Should we be blaming Balliol, rather than Eton, for our political woes?

26 October 2019

9:00 AM

26 October 2019

9:00 AM

In our house, the biggest source of tension is that I think there is an important difference between deferring a decision — ‘Do we need carpet on the stairs?’ — and making one. Charlotte argues that ‘Inaction is a choice; not choosing is a choice.’ One that can have consequences, she insists. Like when the house is freezing because the weather has turned. I saw her point on Super Saturday, when MPs voted not to decide — yet — on whether to back Johnson’s Brexit. The decision to delay (‘inaction’) may end up having more momentous consequences than approving the deal in the meaningful vote. Which is why I was annoyed with all those MPs and journalists who dismissed Super Saturday as ‘Soporific Saturday’. It wasn’t. We are just conditioned to see a decision to do nothing as a non-event, whereas it is often the main event — one that can leave your teeth chattering in winter.

There is magic in the air. On Friday, after interviewing the PM, I was accosted outside parliament by a wizard and a prophet. The wizard gave me a spell to communicate telepathically. Fabulously useful. And the prophet told me that within the next year the earth will go dark for four days, during which the earth’s rotation around the sun will slow such that the calendar year will lengthen to 18 months. The prophet thinks that will help us get all those tricky jobs done. Handy for Brexit, I suppose.

Intra-party fights are known as blue on blue in the Tory party, or business as usual in Labour. But what are they called when hacks fight, as is increasingly happening (and which is yet another sign of a nation having a nervous breakdown)? Peter Oborne has written a serious and long piece for Open Democracy about whether hacks including me give too much weight to semi-anonymous Downing Street briefings, to which I’ve written a dull and serious reply in the same place. I didn’t engage with his charge that I ‘preen’ — because I’ve never known a more blatant case of pots and kettles, m’lord.

In a Cotswold pub I ran into a titan of 1980s and 1990s business, a genuine household name, an erstwhile hero of mine. ‘Robert Peston, as I live and breathe!’ he roared from his bar stool. And then with wagging finger: ‘Your wife died.’ ‘Yes’, I confirmed. ‘Your wife died, didn’t she?’ he said again, as if this was the last defining thing he knew about me. And then he repeated it again. And again. I heard Charlotte gasp: she feared I’d be upset. I wasn’t. The sheer absurdity made me laugh.

Is Eton the root of our political woes, as many claim, or does responsibility lie elsewhere? Because it bothers me that the protagonists in these Brexit and culture wars are mostly what used to be called ‘Balliol men’ (though they include Yvette Cooper, Labour’s most influential backbencher, and Nicola Horlick, the revokist Lib Dem Kensington candidate). Our PM is — famously — Eton and Balliol. His Remainy estranged bro Jo, the same. Also his nemesis Rory Stewart. And Theresa May’s deputy, Damian Green. Sir Ivan Rogers, the most trenchant and persuasive critic of May’s approach to Brexit and our erstwhile ambassador to the court of the EU whom she forced out, is a quintessential Balliol man. So too is Hugo Dixon, vanguardist for a referendum. And the de facto leader of the People’s Vote campaign, Tom Baldwin. So too the dexterous brain behind Jeremy Corbyn, Seumas Milne. Oh, and full disclosure — I was there too. What do we have in common? Not an identity of Brexit or political ideology. Just absolute confidence that we are right and everyone else is inferior. Blame bloody Balliol.

Saturday night, under our canopy on Abingdon Green, it was almost eerily quiet as Julie Etchingham and I were about to start the News at Ten outside-broadcast special, to mark parliament’s historic day of non-decision. ‘Weird,’ said the floor manager. The shouters who typically line the periphery appeared to have taken Saturday night off. But the second we went on air, the trap was sprung. The Remainer shouter-in-chief whipped out his new megaphone. And as I started to discuss Boris Johnson’s humiliation in having to send parliament’s ‘Please can I have a delay’ letter, the shouter went off like a rocket. I couldn’t hear a word I was saying. Afterwards, descending from the platform, I bumped into the BBC’s Laura K, who felt similarly hijacked by his foghorning. I was resigned, exhausted and wanted to go home. Laura was fired up and determined to reason with him to prevent it happening again. I dutifully accompanied her. It was only when her astute producer pointed out that we were setting ourselves up as social-media red meat that we retreated with dignity intact — but my admiration for courageous Laura as great as ever.

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