Book review: Things Can Only Get Worse? by John O’Farrell

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Things Can Only Get Worse? Twenty Confusing Years In The Life Of A Labour Supporter by John O’Farrell, Published by: Doubleday

In 1998, John O’Farrell published, Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter, 1979-1997. It was an enjoyable and genuinely funny political memoir detailing O’Farrell’s life from his teenage defeat as Labour candidate in his school’s 1979 mock election to the happy ending of the New Labour landslide in 1997. Eighteen years is a long time: by 1997, O’Farrell was well into his thirties, balding, married with children and thanks to his work on the likes of Spitting Image and Radio 4’s Weekending, an established comedy writer.

The book was a big hit. But now twenty years have passed again since Blair’s first big win and the story of that period as related in this sequel is rather more complex.

On the one hand, New Labour won yet another landslide in 2001 and a third big win in 2005. The Tories have never really recovered from their 1997 trouncing, winning only one small majority in any of the last six General Elections. And as O’Farrell says, things undeniably got better under Labour, with the government “writing off the debt of the world’s poorest countries…transforming the NHS by trebling health spending and massively reducing waiting lists…the minimum wage, and pensioners getting free TV licences and the winter fuel allowance…peace in Northern Ireland… equality for the gay community…all the new schools…free entry to museums and galleries…” The list goes on (and on).

John O'Farrell, Labour's prospective parliamentary candidate for Eastleigh

On the other hand, as O’Farrell admits, there are certainly grounds for pessimism. O’Farrell often felt conflicted defending the Blair Government as a Guardian columnist in the early 2000s particularly after Iraq. He had a bit of a laugh campaigning as the Labour candidate for the hopelessly Tory seat of Maidenhead in the 2001 second Labour landslide election running against an unimpressive Opposition frontbencher called Theresa May. But the disintegration of Labour under Brown and Miliband was hardly a joy to behold for him or anyone else who backed Labour. O’Farrell’s candidature in the 2013 Eastleigh by-election in which he came fourth, was less fun too with the Tory tabloids attacking him with out of context quotes from his first book. By 2016, with O’Farrell despairing of the Jeremy Corbyn leadership, the Brexit result and the election of Donald Trump, the celebrations of victory night in May 1997 start to seem like a very long time ago indeed.

Thankfully, O’Farrell is always a funny writer, remaining upbeat even as when for others, things would only get bitter.

After all, even at their worst, Labour have never been as bad as the Tories. Yes, the Tories: a party who supported the Iraq War far more enthusiastically than Labour did (and indeed, whose support ensured it happened), a party who fiercely upheld Labour’s spending plans at the time (rightly) only to attack them endlessly (and wrongly) later, a party whose membership enthusiastically chose Jeffery Archer as its choice for London mayor and Iain Duncan Smith as their party leader.

This is an excellent book. And thanks to Theresa May’s calamitous General Election miscalculation, it even has a happy ending.

Sort of.

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Book review: Kind of Blue by Ken Clarke

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Published by: Macmillan, 2016

Ken Clarke sits today on the backbenches. He is seventy six years old and since the death of Gerald Kaufman last month is the Father of the House, having served as MP for Rushcliffe since entering the House of Commons as one of Edward Heath’s new intake of fresh  young Tories in June 1970. He can look back on almost a half century in parliament, one of only four men alive to have held two of the four great offices of state: he has been Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. The other three men are Douglas Hurd, Gordon Brown and John Major.

But unlike the last two, Clarke was never Prime Minister. We all must wonder what might have been, as he surely does.

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However, in many ways it’s hard to see how this could have happened. In other ways, it seems bizarre that it didn’t. Look at a list of recent Conservative leaders.The names that are there (Major, Hague, Duncan Smith, Howard) are almost as surprising as those who are not (Heseltine, Portillo, Clarke himself).

