaze is the date 1883 when the first of his three terms began. Under Paladino’s menacing grin, it says “2011?” Quite what might happen in that non-election year is hard to fathom. Is that when Paladino will announce, from his governor’s office in Albany, that he is running for president in 2012? For do not doubt that he intends to win the governorship in November. His Democratic opponent will be Andrew, elder son of the much-loved former governor Mario Cuomo and presently the state’s Attorney General. On his site, Paladino gives us a flavour of the terms in which he will savage his rival: “ALL ANDREW OFFERS IS THE STATUS CUOMO” [his bold].

In California last June, the Republican candidacy to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor was won by Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay and the fourth wealthiest woman in the state. She has spent some $120m of her personal wealth on her campaign so far and, if she beats the Democrat candidate, the retread Jerry Brown, in November, she will be the most right wing governor of the state since Ronald Reagan. Perhaps Whitman’s movie quote on her own website should be: “Oh Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon – we have the stars”.

Whitman: running through her spare change

Whitman’s relationship with the Tea Party is a little patchy, though their support is not confined to candidates of more modest means. Christine O’Donnell, who won Delaware against the odds on Tuesday, only prevented a mortgage company auctioning her house in 2008 by selling it to her lawyer. She remains in dispute with the IRS over her taxes and the Tea Party’s funding support was central to her win, doubtless inspired by the fact that she is a Sarah Palin clone. Paladino, on the other hand, is a self-made multi-millionaire.

It would be foolish to underestimate the success that candidates like these have already enjoyed and to discount the possibility that they could replicate it against an unusually defensive bunch of Democratic incumbents. For anyone like me who had hoped that Barack Obama would prove to be America’s equivalent of Nelson Mandela, the turn-around in 21 months has been deeply dismaying. It is not as if his presidency has looked remotely like a failure. I suspect that it is more to do with subjective perception than objective analysis.

O'Connell: Palin imitation

Obama’s elevation was very specifically steered by notions of hope and change and competence (“yes we can”). This not only drew a sharp contrast with the flounderings of George W Bush, it was also handily underlined by the unfocussed campaign of the Republican candidate, John McCain, in the 2008 election. Well, hope of course is a momentary emotion and change is pretty hard to effect quickly. The competence thing turns out in practice to be something of a red herring. Obama has achieved much, though not as yet a discernible climb out of the economic crisis that he inherited. But what he hasn’t managed to do is to make the American people love him. And that’s much more important.

When you watch him perform, it’s not really so surprising. As articulate, thoughtful, focussed and analytical as he is, Obama comes over like a college professor. His warmth is not apparent. He never seems relaxed or engaging enough, which is why several commentators have urged him to deploy the first lady more often.

Americans – indeed, perhaps voters the world over – aren’t unduly interested in competence or thoughtfulness. Not enough wanted George McGovern or Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis to be president, no doubt because those clever, earnest men were seen as what Richard Nixon damned as “pointy heads”. The people seem to prefer a chief executive with whom they feel comfortable. The folksiest chief of modern times, Reagan, is the one they most hanker for and miss. They feel they could have sat in a bar and had a drink with Reagan and passed the time of day pleasantly. The bar room image has changed in recent years, however. Now the politicians and pundits come across like the bar fly leaning on the counter and giving it out relentlessly. What is extraordinary is that the stupid, ignorant prejudices that sustain the proverbial bar room blowhard have been elevated into a vote-winning philosophy.

It didn’t matter that Ronald Reagan was a know-nothing president, like George W and, though it pains me to suggest it of a man who has grown mightily since leaving office, like Jimmy Carter. All three came across as relaxed, easy-going guys, at least when campaigning. This works with the voters. So does the image of an experienced father-figure, like Eisenhower or LBJ or Bush Sr. So does a smart and/or charismatic persona: Kennedy, Nixon, Clinton (who got the folksy as well) and Obama. But Obama’s charisma has waned and it is endangered by the possibility of being pitched against a new rival who, however ignorant, is clearly a star.

Obama: but can we yet?

