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: The Long And Winding Road by Alan Johnson

alan-johnson-book-jacket-the-long-and-winding-roadImagine history had panned out differently. Alan Johnson might have become Labour leader in 2010. Labour might have won power in 2015 and the disaster which is Brexit might not now be happening. The pound would be strong, Ed Balls would be in government, Corbyn still on the backbenches while the Foreign Secretary might actually be someone who is capable of doing the job. Perhaps without Brexit to inspire him, Donald Trump would have lost in the US. We can dream anyway…

Perhaps this was never likely. Johnson never ran for the leadership and lost unexpectedly to Harriet Harman when he ran for Deputy. But as this, the third volume of his celebrated memoirs reminds us, Labour’s last Home Secretary is that rarest of things. Like Chris Mullin, he is a politician who can write.

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Book review: Five Year Mission: The Labour Party under Ed Miliband by Tim Bale

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Five Year Mission: The Labour Party under Ed Miliband by Tim Bale

The Miliband years are never likely to be viewed with much nostalgia by Labour supporters.
The rot began early with the reaction of David Miliband’s supporters to their candidate’s surprise defeat by his younger brother Ed in September 2010:
“Rather than pulling themselves together or else walking away and sulking in silence, they would begin badmouthing ‘the wrong brother’, telling anyone who would listen, that his victory was illegitimate, that it had been won only by cosying up to the unions and telling the party what it wanted to hear, and that Labour had made a terrible mistake…”
Thus the legend of the “wrong Miliband”” was born with David’s reputation grossly overinflated most commonly by the Tory newspapers who would undoubtedly have savaged him every day had he become leader.
As Tim Bale notes in this excellent account of Ed Miliband’s leadership “anyone who thinks David Miliband would have proved a model of decisiveness and a master of political timing probably did not work very closely with him in the Brown government.”
Nor did it seem to matter that Ed had been elected wholly legitimately, David suffering from an arrogant tendency not to take his brother seriously. The next five years would be a struggle. Ed Miliband’s spell as Opposition leader was probably the most difficult since Iain Duncan Smith’s disastrous tenure a decade before.
It certainly wasn’t all bad: Ed enjoyed successes during the phone hacking scandal and in the battle of energy prices. He also fought a generally good election campaign (although this book stops before then). Before the exit poll on election night, Cameron and his entourage were gloomy, almost universally anticipating some form of defeat.
But Miliband undoubtedly failed to convince the public he was up to the job of national leadership. This was partly the fault of the hostile media but he must take a fair amount of the blame for this failure himself.
His worst failing was his almost total failure to defend the generally good record of the Blair-Brown years. As Bale notes:
“…it is certainly true that Brown, with the help of his Chancellor, Alistair Darling, actually handled the truly terrifying possibilities thrown up by the global financial meltdown as well as – maybe even better than – any other world leader”.
But Miliband, keen to distance himself from the past allowed the reputation of one of the most successful governments since the war to be wrecked.
The Labour Party will live with the consequences of this for some time to come.

Published by: Oxford University Press

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General Election memories 8: 2010

New government starts

Exeter, May 6th 2010

A few things changed in the next few years. I moved inevitably from my late twenties into my early thirties. My social life in Exeter prospered. Despite not knowing anyone in Devon at all on my arrival, I soon met loads of people through both my shared house band my job at DVD Monthly magazine. The job was very enjoyable too. I am a huge film buff and got to see tons of films and even got to interview a fair few stars.

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2007 was the year Tony Blair (still then viewed as a very successful Prime Minister) bid the nation a fond farewell as leader and I left the magazine for a less glamorous but theoretically more secure job on the local paper. Still more crucially, that was also the year I met the love of my life Nicky. We moved into a small rented house in Exeter together just before the 2010 General Election.

Welsh Conservative conference

In the meantime, things had started to go less well for everyone thanks to the global economic slump which began in 2008. I myself lost my job on the vulnerable property section of the paper at the end of 2008 (the DVD magazine went under after nine years at almost exactly the same time) and I would be either unemployed or in slightly unsuitable temporary non-journalism jobs for the next two years or so. At the time of the 2010 election, I was working at a solicitor’s in Taunton. The other employees (mostly trainee  solicitors) were all very nice (I had got the job through one of them, an ex-housemate) but I was ill suited to the work and the car share arrangement to work from Exeter to Taunton each day was awkward, particularly as I didn’t have a car and could not drive.

