I give an after-dinner speech occasionally called ‘Media Training for Dummies’. That may sound condescending, but the dummy in question is me. It’s a compendium of anecdotes about my disastrous media appearances, each more humiliating than the last. At some point I’m going to turn it into a PowerPoint presentation, interspersing the talk with clips so the audience can see that I’m not exaggerating.
Until recently, my most embarrassing moment was in New York in 1995, when I took part in a spelling bee broadcast live on the radio. I was the first contestant and my word was ‘barrette’. I’d never encountered this before — it’s the American word for hairclip — and asked the quiz-master if he meant ‘beret’. I said ‘beret’ in a thick French accent to advertise just how cosmopolitan I was, but he was unimpressed. ‘No,’ he said. ‘The word is “barrette” and I’m pronouncing it correctly.’ A few seconds later I was leaving the stage, tail between my legs. (To read more, click here.)
I’ve just spent a day looking after our one-year-old vizsla and, to be blunt, I have some sympathy with Michael Heseltine’s decision to strangle his mother’s alsatian. Not that my wife is out of town. Rather, I’ve just got a new job as director of the New Schools Network, a charity that helps groups set up free schools, and Caroline argued that because I’ll now be spending so much time away from home I am morally obliged to take on the lion’s share of dog duties before I start.
My responsibilities began with a walk in Gunnersbury Park. Now, to be fair, this isn’t a monumental chore. Gunnersbury Park is one of Acton’s hidden gems. Indeed, it’s so glorious that the people who live within a thousand-yard radius of it deny that they live in Acton and claim to be proud residents of ‘Gunnersbury’. Of course, no such place exists outside the imagination of estate agents, but if I lived nearby I’d make the same boast. It’s a good size for a dog walk — about 200 acres. A brisk stride around the perimeter takes approximately an hour. (To read more, click here.)
I’m baffled by the reaction to Zac Goldsmith’s decision to resign as the Conservative MP for Richmond Park. It is being interpreted, even by MPs on his own side, as an act of opportunism, a chance to rehabilitate himself with the metropolitan elite after his bruising defeat in the London mayoral election. Surprisingly few people seem willing to entertain the idea that he might be acting on principle.
Exhibit A in the case for Zac’s defence is the fact that he’s the MP for Richmond Park in the first place. Zac could have applied to be the candidate in any number of safe Conservative seats in 2010 and, given his profile, easily have been selected. Yet he chose a seat that was held by a Lib Dem with a 3,731 majority. His friends and political allies told him he was insane. Even if he won, they pointed out, he’d then face the prospect of having to defend a marginal seat. Not only would that mean he’d have to spend every spare moment in the constituency, but his political career could be unceremoniously cut short, as Michael Portillo and others have discovered. Nevertheless, he stuck to his guns because Richmond was the area he’d lived in all his life. (To read more, click here.)
The audience watches as a disabled man is being given a Work Capability Assessment in a Newcastle Jobcentre.
He is the eponymous character in I, Daniel Blake, the latest film by Left-wing director Ken Loach. Needless to say, his experience is portrayed as brutal and degrading.
To make matters worse, the ‘healthcare professional’ who cross-examines Daniel is an employee of — you guessed it — an American private company.
Typical Tories, eh? Not only do they force the disabled to go through a humiliating test to see if they’re fit for work, they outsource the administration of it to an evil capitalist corporation! (To read more, click here.)
On the face of it, there's something quite appealing about driverless cars. It will be like having a chauffeur-driven chariot at your beck and call, except it will be no more expensive than owning a car. Indeed, it might well be-cheaper because you'll be less likely to have an accident, so insurance premiums will be lower, and it will use fuel more efficiently. Not only that, but we're told journey times will be shorter because driverless cars don't need to keep more than a few inches apart, thereby reducing congestion. And they'll be quicker still if the inner-cities are reserved for driverless cars only. No need for traffic lights, roundabouts or three-way junctions – just a seamless flow of traffic.
Needless to say, I'm not convinced. Will it really be cheaper to own one than a regular car? I accept that insurance premiums might fall, but what about the depreciation costs? With all that state-of-the art technology, it will be a bit like driving around in a giant iPhone and, as we know, there isn't much of a market for second-hand iPhones. Indeed, out-of-date driverless cars might well be banned from the roads since the risks associated with them being unable to communicate properly with more recent models are potentially catastrophic. (To read more, click here.)
I’ve been thinking about poor Shami Chakrabarti and the drubbing she’s suffered since it was revealed she’s sending her son to Dulwich College. She joins a long line of Labour hypocrites who are opposed to grammar schools but choose to send their own children to selective schools. The list includes Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, Tony Crosland, Polly Toynbee, Diane Abbott, Harriet Harman and Seumus Milne.
My issue with these Labour grandees is not so much the double standards, although that does stick in the craw, obviously, but the stupidity. Why risk their political credibility and, for those that go private, beggar themselves, when there’s little reason to suppose that their children will do better at selective schools than they will at good comprehensives? (To read more, click here.)
I’m writing this from the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham where the mood is buoyant, to put it mildly. Everyone seems delighted with the new captain and completely unfazed by the perilous waters ahead. If anyone is sad about the demise of David Cameron and some of his key lieutenants they’re not letting on. It’s a case of Le roi est mort, vive le roi!
In my spare time I’ve been reading Craig Oliver’s referendum diary, Unleashing Demons, and reflecting on the events that led to Cameron’s demise. As a Remainer, Oliver is in no doubt about why his side lost: the mendacity of the Leave campaign. His lot were honourable men, constrained by the facts and their human-decency, while the other lot were despicable liars for whom no blow was too low. And the book has a villain, someone who embodies the immorality of his opponents. No, not Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson, neither of whom he takes particularly seriously. But Michael Gove. It is Gove wot won it, according to Oliver. He regards him as a sort of evil genius, lacing the Leave campaign with a combination of-‘brilliance and-poison’ that bewitched the British public. He is the demon that the-referendum unleashed. (To read more, click here.)
I appeared on Radio 4 with Shirley Williams recently and as we were leaving I asked her if she thought Labour might split if Jeremy Corbyn were re-elected. Would the history of the SDP, which she helped set up in 1981, put off Labour moderates from trying something similar?
She thought it might, but suggested an alternative, which was a ‘non-aggression pact’ between all the left-of-centre parties. ‘We can unite around the issues we agree on and get the Tories out,’ she said. I didn’t have time to explore this in detail, but I think she meant some kind of tactical voting alliance whereby supporters of Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens — possibly even the Welsh and Scottish Nationalists — would agree to vote for the left-of-centre candidate in their constituency who had the best hope of defeating the Tory candidate at the next election.
I’m interested in this idea because I proposed something similar in 2014, except what I had in mind was an anti-Labour pact. It seems preposterous now, but back then I thought there was a real danger that Ed Miliband would end up as our next prime minister and launched a ‘Unite the Right’ campaign to try to avoid this ghastly prospect. The plan was to persuade Conservative and Ukip supporters to put aside their differences and vote for whichever right-of–centre-candidate had the best hope of winning in each seat.
After about a year of trying to get this campaign off the ground I-concluded it wasn’t going to work and I suspect an anti-Tory alliance would founder for the same reasons. (To read more, click here.)