Know-nothing presidents are unusually dependent on their advisors and so the crucial ingredient in their administrations is the identity of those to whom they listen. Sarah Palin, if she were to become the first woman head of state in the US, would be the know-least-of-all-time president, but don’t imagine for one moment that such an apparent disadvantage makes her unelectable. That is what most Washington observers currently believe but I submit that they’re wrong. Palin is electoral dynamite, much more so now than when she was number two to McCain. Her biggest hurdle to beating Obama in 2012 would be the presidential debates, where her uneradicable vapidity would be under intense scrutiny. But that by itself would not necessarily be sufficient to rule her out of electability. Obama might make the strategic mistake of being – or seeming (much more difficult to control) – lofty. And whereas it was Obama who was galvanising the electorate in 2008 and bringing thousands of first-time voters (not necessarily all young voters) to join the voting queues, in 2012 it would be Palin who would be achieving that effect. The poor blacks who turned out in pride and excitement two years ago might be too indifferent to bother two years hence.

From the safety – the present safety, anyway – of Europe, the Tea Party and Palin and their candidates look just like what they are: the lunatic fringe. But they don’t think of themselves as any kind of fringe. They have a righteous belief that they stand for the true American way. Whether they have any real sense of what they might unleash is another matter.

Palin: what the hell do I know?

As the know-nothing-to-beat-the-band president, Palin would be uniquely dependent upon and uniquely susceptible to the ultra neocons who would pour back into Washington, seeing her as their creature. Which of them would pose the greatest danger to our very survival? The new-generation Friedmanites? The pre-emptive strike advocates? The climate change deniers? All of these would see their chance. Palin would be swiftly told that higher rates of tax must be abolished along with Obama’s healthcare reforms, with only the evocation of the magic name of Reagan needed to persuade her that “trickledown” economics were the most successful since the war. She would be under immediate pressure to order a nuclear strike against Tehran, having no understanding of the consequences (does she even know in which country to find Tehran?) And all measures taken to combat global warming would be reversed, just as George W Bush tore up the Tokyo Accord.

My fear that Palin will be the 45th President is real. She has already written herself more than a footnote in modern politics. If she gains the highest office, she will go down in history. I fear that that history might be vanishingly short because life on earth might well not survive her administration.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


“Divide and rule” was ever the default position of Tories wielding power and George Osborne the Chancellor has wasted no time in invoking its methodology to drum up support for the dreaded Spending Review that is now only five and a half weeks hence. What he required for the role of scapegoat was a sector of the community that has little spending power, relatively few cheerleaders, no electoral influence (i.e. people who vote Labour anyway) and, best of all, a propensity to be cast as feckless ne’er-do-wells by the Tory press. Of course! Who else? Those who receive state benefits.

Here is what Osborne told BBC political editor Nick Robinson on Thursday: “The welfare bill has got completely out of control. There are five million people living on permanent out-of-work benefits. That is a tragedy for them and fiscally unsustainable for us as a country. We can’t afford it any more. So we need real welfare reform and there will be further welfare cuts on the 20th of October. I think this will be done in a way that encourages people into work. But there will be further welfare cuts. They will amount to several billion pounds additional to what I announced in the budget. Because I think the people of this country understand this choice and they have chosen for us as a government to push further on welfare reform”.

Responding to further questions from Robinson, Osborne continued: “We’re going to reform the out-of-work benefit system so that there is a very strong incentive for people who can work to get work”. And he went on: “People who think that it’s a lifestyle choice to sit on out-of-work benefit – it’s not somebody desperately looking for a job, someone really making the effort to go out there every day to find work, but the person who sits there and says ‘you know what, this is a lifestyle choice for me’. That lifestyle choice is going to come to an end … The money won’t be there to support that lifestyle choice”.

The robber baronet

Accordingly, Osborne says he intends to cut unemployment benefit by £4billion in addition to the £11bn cut already flagged in his budget in June. There cannot be any argument that a cut of £15bn in the provision made by the state for those whose income is not sufficient to live on will make a catastrophic difference to thousands of people. Osborne’s argument seems to be that the undeserving poor make up such a large proportion of those he describes as “living on out-of-work benefits” that cutting them adrift is morally justifiable.

But is it true that those who abuse the welfare state – who make, as Osborne characterises it, a “lifestyle choice” to “sit on” benefit – are costing the country so much? On the anecdotal evidence of the reports that Robinson filed prior to his interview with the Chancellor, it would appear that many people believe and resent that abuse is widespread. But Robinson failed to ask them – or if he did, the answers were not broadcast – whether they personally knew any benefit cheats and, if so, how many. Do you know any? I don’t. I know people who are looking for work and who are already living brutally constrained lives before Osborne slashes the meagre support to which they have hitherto been entitled.