My hours were long and although I knew the job would be ending soon, I felt slightly as if I was missing the election. Exeter had an excellent Labour MP called Ben Bradshaw. He had served in the Brown government and had been an MP since 1997 but in 2010 was looking quite vulnerable. I wanted to help more.

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For Labour were clearly heading for defeat nationwide, of that there was little doubt.  History will probably judge Gordon Brown kinder than we do. He stopped Britain from entering the Euro and later probably prevented the recession from becoming a full blown depression. The global slump had nothing to do with government overspending. Virtually nobody claimed this at the time simply because it was self evidently not true. Government spending did not seriously escalate until the banks needed bailing out, something the Tories supported at this point. Indeed, the chief Tory complaint at this time was that the markets were overregulated: the exact opposite of the truth.

Brown, was, however, temperamentally unsuited too leadership in some ways and though very much a Tony Blair wannabe, the new young Tory leader David Cameron did at least look the part.

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Nicky and I did our bit; Nicky holding some Labour balloons for Ben Bradshaw (who thankfully retained his seat) even though she actually ended up voting Liberal Democrat. We also both went to see Lord Prescott speaking in the street in Exeter during a campaign visit.

Perhaps this election is too recent to view with any real historical perspective. But to summarise in case you’ve forgotten:

Nick Clegg, the previously unknown Lib Dem leader blew everyone away during the TV debates and briefly, amazing as it now seems, became the most popular leader since Churchill. Yet on election night, the Lib Dems in fact did only about as well as normal. Cleggmania now seems like a myth.

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The good news, however, was that the people hadn’t forgotten how bad the Tories were and they fell well short of real power, yet again. They hadn’t managed to secure a majority since 1992. Thank God (2017: no longer true. Will do a follow-up piece soon).

The subsequent Tory-Lib Dem coalition was a surprise but there didn’t seem much point Labour clinging onto power. We had clearly lost. But this was new uncharted territory.

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The Liberal Democrats: A poem

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Do you know what we are for?

We’ve no idea anymore.

Progressive change was once our mission.

Before we joined the Coalition.

Do you remember 2010?

“Cleggmania” was all the rage back then.

We soon held the balance of power.

But this was not our finest hour.

On election night, everyone failed to win,

The Tories needed us to get in,

Did Clegg thus demand safeguards for the nation?

Or to protect the NHS from “reorganisation”?

Did he do all he was able,

To get a seat at the cabinet table?

Today the record says it all,

The Lib Dems have achieved sweet sod all.

Face facts voters, to our shame,

If your library’s closed, you’re as much to blame.

The sad conclusion to our story,

Is that you might as well have voted Tory.

Top 5 finest British political TV dramas

Political thriller Secret State has now come to an end. But what other series deserve a place amongst the best British TV political dramas of all time?Image

The Deal

Year: 2003

The plot:  It’s 1983 and when a newly elected young Labour MP Tony Blair finds himself sharing an office with a hardworking Scot Gordon Brown (David Morrissey), he soon recognises his dour companion could one day be a future Prime Minister. But as the next decade rolls on it is Blair, not Brown whose populist instincts gradually put him ahead and by 1994, the two friends are forced to make a tough decision concerning their own, their party and their nation’s future.

The series: The first of Peter Morgan’s “Blair Trilogy” starring Sheen, before the film The Queen and the later (somewhat inferior) Special Relationship. At the time, critical attention actually focused more on David Morrissey’s uncanny portrayal of Brown than on Sheen’s Blair. Other interesting casting included Dexter Fletcher as Charlie Whelan and Frank Kelly (Father Ted’s drunken Father Jack) as Labour leader John Smith.

Remade? No. Peter Morgan’s next project The Audience will focus on the different relationships the Queen has had with her various PMs during her long reign.

Basis in reality?: Clearly based on reality. Although Blair and Brown have both denied any deal (namely that Blair agree in advance to stand down in favour of Brown after an agreed time lapse) was ever made.

A Very British Coup

Year: 1988

The plot: Former Sheffield steelworker Harry Perkins (Ray McAnally) has been elected Labour Prime Minister in a landslide. The Establishment (the Civil Service, media, MI5 as well as the CIA) do not like this one bit and soon conspire together in the hope of triggering Perkins’ downfall.

