The Spectator's Notes

Who can read Penny Mordaunt?

23 July 2022

9:00 AM

23 July 2022

9:00 AM

Whitehall is telling ministers that this is a ‘caretaker’ government and so, by convention, cannot take decisions. This is not correct. A caretaker government is one in which an acting prime minister is in charge following a resignation. But Boris has not resigned: he has merely said that he will resign once his party has chosen a new leader. Until then, he remains Prime Minister. Obviously it would be wrong for him to introduce policy changes which would commit his successor, but officials should not twist convention to prevent ministers from using their usual discretionary powers in individual cases. This bogus invocation of propriety is related, I think, to the anti-Boris rhetoric which implies that his continuation in office is unethical. In fact, it is customary. Any change in that custom would give yet more power to officials over elected politicians.

I told an American friend about the problems Penny Mordaunt has recently encountered over Greater, Britain after The Storm, the book she co-authored last year. ‘Do you think she has read it?’ he asked. It did not seem a crazy question. Quite a lot of books boast the authorship of a famous person but are actually composed by a ghost or the co-author. The sports personality, film star, tycoon or politician being promoted may lack the time or ability to write the wretched thing and may sometimes feel little inclination to read it. In the politician’s case, the purpose is to identify yourself with the future and the electorate and be interviewed on non-political programmes and invited to speak at literary festivals. No doubt Ms Mordaunt had perused her own work, and perhaps reminded herself of what was in it as she flew to Hay in a helicopter with her co-author, Chris Lewis. But she may have been taken aback now that it has acquired attentive readers. The same may apply to Bill Gates, who wrote the foreword, and to the famous people who endorsed the book: ‘Utterly uplifting and inspiring’ (Sir Richard Branson). ‘Uplifting and highly readable’ (Sir Tony Blair). ‘Reminds me of so many things I love about the UK’ (Richard Curtis). ‘…this interesting and enjoyable book’ (Sir Elton John). These are very busy and important people, yet they found time to read the book. Amazing.

Here is part of a passage in Greater about the full English breakfast: ‘Not surprisingly, after such breakfast bowel-bashing there blossoms a stool of biblical proportions. Exodus by Caesarean section.’ Why are ‘biblical’ stools big? Why ‘by Caesarean section’? Why is anyone writing this? They are very strange words. I would be interested to know if Ms Mordaunt lays claim to them.

The death of Ivana Trump last week reminded me of a story I had always meant to check. I rang its central figure, Sir Humphry Wakefield, who was forthcoming. In the late 1980s, Ivana, then married to the man she called ‘the Donald’, was doing up the Plaza Hotel in New York, which her husband owned. She decided to name the Plaza’s 12 top suites after great British country houses – Chatsworth, Wilton, Floors etc. So she commissioned Humphry, whose company specialises in the perfect reproduction of important furniture, to install copies of relevant objects from the houses in the appropriate suite. This involved Humphry meeting the couple, although Donald was frequently interrupted to take calls from three angry men in Atlantic City who seemed to be annoying him. Sometimes, dress designers would come in bearing expensive dresses which they gave Ivana free in return for publicity. Unabashed by the man she called ‘Sir Wakefield’, she would undress in front of him to try the couture on, still discussing the furniture as she did so. At great expense, Humphry transported the pieces across the Atlantic, having negotiated five weeks to install them in the Plaza. But when he turned up at the hotel, he was told all the suites were taken so he could not enter. His old friend Brooke Astor, already nearly 90 and the grande dame of New York, came to the rescue. ‘I’ll take up my invitation to admire the suites for the benefit of the press,’ she told him. This forced Ivana to admit both Humphry and furniture in time. But the other aspect of the Plaza suite deal was to be a big dinner in Claridge’s to publicise Ivana’s refurbishment and meet all the dukes etc whose houses were involved. Humphry had procured the guests. As the day of the dinner approached, however, he was still owed $20,000 (more like $50,000 in today’s money) by Mrs Trump. His earlier requests for payment had been met with total silence. What to do?

Humphry sent Ivana a letter. She owed him the money, he said, and he regretted to say that if he did not receive it in time, the party would be off. Somehow a photocopy of his letter found its way to the front page of Women’s Wear Daily, in New York. Mrs Trump was not pleased, but she paid. She came to London and the dinner went ahead. Meeting Humphry upstairs in Claridge’s beforehand, she said ‘We have our problems, Sir Wakefield, but tonight we are great friends’, and kissed him. She then descended and, as Humphry puts it, ‘danced from lord to lord’ – the Dukes of Marlborough, Roxburgh and Northumberland, the Earls of Pembroke and Haddington etc – it was a raging success and all the nobs who had been rather reluctant to come were entranced. Many wrote to Humphry afterwards enclosing invitations for him to pass on to Mrs Trump to stay at their great houses. Humphry, however, was not fully reconciled to his difficult customer, so he put all their letters in a box and never told her about them. Which is sad because, not long afterwards, she parted from the future president over his future second wife, Marla Maples. If she had received the invitations, she might have ended up a dynamic duchess with a real country house, not a replica suite.

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