A cartoon originally placed here has evidently been removed by the artist; a pity, as we are all the poorer (including him) for its removal

What is the level of benefit fraud in Britain? Is it commensurate with the threat of the Jews that was perceived in Germany in the 1930s? Does it resemble the level of immigration that, in Margaret Thatcher’s estimation in the 1970s, was about to “swamp our culture”? According to the government’s own figures, benefit fraud robbed the public purse of £900m in 2008-09. I don’t know how that figure is computed and I certainly don’t believe it is that high. But even accepting it as a credible rate, it means that Osborne proposes to cut benefit to those who do deserve it by the government’s own measure, who are entitled to it by previous standards of welfare, who have contributed to it by their earlier National Insurance payments, and who, in Osborne’s words, are “desperately looking for a job, really making the effort to go out there every day to find work” by the vast sum of £14bn.

Reading the words of Osborne above, you will have noticed – unless you are so besotted a Tory that you swallow what he says without question – that he uses the phrase “welfare reform” and the rather different phrase “welfare cuts” as though they might be interchangeable; hence, I think, we need to assume that they are interchangeable. Reform is a spin term for cuts. If “the money won’t be there to support [the] lifestyle choice” of living on benefit – where the “choice” is unjustifiable in Osborne’s eyes – it also won’t be there for people who have no choice about their “lifestyle” and who are out of work because there is no work, people whose situation Osborne lightly describes as “a tragedy” while he cynically sharpens his axe.

A cartoon originally placed here has evidently been removed by the artist; a pity, as we are all the poorer (including him) for its removal

The Spending Review, be under no illusion, is going to create immediately a large amount of new unemployment. The state is a major employer. The coalition government is committed to reducing the patronage of the state by between 25 and 40 percent. That means that capital projects will be among the first to fall – these are, by their nature, dependent on a substantial workforce – and a number of enterprises will be wound up, pushing into the jobs market personnel whose work experience will have been particular and whose job prospects will hence will be the poorer. The number of people to whom Osborne will lightly offer the term “tragedy” will be huge.

The thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, newly unemployed will be seeking, as they will be entitled to seek, social security support to replace their lost income. But Osborne is cutting the welfare budget ahead of this inevitable surge in those out of work. What else can we expect but hardship of a depth not seen in this country since the beginning of the 1930s, when a series of marches on London climaxed in the National Hunger March of September 1932. These cuts will create a new class divide between haves and have nots, between those in work and those out of benefit.

I do not suppose that George Osborne has any experience of job-seeking. The heir to a baronetcy and the lucrative firm of Osborne & Little, interior design suppliers to the quality, has never wanted for a penny and is thought to be worth the better part of £5m. He would find it an instructive experience to register his details on one or two of the many on-line employment sites that have grown up to service the jobs market. I have done this, to see how it works. It is not an encouraging experience.

Such sites customarily ask you to supply some information that would, you might think, narrow the choice of vacancies to which the service alerts you. I entered a number of provisos – that I would want to work from home, that I don’t drive, that I am looking for a post in the environs of Bath. So I get offered driving duties in London, posts in various countries in Africa and cold-calling jobs that I wouldn’t take if they offered shares in the company and the bonus levels of an arbitrageur (and for which anyway I am grossly overqualified). Friends who are job-seeking in earnest report that this is getting off lightly, that you can spend hours each day wading through farcically unsuitable and irrelevant links and that, even if you find a post for which you feel you can reasonably apply, you never ever receive any kind of response to your application.

Clint Eastwood was among those imploring Osborne not to cancel funding for the UK Film Council

Now how are the government’s attack dogs going to determine who is, in Osborne’s words, “somebody desperately looking for a job, someone really making the effort to go out there every day to find work”? Are they going to confiscate their computers to check how diligent have been their searches? The fact is that, in a buyer’s market, the seller is seriously disadvantaged and when unemployment is climbing, the out-of-work are less and less able to find work. Osborne’s remedy for this, he seems keen for us to believe, is to reduce if not remove entirely the support that the state has previously granted to those for whom employment prospects are ranged between scant and void. The result will be inevitable: on the one hand, numbers of people losing their homes and drifting into homelessness, families breaking up, suicides, depression and despair; on the other, civil unrest, lawlessness, rises in chronic addiction and in street and house crime at a time when the numbers of police on the street are in rapid decline.

