The Labour victory in the Oldham West and Royton by-election last week should have been the occasion for great and sustained rejoicing in the circles surrounding the party’s leader. Unfortunately, it was followed immediately by the worst possible news: Jeremy Corbyn had been praised by Peter Oborne. And at that moment, it became clear that the game was up.
Oborne is an excellent and entertaining political commentator. He is also a decent and principled man. But while these two characteristics are not by any means incompatible, they do sometimes come into conflict.
In particular, Oborne has a distaste for the pack mentality of Fleet Street, and the bloodthirsty bullying of any politician seen to display a sign of weakness. He often refers back to the treatment meted out to Neil Kinnock and John Major, seeing it as unfair, unjustified and ungracious. But while his determination not to repeat such behaviour is admirable, it does tend to lead him into championing the sickly underdog, rather than calling for it to be humanely put to sleep.
‘Last month something incredible happened to William Hague,’ he wrote in May 2000. ‘People started to listen to what he had to say.’ The tide was turning, Oborne claimed, and the much mocked successor to John Major was finally mounting a serious challenge to Tony Blair’s government. ‘The Tory leader is a man of high quality and formidable intellect,’ he insisted. ‘I am an admirer of Hague. He has great talent and no politician has received such an unjust press since Neil Kinnock.’1
Of course, like Kinnock, and indeed like Major, Hague went on to lose the general election the following year in humiliating fashion, despite Oborne’s enthusiasm. Hague fell on his sword, and the right to lose the next election was inherited by Iain Duncan Smith.
Smith had a quiet start, but six months into his term as leader he delivered his era-defining speech to the party faithful at Harrogate and the rest, as they say, was history.
What? I’m sorry? You don’t remember Harrogate? But surely it was ‘a revelation’? Oborne said so. It was ‘potentially the most interesting speech by a Tory leader for two decades’.2
Oborne was in no doubt that he had witnessed something very significant:
What was so fascinating about Iain Duncan Smith’s speech at Harrogate last weekend was that it engaged so directly with many of the central intellectual movements of our age. In particular, it grasped many of the ideas for the dismantlement of the hierarchical, top-heavy twentieth-century state that have been propounded by groups like Charter 88 or even quite friendly newish Labour intellectuals like David Marquand at Mansfield College, Oxford. Harrogate was a staggeringly radical speech.3
Sadly much of the media focused not on the intellectual meat of the speech, but on Duncan Smith’s one soundbite, in which he demonstrated his deep fascination with popular culture: ‘We all laugh at Victor Meldrew on television, but you wouldn’t vote for him.’ That was enough for some. ‘Sorry IDS but we do not belieeeve it,’ was the headline in the Daily Mirror. ‘They don’t believe it,’ chimed the Northern Echo, and even the Guardian harked on the same theme: ‘Duncan Smith tells party to shed Victor Meldrew image.’4
Clearly it was going to be a challenging climb, but later that year Oborne could glimpse the sunny uplands within reach:
It is true that Duncan Smith has not yet acquired a powerful national presence and that he is, at best, workmanlike on television, but he is palpably an honest man with the dogged integrity of a Bonar Law or an Attlee. And this is beginning to be acknowledged by voters. After a year of slow progress, the Tory ranking in the polls has risen from just under 30 per cent to around 35 per cent.5
Unlike Hague, Smith did not lose a general election in humiliating fashion, but only because he was humiliatingly sacked as leader before he had the chance.
It’s not just the little guy on the Tory side that attracts Oborne’s protective instincts. In 2012, ten years on from Duncan Smith’s triumph, it was a Labour leader who was being praised:
In Manchester this week, Ed Miliband conjured up the finest piece of conference oratory since Mr Cameron’s own superb 2007 speech scared Gordon Brown off calling an autumn election. Mr Miliband – just as the Prime Minister himself did so brilliantly five years ago – has brought about a change in the architecture of British political discourse … he has established himself as a formidable Opposition leader.6
Miliband’s conference speech the following year was further confirmation that those writing him off as a failure were misguided: ‘There was a real humanity about what he had to say today, and I think members of the metropolitan media elite who love to sneer at Mr Miliband may be missing the point.’7
With less than a year to go to the election, Oborne was still cheering on the oft mocked Labour leader. ‘Mr Miliband is not weird, as many claim. I have rarely encountered a more normal or straightforward politician.’8 As you’ll recall, the results didn’t all go Labour’s way in 2015.
All of which should give supporters of Miliband’s successor pause for thought. Because Oborne has once again taken up the cause of the media-maligned:
Only one politician deserves to emerge with an enhanced reputation as a result of the week’s events. That figure is Jeremy Corbyn.
Whether or not you like Mr Corbyn (and I profoundly disagree with many of his policies), there is no denying that he emerged from the arguments over Syria as a man of moral courage, integrity and principle.9
And he adds on the subject of that Oldham result, ‘In the real world, it seems the voters have more time for the Labour leader than the metropolitan commentariat.’
If we’re sounding too dismissive of Oborne, we should also note that his assessments are often perceptive. William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Ed Miliband all had qualities and abilities that were too easily overlooked or dismissed by other commentators. Most notably, Duncan Smith’s ‘staggeringly radical speech’ at Harrogate really was almost as important as Oborne claimed. This was the occasion when the Tory leader talked about his visit to Easterhouse in Glasgow. The ideas for welfare reform that flowed from that speech evolved – for better or worse – into the most important policy of David Cameron’s coalition government: universal credit. It may yet be seen as era-defining.
And who knows what Miliband’s future contribution to Labour politics will be? Or even what the longer-term evaluation will be of the contribution he has made thus far.
What we do know is that Hague, Duncan Smith and Miliband had one thing in common: they were all over-promoted. Not one of them should have been chosen as the leader of the opposition because they looked so implausible as a potential prime minister. And even Corbyn’s fans have the feeling that the same might be true again. Regrettably, Oborne’s praise merely confirms the fact.
1 Express 19 May 2000
2 Guardian 30 March 2002
3 Observer 31 March 2002
4 all 25 March 2002
5 Observer 18 August 2002
6 Daily Telegraph 4 October 2012
7 Observer 6 October 2013
8 Daily Telegraph 9 July 2014
9 Daily Mail 5 December 2015