The Spectator's Notes

If May’s deal falls, there may be enough Labour MPs to gain a majority for ‘Norway plus’

8 December 2018

9:00 AM

8 December 2018

9:00 AM

Inside the Dominic Grieve amendment carried on Tuesday is the embryo of a new political party. Any parliamentary majority for what Sir Oliver Letwin, who voted for the amendment, calls ‘something real’ (‘Norway plus’) if Mrs May’s deal falls would depend on the support of a good many Labour MPs. After three months’ work, the organisers believe they have got 75 such on board, led by Chuka Umunna. These are anti-Brexit, chiefly Blairite Labour MPs who cannot bear Jeremy Corbyn. If their number held up (a big ‘if’), the organisers calculate, the House could carry ‘Norway plus’, with the government and most Conservative backbenchers supporting, even if the ‘hard’ Brexiteers opposed. Labour would be split. We have sort of been here before, in 1971, when the Jenkinsite, pro-European wing of Labour defied its party’s line and carried Edward Heath’s Bill to enter the EEC. This led slowly to the creation of the SDP. A good idea now? It would be fun, of course, to expose Labour’s European divisions, which are almost as deep as the Tory ones, but it seems an odd reaction to our present discontents to acclaim Europhile social democracy as an idea whose time has come.

I may have spoken too soon when I predicted (Notes, 24 November) that the Daily Mail might not suffer from its Brexit volte-face. At the Daily Telegraph’s Christmas charity phone-in on Sunday, I was struck by how many donating readers mentioned the Mail’s desertion, and by reports of recruitment by the Telegraph of disconsolate Mail readers. There are rumours that the Mail’s new editor, Geordie Greig, has personally rung to plead with readers who are cancelling their subscriptions. Geordie is a charming man, but obviously he cannot speak to all the disgruntled tens of thousands. The Mail has chosen to switch from an insurgent to an establishment position just when that establishment is more discredited than at any time since the 1930s. It is almost as if the Harmsworths had decided to bet the farm on appeasement in September 1939. It is a weird way for a popular paper to behave.

Christ Church, Oxford, is a great seat of learning. Anyone who values independent institutional evolution over rationalist uniformity will prize dearly its unique character by which the Dean is, indivisibly, both the head of the college and the Dean of the cathedral. But if you run yourselves anomalously, you must take all the more care to run yourselves fairly. This Christ Church is quite clearly not doing in the case of the present Dean, Martyn Percy. The cause of the row remains obscure, but it seems to relate to Dean Percy’s efforts to make the college’s admissions and pastoral arrangements more professional and to improve the salaries of some of the college posts, including his own. This upset the small group of dons on the salaries board so much that, in June, they pushed the governing body into trying to dismiss Dr Percy, invoking a statute about ‘immoral, scandalous and disgraceful’ behaviour. That term, unproved and not publicly explained, is in effect a libel of Dr Percy. It will be falsely taken by modern ears to mean some appalling sex crime. He has not been given the chance to defend himself. It makes it impossible for him to get a clergy job elsewhere. Pending a tribunal, the Dean lives in suspension. He is not allowed to perform his duties in the cathedral or the college, or to speak about his plight. He can call on no grievance procedure and is allowed no advocate within the system. The Visitor of the college is the Queen, so she cannot be dragged into controversy. The Bishop of Oxford cannot help because, though Christ Church is his seat, the college is in charge. Incredibly, although Dean Percy is still in his job, he has to bear his own legal costs, while the college has hired City lawyers and even a PR firm against him. Christ Church used to be known as ‘the House’: you could say that Dean Percy is under House arrest. I know him a bit. He can be an awkward customer — left-wing, argumentative, fierce — but the reason I know him is that he is much involved in rescuing the traduced reputation of Bishop George Bell, a Christ Church man wrongly, posthumously damned by the Church of England for entirely unproved accusations of child abuse 70 years ago. Martyn Percy is a campaigner for justice, but is denied it himself.

Alex Younger, the head of MI6, made his second public appearance after four years in the job, on Monday. He spoke to students at St Andrews. Presumably because of his young audience, and because he was promoting officialdom’s orthodoxy that ‘diversity’ in recruitment trumps everything else, Mr Younger did not wear a tie. This was a mistake for two reasons. The first is that able young people will wish to join MI6 not because it offers a comfy, reassuring version of their existing easy-going lives, but because it doesn’t. The idea of challenge is what attracts, and of exclusivity not inclusivity. It is, after all, called the Secret Intelligence Service. It ought to be tight-lipped, formal and (for men) tie-wearing. The second reason is that Mr Younger will need a much deeper disguise than removing his tie to prove that he is not part of the usual white, male, public-school elite which has always run the service — and, usually but not always, run it well. He went to Marlborough and St Andrews (facts which, with the discretion of his trade, he conceals in his Who’s Who entry). He is a scion of the Scottish ‘beerage’ and a cousin of Mrs Thatcher’s popular defence secretary, George.

‘Civilisation faces collapse, Attenborough warns UN.’ That was the Times headline on Tuesday about the great broadcaster’s speech at the latest climate change conference in Poland. In theory, Sir David is always worth hearing. Nevertheless, his solemn warning was made less effective by the decision to print it at the bottom of page 17. I cannot help feeling that this adverse news judgment was entirely correct.

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