That the rationale offered for slashing benefit is that there is far too much benefit fraud is as cruel as it is cynical. Unemployment for the three months to the end of June was 2.46m. A whole million of those unemployed people, for one reason or another, claimed no Jobseeker’s Allowance. By this time next year, who knows what the unemployment rate will be, especially if the feared double-dip recession materialises? Brendan Barber of the TUC, speaking on Any Questions?, astutely called the present period, ahead of the Spending Review, “the phoney war”.

Osborne by Steve Bell

The best we can look forward to, in my view, is a new winter of discontent. Indeed, I hope that the people will rise up and not stand for the ideologically-motivated punishment of those who are perceived as “weak” by this government that thinks every unpopular measure can be justified by the simple and simple-minded expedient of blaming the last administration. Osborne’s mantra that “we are all in this together” is as big a lie as this government has yet told. There will be no “together” until he and his colleagues address the fiscal and pay-restraint responsibilities of the banks (that are, after all, presently owned in great part by the public), the widening gap – yes, it certainly widened disgracefully under Labour – between rich and poor, and the vast amounts that the Treasury misses because of tax evasion both blatant (non-doms, for instance) and sly (through clever accountancy). Caning the weakest and calling it fair is pure cant.

A postscript to Mary Riddell’s remark that I mentioned in the previous posting, ‘Smear Studies’: while The Guardian and the BBC have long given up on the subject of William Hague, The Daily Telegraph prolongs it yet again today by running on the front page a photograph of Hague with his wife, thereby to justify showing additionally (and yet again) a shot of Hague with Christopher Myers and rehearsing once more the tired bones of the story.

Sunday, September 05, 2010


I make no apology for returning to the matter of William Hague and the famous “gay rumours”. Last weekend, I was one of the bloggers to reveal that the unnamed cabinet minister, whose sexuality (according to the lead story in The Daily Telegraph) was being questioned in the blogosphere, was indeed the Foreign Secretary. In the eight days since, the story has developed in quite unforeseen ways.

The present situation first came to light because Hague recently appointed Chris Myers as his third special advisor. A number of observers recognised Myers as someone who had frequently accompanied Hague during the election campaign. On Thursday, The Guardian quoted “a source” in Hague’s constituency of Richmond, Yorkshire, to the effect that “it often seemed as though Myers was there for the ride rather than any other purpose”.

By that time, the notorious political blogger who posts under the name Guido Fawkes had sought through the Freedom of Information Act to discover whether Hague and Myers had ever shared a hotel room while on the campaign trail. I imagine someone must have tipped him off that such was a scent worth pursuing. And on Wednesday, knowing that Fawkes would be running with the information that Hague and Myers did indeed share a room on more than one occasion, Hague decided to attempt to nip the story in the bud. So he released his personal statement.

Reporting it for BBC News on Wednesday evening, political editor Nick Robinson called it the most extraordinary statement by a politician he had ever seen. He didn’t elaborate but perhaps he didn’t need to. Hague’s statement declared that “any suggestion that [Myers’] appointment was due to an improper relationship between us is utterly false, as is any suggestion that I have ever been involved in a relationship with any man. This speculation seems to stem from the fact that whilst campaigning before the election we occasionally shared twin hotel rooms”.

Hague and Myers last year

Well, now, who could be blamed for raising an eyebrow if a 49 year-old multi-millionaire shares a room with a 25 year-old of either the same or the other sex? Who would not imagine that a seasoned politician might think twice before doing such a thing, even if he were so tight-fisted a Yorkshireman that he resented paying Yorkshire hotel rates? Come to that, doesn’t Hague have a home in his constituency? Why would he need to stay at a hotel at all?

Hague’s statement goes on that “Christopher … has now told me that, as a result of the pressure on his family from the malicious allegations, he does not wish to continue in his position”. On Friday, The Northern Echo reported Myers’ family being “besieged” as “journalists kept vigil” even though “it was unclear … if Mr Myers … was inside the detached property”. Presumably the paper had a reporter of its own there, doing a spot of besieging. But of course this “vigil” was as a consequence of Hague’s statement, not a forerunner of it. I can find no evidence of media interest in the Myers family before Hague issued his statement, so it seems most unlikely that Myers resigned to bring “pressure” to a halt, but rather that he stepped down in order to pre-empt it.