The series:  Based on the novel by onetime Labour MP Chris Mullin and discussed more thoroughly in my recent blog entry. The excellent McNally tragically died soon after playing Perkins.

Remade? In the UK as The Secret State starring Gabriel Byre. Chris Mullin enjoyed a brief cameo as a vicar but the plot – which centred on the aftermath of the disappearance of a Prime Minister as his plane flew over the Atlantic – was very different.

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Year:

The plot: Charismatic Trotskyite Labour politician Michael Murray (Robert Lindsay) has taken over the council of a northern city and soon calls for a “Day of Action”. This soon turns into a very personal battle with local schoolteacher Jim Nelson (Michael Palin) who resists. But Murray has more than a few skeletons in his closet (notably a traumatic childhood incident) and various figures on the Right are soon seeking to frame him for a series of racial attacks.

The series: Alan Bleasdale’s series initially portrayed Murray as a clear villain, then a figure of fun (a sequence in which a twitchy overstressed Murray attempts to acquire condoms is hilarious) before ultimately becoming a very sympathetic and somewhat tragic figure. Julie Walters, who plays Lindsay’s wife in their next Alan Bleasdale drama Jake’s Progress, here plays his elderly Irish mother. In reality, she is slightly younger than him

Basis in reality? Derek Hatton, the former Militant leader of Liverpool  City Council criticised the series claiming it was based on him, a charge Bleasdale fiercely denied. Although ultimately an attack on the Right and the extreme Left, many critics at the time seemed to think Bleasdale had turned his fire on the Kinnock Labour Party.

House of Cards

Year: 1990

The plot: When scheming Chief Whip Francis Urquhart (the late Ian Richardson) is passed over for promotion by the lightweight new post-Thatcher Tory PM Henry Collingridge, he soon decides to use his own insider knowledge and an attractive young journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) to plot for the leadership himself. A gripping story which benefits hugely from Richardson’s brilliant performance, his tendency to speak directly to the camera and elements of Shakespearian drama incorporated into the action.

The series: Adapted from Tory insider Michael Dobbs’ novel (which ends differently to the TV version) by Andrew Davies, this spawned two sequels To Play The King, in which PM Urquhart overthrows a Prince Charles like monarch and The Final Cut.

Remade? A US TV remake starring Kevin Spacey will appear early in 2013.

Basis in reality? The timing of the first series was uncanny, with Margaret Thatcher being challenged and overthrown by her old rival Michael Heseltine before being replaced by John Major exactly in parallel to the progress of events in the four part series on TV. Later series got so popular that Urquhart’s evasive catchphrase “You might very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment” was soon being jokily quoted in parliament. The last series was criticised by some for featuring Lady Thatcher’s funeral.

Our Friends In The North

Year: 1996

The plot: Four friends travel from youthful optimism to middle age from thirty years from the year of Harold Wilson’s first victory and the Beatles in 1964 to the advent of New Labour and Oasis in 1995.

Nicky (future Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston) a keen Labour supporter drops out of University to assist local politician Austin Donohue (Alun Armstrong) but becomes implicated in civic corruption, briefly becomes drawn into counterculture terrorism before enduring a horrendous stint as a Labour candidate in 1979.

Geordie (future James Bond Daniel Craig, then largely unknown) flees a broken home only to find an ill chosen surrogate father figure in East End gangland boss Benny (Malcolm McDowell).

Tosker (Mark Strong) seeks pop stardom, has an unhappy marriage before becoming, despite being in many ways the stupidest and least likeable of the four,  the most successful, establishing himself as a keen Freemason and Thatcherite.

Mary (Gina McKee who is also in The Secret State) is caught up in an awkward love triangle between the unsuitable Tosker and true love Nicky. She later becomes a New Labour MP.

The series: A wonderful sprawling series this had a long gestation period, originally as a play with the action only going up to 1979.

Remade? No, although there has been talk of a US remake.

Basis in reality? Although fictional, this drew heavily on real events. Austin Donohue’s character was based on real life corrupt city developer T Dan Smith, while a character played by future Downton Abbey author Julian Fellowes owed a lot to Tory Home Secretary Reginald Maudling. Revelations concerning police corruption, 1970s anarchist movements and events during the Miner’s Strike of 1984 also played a major part in the story.