Almost two decades have passed since I left the full-time employ of Tony Blair’s government in 2003. Yet whereas I see myself as something of a has-been, the current and future residents of Downing Street appear still to feel my ghost flitting around the place, and making occasional forays into what passes for their brains.
First we had the current occupant of No 11 – well, I say occupant, though it would appear the chancellor, Nadhim Zahawi, has decided an economic crisis a few weeks after being appointed is the right time for a holiday – saying that I was orchestrating the downfall of Boris Johnson. Though I am happy to take any credit going for ridding the country of its worst-ever prime minister, even my comfortably sized ego will not agree with Big Nad on that one. My role was minuscule set against that of Johnson himself. Yet Nad – isn’t it amazing to have two cabinet ministers called Nad who both talk absolute bollocks? – did a whole round of interviews insisting that Johnson’s fall was down to me.
Having lived for a while rent-free inside Nad’s noddle, it seems I have now moved into the bonce of the next occupant of No 10, Liz Truss.
It was a message from my son, Rory, who unlike me watched the Sky News Tory leadership debate, that alerted me to my flit from the Nad noddle to the Liz bonce. “What’s this thing you’re supposed to have done back in the day that Truss is banging on about?” he texted me.
Oh Lord! It could be anything, I thought. But not for one second did I think it would be about when I moved my office from the bay window overlooking the street, the one you see everyone walking past as they head to the famous black door of No 10, to one at the back corner of the building overlooking the garden from No 12. Apparently the country’s No 1 Thatcher impersonator had made a big thing of saying she would reverse this decision, my surprised son informed me.
It is true that the government whips’ operation used to be run out of No 12, though to be honest they were usually in parliament, as you might expect, so it was a big office space that was under-used. So they moved to No 9, by the Cabinet Office, my team and I moved to No 12, and the foreign policy team moved to where our offices had been in No 10. It was the kind of not very important, but moderately practical, move that organisations the world over are used to making, and successive governments under Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May and Johnson have seen no reason to change it.
That a candidate to become prime minister was even aware of my flit more than 20 years later, let alone giving it the slightest significance amid all the other challenges that are piling up in the in-tray, suggests to me a mind so small and unfocused that Truss really may turn out to be as bad as everyone is suggesting. I don’t recall her beloved Maggie putting office layout in any leadership and election manifestos.
Perhaps Truss is thinking, as the economy implodes, her promised tax cuts go nowhere, school and NHS standards continue to fall after the Tories’ 12 wasted years have demolished public services, and she continues to be proved right first time round when she warned that Brexit would be a disaster, she will still have Operation Whips Flit to portray herself as The Great Deliverer.
“Yes, I accept the economy is in some difficulty,” she will be able to say come general election time. “But never forget – I said I would move the whips back to No 12, and the press office back to No 10, and I have delivered on that promise.”
The country can’t wait, I’m sure.
William Hague was an excellent first Tory guest on The Rest Is Politics. Excellent for numbers, and for the first time we had the No 1, 2 and 3 slots in the UK episode charts, and have now been No 1 overall for so long it is frankly getting embarrassing.
But the former Tory leader was excellent in what he said, too. Johnson should not be allowed to appoint any new peers at all. I liked that bit. Whoever succeeds Johnson should make clear there can be no comeback, and no place for him in the senior echelons of the Tory party. Quite right. Johnson failed. He certainly did. Brexit is going badly. It certainly is. Hague was not holding back. He was pretty critical of David Cameron and George Osborne too, for getting “carried away” about better relations with China.
I also enjoyed his admission that we had successfully spooked him when he was Tory leader and regularly getting the better of Tony Blair at prime minister’s questions, by being so funny! We developed a line of attack – “all jokes, no judgment”. It worked. He stopped being funny, and so stopped landing blows. It was nice to hear from the man himself that it was those attacks that led him to go easy on the jokes.
His admission was so frank that I decided against mentioning my favourite ever poster, in which we put Margaret Thatcher’s hair on Hague’s bald head, variously sloganed “Get out and vote – or they get in,” and – my favourite – “Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.”
Google “Thatcher hair on William Hague head,” click on images, and enjoy. I did. As Hague knew before we disabled him, you can’t beat a bit of wit to make a serious point!
On a more serious note, Hague pushed back on my suggestion that the Cameron government in which he was foreign secretary did not have to hold the EU membership referendum in 2016. He said that the real drive to Brexit came from the Blair government’s failure to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in 2008-09, and the failure to limit immigration numbers when several Eastern European countries joined the EU.
It is a point I have had made at me many times before, not least by Nigel Farage, and I have usually hit back hard. But there was something so reasonable about Hague’s entire demeanour throughout that made me take it more seriously.
I didn’t sleep well. It might have been because France was in the middle of its third heatwave so far this summer. But it is the first time I have ever dreamt about having an argument with someone about the Lisbon Treaty, so maybe there was something deeper going on.
The podcast has such dedicated listeners that someone has now posted a Rest Is Politics bingo card, taking the mickey out of some of the things we talk about and say a lot. So you’ve got me saying Johnson is the worst PM ever, reciting the Nolan principles, plugging the book by Moisés Naím that was featured in the New European on the 3Ps of populism, polarisation and post truth, or slagging off private schools.
You’ve got Rory Stewart telling us how many semiconductors are made in Taiwan (he does mention that a lot), saying nice things about Theresa May and lamenting his lost wedding ring. But I am particularly pleased that the bingo game also has me mentioning bagpipes, ABBA and, yes, TNE. Message discipline is so important.
People are basically nice, you know. When my daughter, Grace, wrote a long piece in the Guardian about being raped in the US, and explaining why being a comedian who talks a lot about her sex life made the whole experience even more confusing, harrowing, and liable to be misinterpreted, I tweeted the piece with the message: “Haters gonna hate, but those who know her best love her most.”
Grace, her mum Fiona, and I were all inundated with comments, texts and emails, virtually all of them supportive of her and – especially proud dad alert – many of them pointing out how well she writes! She is quite a talent, and if you want to see the funny side of her, she is at the Gilded Balloon in Edinburgh for the whole month of the fringe.
That’s it Grace. No more blatant plugs. Love, Dad.