Aside from that, which was the result of Hague electing to go public, there seems no reason at all why Myers should resign. He is not perceived to be at fault, even by Hague’s political opponents. If he was really so useful as a special advisor to the Foreign Secretary as that politician seemed to think, despite his singular lack of verifiable credentials to be so, Hague should have kept him. After all, as shadow Foreign Secretary, he flew the boy (first class at MoD expense) with him to Afghanistan, including a two-night stop over on Bahrain, and also took him more than once to Belfast. Myers seems indeed to have been indispensable.

Hague’s statement concludes with considerable detail about his wife Ffion’s history of miscarriages. This is perhaps the most perplexing part of the statement. What does it have to do with anything? Only people of very limited intelligence believe that being married and wanting children, whether or not the wish can be fulfilled, is conclusive evidence of a lack of homosexual instincts or behaviour. Oscar Wilde himself had a wife and children.

The result of Hague’s personal statement was to make the rumours a perfectly legitimate subject for the mainstream media. From this point on, the fact that Hague’s sexuality had been queried was out in the open and could not be packed away again. The story was no longer confined to blogs. Because of this, many at Westminster (not least in the wiser reaches of the Tory Party) have questioned Hague’s judgment. Those sceptics know that many will believe that smoke must mean fire. Hague will always be thought by some to be at least bisexual if not someone engaged in a lavender marriage.

While old-school Tories like Norman Tebbit and John Redwood publicly shook their heads in dismay and David Cameron, still on holiday/paternity leave, issued an unquestioning but oddly bloodless message of support, the Richmond Tories piled in to bolster their MP. Such warmth wouldn’t be hard to find, for Hague has the largest majority of any constituency member in Britain, which tells you quite how Tory is that part of Yorkshire. The chairman of the Richmond Conservative Association, Christopher Bourne-Arton, told The World at One that he fervently hoped those bloggers would return to the “slime-pool” from which they had arisen. He evidently was so pleased with this piece of withering scorn that he delivered himself of it again on the television news that evening.

All that being said, Hague is badly wounded. His record is already tainted by misplaced enthusiasm for such unreliable allies as milords Archer and Ashcroft. So soon after the David Laws embarrassment, he has allowed it to become widely suspected that le vice anglais is alive and well and thriving in the Con-Dem coalition. And of course the very fact that Hague takes the matter so seriously and that people talk glibly of “smears” and “slime-pools” tells you just how homophobic public discourse still is in 21st century Britain.

It’s not as if such tales are anything new. Two married ministers under Thatcher and Major were regularly rumoured to be really gay. Michael Portillo eventually declared that he had been gay as a young man, though advising that those days were now over. Peter Lilley was more apt to treat the tales with lofty disdain. I remember somebody in an Any Questions? audience raising with Lilley the matter of his sexuality and moderator Jonathan Dimbleby promptly and severely shutting down any opportunity for further comment – he seemed far more exercised about it than Lilley himself.

Around that time, a fellow journalist told me that she had heard William Hague remark: “I don’t understood all the fuss about Peter Lilley. He had my cherry long ago”. I do not disinter that detail to make more trouble for Hague. Indeed, I give it no credit: even Hague would not be so naïve as to make such a remark in the hearing of a journalist. But it says something about how Hague was viewed on Fleet Street, even at that young age.

Peter Lilley, fresh as cherry blossom

Not that the mainstream media have been so very gleeful in pouring supposed mud over Hague’s shiny head. Julian Glover, The Guardian’s young-looking specialist in gay Torydom, wrote a typically confused piece on Thursday under the title ‘The Dark Side of Gay Liberation’. Among his arguments was that “gay and lesbian politicians, and those suspected of being in this group, are now quite routinely expected to make a declaration of their sexuality, as straight ones, by and large, do not … No one rings up ministers to ask if they are secretly attracted to women”. Leave aside that, in Glover’s world, all ministers would seem to be male. What he forgets, though, is that heterosexual politicians make statements of their heterosexuality all the time. It is after all only a week ago that every front page carried carefully posed photographs of David Cameron with his new baby. MPs who are married with children – which means nearly all of them – pretty much without exception and from time immemorial have featured photographs of this reassuringly “normal” family life in their election literature. The underlying meaning of this tradition is not hard to fathom, nor does it require stating explicitly.

