There’s a lot of honest pleasure to be had from a damning review.
- It works off the frustrations and hostilities of the reviewer (see 3 below).
- The reader gratuitously can enjoy the sprayed spittle and spite.
- We know the reviewed will repay in kind, at some early opportunity.
- It is the start, or a passing point, in an on-going spat.
So to Nick Cohen (in the reddish corner) taking on Matthew d’Ancona in the reviews section of today’s Observer [quoted in full here, because Malcolm cannot — so far — find the text on the main Observer site]:
No journalist has better access to our rulers than Matthew d’Ancona. As a liberal conservative, he is at ease with the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, and it is at ease with him. Just about everyone in power spoke to him for In It Together, and as a result, I doubt there will be a better insider’s account of the coalition for years. If you want to understand today’s high politics, you should read him.
I would go further and flatter Mr d’Ancona with a sycophancy that would bring a blush to his cheeks were it not for one difficulty: his cheeks are one thing but his nose is another, and he cannot see what is in front of it. D’Ancona uses his network of contacts to present the reader with stories other journalists would have killed to call their own. Yet the conservatism that made his contacts confide in him stops him from understanding the implications of what he has learned.
To start a long way down the Tory food chain, it is clear from d’Ancona’s account that Iain Duncan Smith is a dolt and a buffoon. You do not have to take my word for it. D’Ancona quotes George Osborne saying: “You see Iain giving presentations, and realise he’s just not clever enough.” Rather than make the connection between this embarrassment to his colleagues and the desperate people queuing at food banks, d’Ancona praises Duncan Smith as a bold reformer taking on the culture of welfare dependency. There is a missing link between what he witnesses and what he understands.
Not that Osborne is in any position to criticise, Duncan Smith might reply. D’Ancona relates how the chancellor had planned to get the pain out of the way early so he could “share the proceeds of growth” – ie bribe the voters at the 2015 election. In November 2011, Osborne announced that his policy was in ruins. The cuts, the pay freezes, the falls in household income, the ever-rising national debt would continue until 2017. This was an extraordinary volte-face and an extraordinary economic failure. But to d’Ancona, the tactics matter most. Osborne had made a smart political move, he says, that “put immediate pressure on Miliband and Balls” to say whether they supported austerity without end. D’Ancona is entitled to concentrate on the game of politics. But because so many other Westminster correspondents do the same, the coalition is able to pretend that it has “stayed the course” and “stuck to Plan A” while U-turning as violently as a drunk driver in a cul-de-sac.
Inevitably, no one comes out of this book as badly or as sadly as Nick Clegg – or “needy Nick”, as Cameron’s condescending aides call him. D’Ancona charts with precision the rising panic in Clegg’s heaving breast as he realises that his party’s first period in power since 1945 is producing pathetically small returns. Clegg admits that when he was David Cameron’s new best friend in the early days of the coalition “he wasn’t really leading” his party. As his voters fall away, Clegg talks of the next election as an “extinction-level event” for the Liberal Democrats, and worries if he will be his party’s “last leader”.
The conservative d’Ancona underestimates the scale of the Lib Dem debacle. Its MPs went into politics and into government to secure constitutional reform. By 2015, they will have nothing to show for their compromises: not proportional representation, not an elected House of Lords – nothing. Lib Dems love green policies almost as much as constitutional reform. The poor little things thought that the new “vote blue, go green” Tories shared their commitment until Osborne put them straight. “I don’t believe in this agenda,” Osborne told Clegg. He had only pretended that he did because “of course we had to say all this stuff in opposition”.
If Clegg is a character in plain view, the prime minister d’Ancona so admires remains unfathomable. He is undoubtedly a member of the establishment. The best scenes in this book show the disillusionment of Cameron’s former aide Steve Hilton, an authentic Tory anarchist, as he learns that his hopes of redistributing power from Whitehall will be crushed as long as his friend and mentor remains in Downing Street. The establishment is not as clubbable as it appears. It has always been an alliance of snobs and mobs, and d’Ancona is good on Cameron’s taste for rough trade. He hires Andy Coulson from the News of the World because he wants to use tabloid tactics to further his cause. So keen is he to have his man, he forgets to do a thorough background check. Undeterred by the police’s decision to arrest and charge Coulson, he hires Lynton Crosby, a sly and reactionary Australian PR man, as a replacement.
I was warming to the pace and vim of d’Ancona’s narrative in these passages, until he pulled me up short again. In a throwaway line, he reports that Cameron rejected the Lib Dems’ mansion tax on homes worth more than £2m because “our donors will never put up with it”. That’s it. That’s all d’Ancona has to say about evidence of the plutocratic corruption of politics that does not so much stare him in the face as slap him round the chops.
I never had time for Roland Barthes’s assertion in his The Death of the Author that “to give a text an author is to impose a limit on that text”. The retort, “if authors are dead, who the bloody hell do you French get to write your books?” appeared to dispose of that school of Parisian structuralism.After reading Matthew d’Ancona, I am not so sure. Our author is there but not there. He sees and yet is blind. He writes a 360-page book on the coalition without noticing the social and economic disaster it has inflicted on the British. It is as if it never happened.
Malcolm trusts you enjoyed that. He certainly did: To start a long way down the Tory food chain, it is clear from d’Ancona’s account that Iain Duncan Smith is a dolt and a buffoon. Ho, ho, ho! And how true! How very, very true.
Of course, this isn’t Round One, Seconds out! — though it would involve journalistic archaeology to find where it all began.
One thing of which we can be certain: this isn’t the end of the match.