Matthew Norman's Media Diary

Why are the papers scared of Ken?

It is in two distinct minds that we view the prospect of Kenneth Clarke acceding to the Tory leadership when that party finally makes its headlong rush to judgement.

On the one hand, losing so determinedly hands-on a director from the board of this newspaper ("Oh, you're writing in the Indy now, are you?" he said when I interviewed him about any leadership ambitions back in March) would be a grievous loss. On the other, we love the old boy as much as everyone else - last week's speech on Iraq was magnificent - and it might be nice for a degraded democratic process to have an Opposition party with a vague chance of forming a government.

Not everyone agrees with this subtle analysis, of course, and a Stop Ken axis already takes shape. "Conservative Party members are principled and consistent," ran an anti-Ken leader in The Daily Telegraph, and that's certainly true: it is their sovereign principle, much like the Telegraph's, consistently to favour the candidate most guaranteed to lose an election.

Meanwhile, as if by osmosis, journalists of the centre-left reach a consensus most pithily expressed by the Mirror's Paul Routledge. "Clarkistas deceive themselves that he is electorally more dangerous than his rivals," writes the man who wields the golden pom-poms as Gordon Brown's cheerleader-in chief. "Wrong. In the long term, [David] Cameron is the real threat." This is odd. Every opinion poll confirms Ken's unique popularity with potential swing voters, which is primarily why both New Labour and the Lib Dems are petrified of him; whereas Mr Cameron - although he seems, to borrow from the late Larry Grayson, like a nice boy - has all the appeal of a Savile Row mannequin.

It would be unpardonably cynical to muse on whether New Labour - the Blairite wing as well as the Brownite - is briefing its chums in the press to push an agreed line that Ken is yesterday's news/ a busted flush/ too associated with Thatch/ too old, etc. Even so, when we see a bunch of hacks playing a tune that polling evidence and common sense agree to be arrant cobblers, you can't help wondering who's conducting the orchestra.

INCIDENTALLY, DURING the above mentioned interview, the vexed issue of Ken's maturity came up. "Has the party really changed so much that there's the slightest prospect of me becoming leader? I doubt it," he said, not contemplating the possibility that those principled and consistent party members might be removed from the process. "And anyway, I'm nearly 65."

I cannot express how flattered I am to know that my reassurances on the point - regarding not only Churchill (65 when he took office), but also the middle-aged Brian Close being recalled to face a West Indian attack - had such an effect on his thinking. It would be previous to talk about any reward at this stage. But if and when the time comes, and he's be looking for an Alastair Campbell figure to propel him to power...

THE MORE I PONDER it, the harder it gets to comprehend the sharp decline in Radio 5 Live's audience. The phone-ins just get better and better, as confirmed by Victoria Derbyshire's devilishly clever trailer on Friday, when she asked: "America may be shocked by the anarchy that's broken out in New Orleans, but are you?"

It's such a finely judged decision, isn't it? How on earth do you make a snap decision as to whether gangs of looters marauding through a semi-submerged city shooting the heavily traumatised victims of the most appalling natural disaster in US history is shocking, or merely run-of-the-mill high spirits?

AS FOR THE STATION'S news judgement, this too goes from strength to strength. On Tuesday, most news editors across the media spectrum seemed unsure whether the aftermath of the hurricane or the loss of hundreds of lives in the stampede in Baghdad was the biggest story of the day. How ridiculous they will have felt on tuning to 5 Live and hearing Michael Owen's transfer to Newcastle United leading the bulletins.

MY EYE IS CAUGHT by a recent letter in Mary Killen's parodic etiquette column in The Spectator. It comes from a woman in Chelsea who reports being at a house party when a drunken fellow guest "actually entered our bedroom in the middle of the night and got into our double bed with us".

I have been asked to make it crystal clear - and if I haven't, I certainly should have been - that while the facts of the two cases are identical, this is not the incident in which a naked Richard Littlejohn stumbled into the bed of the one-time Tory education secretary John Patten and his wife Louise at the Essex home of the Milanese catwalk model and human rights campaigner Simon Heffer. That happened years ago, and we'll not hear another word about it.

WITH THE SELF-DEPRECATING ease of a man making a mint in another branch of the media, Andrew Marr delighted the audience at the Edinburgh book festival with an anecdote from his days editing this title.

Andy recalled taking repeated phone calls from Robert Fisk about a Muslim extremist operating in Africa who insisted he was "going to wreak terrible destruction upon the US". Fisky was insistent that he interview him, and when after the piece was published he urged more coverage of this character, Andy showed that eerie gut instinct that defines the great editors. "We've probably had enough of Osama bin Laden for now," was Andy's thinking, and he never ran another word about him.

m.norman@independent.co.uk

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