The Guardian re-runs such pieces as Glover’s on its website under the banner ‘Comment is Free’ and invites readers to respond in a thread. I posted a comment on Thursday afternoon, the burden of which will be familiar to those who have read the previous posting on this blog. I recast it like this:

“Well of course we all accept that Hague isn't gay because Brutus is an honourable man and it's unparliamentary to accuse a chap of being economical with the actualité. But can we agree that William has been cavalier with the appearance. Out of Oxford, his best pal was a certain Alan Duncan. They both signed up as Shell Oil trainees and they shared two successive homes, the second of which Duncan bought with his business gains and charged William a monthly rent of a case of champagne. That house was convenient for the Commons in – oh, mother – Gayfere Street.

It was Duncan who persuaded Hague to run for Tory leader after John Major stood down, Duncan who managed his campaign, Duncan who was appointed his parliamentary political secretary (an unprecedented, never repeated title) and who was briefly his media advisor until his advice proved crap. It was only after Hague was succeeded as leader by Iain Duncan Smith that Alan Duncan came out, fully ten years after entering the house. Why? Because had he come out while Hague was leader, awkward questions would have been asked about a man who only married at 36 when about to lead the party.

So, sure Hague is undoubtedly and securely straight. But he's certainly spent a lot of time in the company of people who may make him look a bit gay”.

Very much to my surprise, I noted next day that this comment had been removed from the thread by the moderator. Appending to it a note arguing that there was nothing offensive or libellous in the comment, I posted it again. Again it was removed. I then posted this:

“My comment on this matter has twice been removed by the moderator. I have carefully read the so-called community standards and my comment is in breach of none of them. It is grammatical, articulate, pertinent, witty and not repetitious (as far as I am aware) of any other comment in this thread. It is not abusive, homophobic, gratuitously or otherwise offensive. It does not accuse Mr Hague of being gay, untruthful, unfaithful to his wife, incompetent at his job or anything other than – or worse than – being heedless of appearances.

If it may be thought libellous, then let me point out that the facts to which I allude in the posting are contained in an article by Paul Routledge in The Independent of September 21st 1997. This may be read at:


No action for libel was evidently taken against that newspaper at the time it was first published or since it was placed on the internet. As a consequence, no Guardian lawyer has grounds for ordering my comment to be removed.

I bitterly resent being censored by the moderator of this thread. There seems to be no mechanism whereby his (it cannot surely be a 'her') Stalinist decisions may be either expounded or appealed. The only recourse the diligent poster has is to attempt to repeat the imagined outrage. I shall shortly post my original comment for a third time. If it and/or this present comment is/are removed, I shall be taking up the matter with the Press Council and the Scott Trust.

Comment is free? Ha”.

A little later, I posted the original comment again. Both postings were fairly swiftly expunged. I was staggered. I then posted this short note:

“Who is the moderator, to whom is he answerable and how may one address him openly?

What can there possibly be in this posting to attract removal?”

and, as far as I am aware (life is too short to keep checking), it remains on the thread. I took up the matter with the Press Complaints Commission but am not sanguine about a result because their website requires one to file the complained-of article and my complaint concerns the censorship of my own article. I am not sure that the PCC has a mechanism to satisfy me. I thought about writing separately to the paper’s editor, Alan Rusbridger (whom, a long time ago when he briefly became a television critic, I described in print as “another know-all who knows fuck-all about television”), and to Dame Liz Forgan, chair of the Scott Trust (which oversees Guardian Media Group matters), but then I decided I couldn’t be bothered.

The Hagues with Alan Duncan: other than a cartoon of himself, this is the only image that appears on his profile page on his own website

I did write to the letters editor of The Guardian this letter intended for publication:

“Dear Sir,

Someone uniquely well placed to shed light on the William Hague question is Alan Duncan. He befriended Hague at Oxford and both men became Shell Oil trainees. They shared two successive homes, the second of which Duncan bought with his business gains and charged Hague a monthly rent of a case of champagne. That house was convenient for the Commons in – ahem – Gayfere Street.