Although he is defensive about it in this readable autobiography, Clarke did not excel as either Secretary of State of Health or Education during the later Thatcher, early Major years. But neither of these were ever strong areas for the 1979-90 Tory government, or indeed any Tory government. Clarke was never truly a Thatcherite. But when Clarke became Home Secretary after the 1992 April election and then Chancellor following Norman Lamont’s unceremonious departure in 1993, speculation mounted that the troubled Prime Minister John Major might have unwittingly appointed his own future successor to the Number Two job as Sir Anthony Eden and Harold Wilson (and indeed Thatcher) had before him.

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Although inclined to gaffes before and since, Ken (previously “Kenneth”) Clarke, known for his Hush Puppies, cigars and occasional pints of lager was a surprisingly competent Chancellor overseeing the UK’s recovery from the early Nineties recession. “Go home,” he once bellowed at an under-prepared Robert Maclennan of the SDP in the Commons, “lie down in a dark room and keep taking the pills.” He was popular, well known and a big hitter. But like another clubbable former Tory Chancellor Reggie Maudling, he never got the top job.

The reason was simple: Europe. Clarke was and is a keen supporter of the EU. With so many of John Major’s problems caused by his signing of the Maastricht Treaty, the increasingly Eurosceptic Tories were never likely to replace Major with him.

In 1997, following the colossal May 1st defeat, Clarke’s path to leadership should have been clear. His main rivals Michaels Portillo and Heseltine were out of the race, Portillo having famously lost his Enfield seat, while Tarzan apparently had heart issues. Clarke was far more popular and well known than his main rival, the thirty six year old, much less experienced former Welsh secretary William Hague. Polls indicated that if party members had had a vote, Clarke would have won easily. But the increasingly eccentric parliamentary party was happy to take the increasingly elderly Lady Thatcher’s advice. “Hague! Have you got that? H-A-G-U-E,” the Baroness spelt out to reporters, having just privately been told of the correct spelling herself.

The result? Another massive defeat in 2001. This time, party members too followed the increasingly frail Thatcher’s endorsement again choosing Iain Duncan Smith over Clarke. It was clearly an absurd decision from the outset. IDS was ditched in favour of an unelected Micheal Howard in 2003. Following the third consecutive Tory General Election defeat in 2005, Clarke, now ageing himself and harmed by his business dealings with Big Tobacco lost his third leadership bid to amongst others, a youthful David Cameron. A rare survivor of the Major era, Clarke served as Justice Secretary under the Coalition. In recent years, he has become increasingly gaffe prone. His wife Gillian died in 2015.

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Although it is unlikely Ken Clarke could have overturned the massive Labour majorities won by Blair in 1997 and 2001, had he become leader instead of the pro-war Duncan Smith, it seems likely a Clarke led Tory Party would have opposed the Iraq War, voted with Labour rebels to prevent UK involvement and forced Blair’s resignation. It was not to be. IDS’s Tories misjudged the situation and slavishly backed the war.

As Clarke himself reflects in this readable but unsurprising autobiography, his long parliamentary career has almost exactly coincided with the period of British membership of what used to be called the Common Market.

Ken Clarke is undoubtedly one of the better more decent breed of Tories, a far better man than the Boris Johnsons, Michael Goves, Stewart Jacksons, Jeremy Hunts and George Osbornes of this world. Politically incorrect though he is, one suspects he is liked far more by many of those outside his own party than he is by many of those within it.

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Book review: Those Were The Days by Terry Wogan

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Terry Wogan has been a feature of the media landscape for so long now that it is almost impossible to imagine how it ever existed without him. The author biography on the inside cover of this book states that his “stellar career in TV and radio has spanned forty years”. Given that it is now 2015 and Wogan has been working non-stop in the field since at least the mid-1960s, this seems like something of an understatement.

Is this funny, slight novella, almost more a collection of short stories really “the best of the best” as actress Joanna Lumley claims on the cover? Not really. Would this book have been published were Wogan not already a household name? I doubt it.

