Quentin Letts: The unstoppable rise of June Sarpong

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

Eton’s free-speech rumpus must surely become a David Hare play, Goodbye Mr Had-Yer-Chips, starring Jeremy Irons as the headmaster and Maxine Peake as the staff member who sneaks on the English beak teaching non-feminist critical thought. Like most attempts at suppression, Eton’s will be counter-productive. Teenage boys adore political martyrdom. Eton’s top man, Simon Henderson, looks a very poor version of John Rae but he may have done us a favour by turning a generation of Etonians into tingling sceptics of wokery.

In this season for miracles, the rise of June Sarpong continues: she has been made a trustee of the Donmar Warehouse, that London theatre attended by City snoots and funded partly by taxpayers. Every era has its Widmerpool, the slaloming careerist in A Dance to the Music of Time. Who is our Widmerpool? Gove? Sir Peter Bazalgette? James Purnell? I’d plump for Sarpong. This London-born daughter of aspirational Ghanaians forewent university to work at Kiss FM radio. She became a teenagers’ TV presenter, appeared on Blankety Blank and was David Lammy’s girlfriend. Soon she was a Prince’s Trust ambassador and pals with Alastair Campbell. She now writes, adorns the British Fashion Council and does corporate gigs. Her agent calls her an ‘activist’ — unusual for an executive at the BBC, where she pockets £75,000 to be Director of Creative Diversity three days a week. She first crossed my radar at a 2005 election rally when Tony Blair shared the Old Vic stage with her and two other BBC stars who screamed ‘Vote Labour!’ — the Beeb was more blatant in those days. In 2014, amid talk of June joining Newsnight, she opposed Scottish independence. In 2016 she was hot for Remain, dining with Peter Mandelson and George Osborne on referendum night. She tiptoed away after the Sunderland result. June once asserted that Angela Eagle (!!) would topple Corbyn; in a TV monologue in April 2017 she hailed the ‘sheer political shrewdness of Mrs May’ in calling an election. Newsnight must rue letting a woman of such insight through its net. Her new big thing is ‘allyship’, under which the BBC and contractors will do favours for one another’s BAME employees. It’s almost a Gershwin song: ‘You say cronyism, I say allyship.’ I met June two years ago when ITV wanted her to attack my book about our elite, Patronising Bastards. She hadn’t read it. But she did look at the index and squeal: ‘Most of them are friends of mine!’ June was fun and had a dirty laugh. I’d say with reasonable certainty that she is a meritocrat whose past support for Labour was more about brand management than political convictions. She has ridden the diversity donkey like Lester Piggott. Good luck to her but not to the cause she currently jockeys.

Christmas quiz! Is Prince Harry looking forward to his nut roast with all the trimmings in LA? Would you employ Sir Philip Rutnam? Why, dear God, did that fool Starmer bend the knee when he could have wowed Red Wall voters by doing the exact opposite? Has any clergyman told the Queen to wear a mask in church? How long does it take Beth Rigby to paint her lashes? Who was John Bercow? True or false: Steve Baker sprinkles salt on his Ricicles; Ian Blackford has a butler; Jeremy Hunt and Greg Clark are buying a tandem to go on a cycling tour of Holland; David Cameron’s happiness index is still in place in Whitehall; Gavin Williamson is being headhunted by Butlin’s; Boris added billions to defence after taking an exciting helicopter ride to Dorset with Ben Wallace to fire off various pop-guns with the SBS.

Facebook shows staff at a care home singing ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’. Instead of French hens and turtle doves it has loo rolls and socks. Residents’ jaws sag, either from strokes or sheer horror at the inanity. Had I been there, I’d have flashed the message ‘Shoot me’. Come the day, park me in an all-male care home with staff who address us by our surnames, let us read newspapers in peace in the day room (even if we don’t know what day it is) and never ask: ‘Are you all right?’ Like the Garrick, really, but with less danger of bumping into Heffer.

Friends on the wrong side of the Welsh border have been denied strong drink by the First Minister, Mark Drakeford. One parched wretch sends this mono-rhyme:

The edict issued from on high,
Declaring Wales must now be dry,
Is greeted with a weary sigh
(How long, O Lord? How long — and WHY?);
And some reluctance to comply
Is pretty swiftly followed by
Determination to defy,
And, as the voices multiply,
So ever clearer comes the cry:
Drag Drakeford Down! The Beast Must Die!

I’d better not name him lest Heddlu Gwent decide the last line constitutes hate speech. There is a Yorkshire grouse moor called Scargill. In the 1980s its owner sent a postcard asking: ‘Can you shoot Scargill 12th Aug?’ The police swooped.

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