It was Duncan who persuaded Hague to run for Tory leader after John Major stood down, Duncan who managed his campaign, Duncan who was appointed his parliamentary political secretary (an unprecedented, never repeated title) and who was briefly his media advisor until his advice proved unreliable. It was only after Hague was replaced as leader that Duncan came out, fully ten years after entering the house. Why? Because had he come out while Hague was leader, awkward questions would have been asked about a man who only married at 36 when about to lead the party.

Civil-partnered and with his own sexuality beyond doubt, Alan Duncan's assurance of William Hague's truthfulness in declaring as ‘utterly false ... any suggestion that I have ever been involved in a relationship with any man’ would clearly assist his position enormously.

Yours faithfully”

It wasn’t published. As a regular contributor to the paper’s correspondence columns, I have an email relationship with the letters editor, Nigel Willmott, so I sent him a personal note:

“Dear Nigel,

Is there some agreement between the government and the media generally and/or The Guardian specifically that the Hague history contained in my email of 12.33 pm yesterday – highly pertinent and accurate though it was – will not be aired? I think we should be told.

Oh, and I'm not letting this rest.

Yours sincerely”

Willmott replied thus:

“Hi Stephen

I can't speak for the whole of the Guardian ... on the Letters page we have (that is, I as editor enforce) a guideline that we do not get involved in gossip and speculation about people's private lives. We are old-fashioned enough to believe there is such a thing.

I am not a great fan of William Hague as a politician, but I fail to see what his sexuality has do with his public role - except as in that this innuendo is affecting his ability to do that job. I think the invasion of public figures' private life for its own sake demeans our public culture.

I don't know or care whether he is gay - but if so, whether he chooses to make his sexuality public or not is up to him (or perhaps him and his wife).

There may be issues that stem from the affair - perhaps his judgment and the process for appointing his adviser, or in making his statement – that may be fair for debate on our page at some stage. But we will remain uninterested in speculation about his private life per se.

None of our guidelines is written in stone and we accept as the affair goes on (if it does) areas of his private life may become legitimate areas for debate as they become a public issue, but for the moment, I am not interested in your letter, which as far as I can tell is interested only in establishing his sexuality.

Otherwise, we will continue to look forward to receiving your usually excellent letters.

bst Nigel”

My response to that – the proper one, I think – was to write him a better letter, in the light of a collation of views published in the feature section, G2, under the heading ‘Does it matter who William Hague shares a hotel room with?’:

Dear Sir,

It matters (G2 cover story September 3) because, as party leader, William Hague vehemently opposed the repeal of the cruel and oppressive Section 28, introduced by the previous Tory government to outlaw an even-handed attitude to sexuality by teachers and others answerable to local authorities. Hague even sacked one of his frontbenchers, specifically for voicing support for Labour's decision to repeal the clause.

At that time, Hague's closest political ally was Alan Duncan. Indeed, the pair shared two successive homes, so Duncan was clearly also Hague's closest personal friend. It doesn't signify whether such friendship was platonic or not and, speaking for myself, I would not care to know. It does signify that Hague was so ideologically blinkered that he could overlook his good friend's self-declared homosexuality and punish that of everyone else. I leave to others their opinions as to how far this might suggest that Hague is conflicted about sexuality.

Yours faithfully

Willmott replied:

“Hi Stephen

thanx ... this is maybe something we could go with ...

bst Nigel”

I make no remark on a man who, from his photograph, looks to be not significantly younger than me using the modes of the texting generation. At any rate, my letter did not appear and I sent him a brief note:

“Nigel –

Ach, you're such a tease ...


On Any Questions? this weekend, who should fetch up but the aforementioned Alan Duncan. Would he speak as unguardedly as he usually does? Would he hell! Holiday relief moderator Martha Kearney very properly introduced Duncan as one who had befriended Hague at Oxford and who had been the first sitting Tory MP to come out. In answer to the opening question about a “brilliant” politician being undermined by rumour, Duncan said: “First of all, you’re quite right to use the adjective ‘brilliant’. We’re dealing with a very special politician here and I think the way he has been pilloried this week has been contemptible. I think that, based on rumour, innuendo with no foundation in fact, bloggers and the press have got completely out of control. I know William, I know Ffion and I don’t like the way they have been treated. I think the way he has behaved and the way Ffion has behaved have been admirable – composed, calm, dignified – and I think it’s wrong for British politics that a couple like this should have been subjected to what they’ve been subjected this week”.