But I’m glad it has been for this is as Lumley also notes a “funny, touching and charming” book which centres on thee reflections of an ageing Irish bank manager (yes, really). Given that Wogan himself worked in the Bank of Ireland early in his career, one wonders if he is musing on the alternative life he might have had. One of the characters indeed, does desert his hometown for a career in radio.

But, though short, and less Christmassy than its cover suggests, this is a book as charming and highly readable book, as whimsical and inoffensive as the persona of the author Wogan himself.

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Published BY: Macmillan

Release date: October 8th 2015

General Election memories 7: 2005

Blair 2005 mainPortsmouth, Hampshire, May 2005

“Are you thinking what we’re thinking?”

This was the Tories’ brilliant slogan for the 2005 election. As it turned out, we weren’t thinking what they were thinking, unless they too were thinking, why have we picked Michael Howard as our leader?

Indeed, half the time we didn’t know what the Tories were thinking. Why had they replaced the unelectable William Hague with the even more unelectable Iain Duncan Smith in 2001? Surely the worst opposition leader of all time, they chose him over the comparatively brilliant Ken Clarke and Michael Portillo. In another eccentric decision, Michael Howard was chosen – unopposed – as Tory leader in 2003. Howard had been an unmitigated disaster as Home Secretary under Major and had actually come last in the Tory leadership contest in 1997 even behind the likes of Peter Lilley and John Redwood.

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The Tories managed to be wrong on the key issue of the day too: the Iraq War. They were even keener to go in than Blair was. Like many people I was opposed because a) Iraq had nothing to do with September 11th b) the Bush administration seemed to have sinister reasons of their own for going in and c) they seemed to have little plan for what to do afterwards.

I even took part in the London February 15th 2003 anti-war march or at least the first half of it, abandoning it along with one of my friends to go to Pizza Hut (this isn’t mentioned in Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday). I felt guilty over this at the time but I’m reasonably now satisfied now that the war would still have gone ahead had we completed the march.

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I did a few Labour-y things during my 2001-04 stint in Peterborough. I met the former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, went to see Tony Benn doing a talk (then just retired as an MP) and was interviewed for a position to run the campaign of Peterborough MP Helen Clark (she would lose to Tory Stewart Jackson in 2005, the exact opposite of the 2001 result).

Despite all this, I seriously considered voting Liberal Democrat. Only the facts that Helen Clark had voted against the war and the fact that my voting Lib Dem could help the pro-war Jackson win swayed me.

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At any rate, I was not in Peterborough but in Portsmouth in 2005, at the very end of a six month Magazine Journalism course at Highbury College. I’d been reviewing films and DVDs for Peterborough-based free magazine ESP and had had more work since doing the course contributing to SFX magazine, the Charles and Camilla Royal Wedding edition of Radio Times, several local mags and (bizarrely for me) a sports journal. I was 28 years old and finally seemed to have worked out what I wanted to do.

The day after the election was actually the day of my Public Affairs exam on politics and government. It was a bizarre dilemma. Were my interests best served by more revision and an early night or by watching the election results? In the end, I did both. The only campaign activity I witnessed was a local debate between the local candidates. The UKIP man had been by far the most entertaining. Portsmouth’s outgoing Labour MP Syd Rapston was a slow-witted man best known for being duped by Chris Morris’s satire Brass Eye into publicly condemning the “made-up drug” Cake.

Some seemed surprised Labour’s national majority dropped by about 100, but, in truth, this was still a good result. I passed my course and returned briefly to Peterborough. I had interviews at Local Government and Inside Soap magazine and did some holiday cover at Radio Times. In June 2005, I was offered a job at DVD Monthly in Exeter, Devon. I had had girlfriends but was single then and thus unencumbered I went down south. I did not know for sure even where I was going to live on the day of my departure.

Ten years on, I have lived in Exeter ever since (2017 update: this is still true).

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