Duncan guys Hague in a House of Lords entertainment, February 2009: don't, whatever you do, imagine that this is camp

This had my lower jaw sagging. How has his pal been “pilloried”, pray? Who has treated Mrs Hague in any way other than at a very long arm’s length and without spin of any kind? What is the history of Hague lodging with the gay Duncan if it is not a foundation in fact?

After a depressingly conventional discussion among the rest of the panel, Kearney put it to Duncan that “one paper even suggested that the rumours date back to the time you shared a flat with him”, to which Duncan replied: “I don’t think that’s true at all but here you go, you’re off again and I don’t like the nature of your question. You’re starting once again just the kind of tittle-tattle which has been the foundation of this and is unjustified”. Kearney should never have let him get away with this, should have raised the Section 28 issue that I alluded to in my letter, but the mood of the whole panel was against her.

I sent an email to Any Answers?: “Alan Duncan was William Hague's closest political ally before and during the latter's leadership of the Tory Party. Indeed, as Martha Kearney pointed out, the pair shared a house (indeed, two successive homes), so Duncan was clearly also Hague's closest personal friend. It doesn't signify whether such friendship was platonic or not and, speaking for myself, I do not care to know. It does signify that Hague was so ideologically blinkered that he could overlook his good friend's self-declared homosexuality and punish that of everyone else by, as leader, vehemently opposing the repeal of the cruel and oppressive Section 28, introduced by the previous Tory government to outlaw an even-handed attitude to sexuality by teachers and others answerable to local authorities. Hague even sacked one of his frontbenchers, specifically for voicing support for Labour's decision to repeal the clause.

I leave to others their opinions as to how far this might suggest that Hague is conflicted about sexuality. But in the political sense I have indicated – and only in this sense – whether or not Hague has had relationships with men is important.

Yours faithfully”.

I didn’t expect my email to be read but the selection of phone callers chosen – no emails – infuriated me. I wrote again, before the end of the broadcast: “What is the point of Any Answers? if all the callers you choose make the same point and the moderator doesn't deal with it? Your callers repeated and repeated the argument that two people of the same sex ought to be able to room together to save money without raising suspicion of an ‘improper’ relationship or, as one caller preposterously put it, ‘being criminalised’.

But how many of these callers who volunteered that they had shared with ‘a friend’ are multi-millionaires? And how many of them shared with someone young enough to be their child? And how many of them would presume nothing ‘improper’ if a 49 year-old man shared a room with a 25 year-old woman? Would they say ‘oh, I expect they were saving money’?

Yours faithfully”. Both emails received automated replies.

The Telegraph columnist Mary Riddell, also on the Any Questions? panel, reckoned that, once the issue escaped the blogosphere, the BBC and The Guardian “were the most vociferous or covered it most extensively”. I thought this was pretty rich, given that it was The Telegraph that first aired the matter last Saturday and this Saturday was still running with it (we only see the paper that day because it then has much the best of all colour magazines). Yesterday, the paper’s chief keeper of the Thatcherite flame, Simon Heffer, weighed in against the hapless Hague. The man I call Siphon Effluent vouchsafed that “the statement about Mrs Hague’s miscarriages was a abominable abuse of her in the interests of his political career” and “[Hague] raises questions, by his conduct, of whether he has the credibility to stay in office”. Effluent is no supporter of the Cameron project and, since the former Thatcher protégé Hague threw in his lot with what Effluent would deem the wets, he could not be expected to extend to Hague any benefit of any doubts.

Damian Thompson; Andrew Sullivan

Elsewhere, the paper’s blogger Damian Thompson revealed himself to have been a contemporary of Hague’s at Oxford. On his blog, he reports that everyone at Oxford noted Hague’s lack of interest in having a girlfriend. In his newspaper article, he notes that the enormously articulate Andrew Sullivan, long resident in the States and recently an eloquent supporter of President Obama (though still fundamentally a Republican), was once a protégé of Hague’s. Sullivan is famously, noisily gay.

So it remains plangent that Hague can insist that “any suggestion that I have ever been involved in a relationship with any man” is false and make that vicious and unforgiveable stand he took over Section 28 and yet have his personal life interthreaded with queens. Let’s face it, he is never going to be free of this.