Neil goes to the wire, but will he get his man into the chair at 'The Spectator'?

Today, the Barclay brothers will put their stamp of approval on the successor to Boris Johnson as editor of Britain's oldest magazine

"I find it amazing," sighed Andrew Neil the other day, "that London media commentators are more obsessed with who is going to edit this little magazine than the sale of a huge business like The Scotsman." He was right, of course. Interest in the seemingly endless saga of who will edit The Spectator appears out of all proportion to its circulation.

But as in so many areas, size is not everything. And the fascination with the editorship of the magazine - whose next editor will be named tomorrow - is symptomatic of a wider interest in the direction of libertarian thought and the development of Conservative ideology at a crucial juncture in the party's history.

Today, as the nation has Sunday lunch, Neil, chief executive of the publishing arm of the Barclay empire, and Aidan Barclay, the chairman of Press Holdings, will be reading "manifestos for editorship" requested from the shortlisted candidates.

Only Matthew D'Ancona of The Sunday Telegraph, and Iain Martin, editor of Scotland on Sunday and a protégé of Neil, were believed to be still in the running, with one other, John Micklethwait of The Economist, an outside bet for the £200,000-plus post.

Quentin Letts, the idiosyncratic Daily Mail diarist, had been the favourite of Neil, but later withdrew from the race, uncertain whether he would be able to have the independence to edit the magazine as he wished.

Martin Vander Weyer, the Spectator's city editor, was said to be considered insufficiently forceful to be editor. Others interviewed, including Andrew Pierce of The Times and Ross Clark, a Spectator writer, fell out of the running in the past two weeks.

For Letts, much admired for his intelligent, amusing writing, it was a tough choice to refuse the job, and his decision was taken badly by Neil. But the decision is indicative of the question on every Spectator staffer's lips. To what extent will this maverick, polemical publication - the longest continuously published magazine in the English language - have freedom over its editorial affairs? Letts is believed to have consulted Jeff Randall, who worked with Andrew Neil at The Business, over the extent of Neil's interventions.

"What everyone really wants to know is whether the new editor will be an alpha male," said one Spectator employee last week. "Will he be able to stand up to the views of Andrew?"

To Neil himself, this question is quite ridiculous. Last month he insisted that he wanted to appoint a "troublemaker" to head The Spectator, someone who would mould the magazine in his own image: Neil had no desire to influence The Spectator's editorial direction.

And yet, his appointment this month of two new associate editors, Fraser Nelson, the ex-political editor of The Scotsman and Allister Heath, the economics editor of The Business - posts which it might have been assumed that an incoming editor would want to make - suggests just that.

"It's a silly thing to do if you're trying to attract someone of any stature," says one close to events at The Spectator. "It suggests straight away that the editor can't appoint his own people."

If the job does fall to D'Ancona, who had a single interview with Neil at the Ritz, it would be in the high-academic tradition of previous editors such as Charles Moore, Dominic Lawson and Boris Johnson.

"Matt's a medieval scholar but a modern man," says one colleague. "He's a nice guy, but fairly low key," said a workmate at The Sunday Telegraph. "He's a major film fan, quite obsessive on the subject and in particular Star Wars, about which he knows everything."

His working style is agreed to be "consensual", but some close to the Barclays suggest that D'Ancona's support for David Cameron would be an uneasy fit for the Barclays, whose views are further to the right: "He is a thoroughly likeable person, but significantly to the left of where the Barclay brothers stand. To appoint him would mean keeping him in check. For him to accept the job under that proviso would say something about him."

Another says: "Matt abhors confrontation and part of the job of editor is to say no. My fear is that although he is intellectually equipped, he may not be the right person to do it."

Martin, by contrast, is a no-nonsense Scot, hailing, like Neil, from Paisley. He would be unafraid to challenge conventional Tory thinking. "Andrew might well see him as a younger version of himself," suggests one former colleague.

Whichever man - for it will be a man - gets to recline on Boris Johnson's striped chesterfield next week, he is unlikely to bring with him any of the scandal that Boris trailed in his wake. After a year like the last one, when The Spectator became the subject of a West End play, a BBC 2 documentary and a Channel 4 drama, as well as a byword for episodes that most of us now know in shorthand - the Sextator shenanigans, the Liverpool episode and the Kimberly Quinn-David Blunkett affair - an editor who tussles over Conservative education policy or neo-endogenous growth theory might seem to the publicity-hating Barclay brothers infinitely preferable.

But the new editor has a number of decisions to make. There are the small ones, such as whether to sack Taki, the toweringly snobbish High Life contributor, who has survived frequent protests and allegations of racism. And then there are the major ones, such as the extent to which the magazine will support the drive for modernising the Conservative Party under David Cameron.

Neil has suggested that The Spectator needs to be "dragged into the 21st century", developing "a stronger voice on the big issues" and "more intellectual rigour". Under Johnson, who edited the magazine for six and half years, Neil suggested that, despite attaining record circulation of almost 70,000, The Spectator was failing to assume its proper place as a crucible of right-wing ideology. But Lawson, a former editor, warns against any over-emphasis on the politics of the magazine.

Started by Robert Stephen Rintoul in 1828 as a magazine of "educated radicalism", which went on to support the 1832 Reform Act, The Spectator has been known as much for the quality of its writing - with such contributors as Lytton Strachey, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene - as for its politics.

Lawson said: "The Spectator needs to be quixotic and ruthlessly polemical. Magazines can be irresponsible in a way that newspapers can't. They're outside the big commercial game. But it doesn't need to decide where it stands politically because it's a wonderful forum, a marketplace for views, and people want to be seen there. I always thought it stood for the best quality of writing, of things being expressed beautifully. That's so important. It would be a shame if it were too ideologically hidebound and became just a Conservative political weekly."

A new editor is not the only change on the horizon for The Spectator. There are suggestions that the magazine may soon be offered for sale. Though an offer from a previous consortium was rebuffed, there is speculation that after selling The Scotsman - the major chunk of their publishing portfolio outside of the Telegraph Group - the Barclays may dispense with The Spectator too.

If so, interested customers would include Jonathan Newhouse, proprietor of Condé Nast, under whom the magazine might be overseen by Nicholas Coleridge and possibly edited by Geordie Greig, the Tatler editor thought to yearn for more cerebral pastures.

Recently it was also announced that the magazine will be moving from the classical Georgian building at 56 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, where its parties have been held, to offices in Westminster.

These legendary gatherings, where journalists and politicians jostled in the narrow garden, as much as anything came to symbolise the clubbable, elitist nature of the magazine. In one sense at least, for The Spectator of old, the party will soon be over.

NAMES IN THE FRAME

Matthew D'Ancona

A 38-year-old fellow of All Souls, he rose through the ranks at 'The Times' before moving to 'The Sunday Telegraph', from where Andrew Neil had previously tried to poach him. His literary output rivals that of Boris Johnson: he has co-authored several books on biblical archaeology and has written two novels. Married to a journalist, he has two young sons.

Iain Martin

From his schooldays at Paisley High School, followed by Glasgow University, Martin qualifies as a mini-me of Andrew Neil - a fact not unnoticed by Neil, who appointed him the youngest-ever editor of 'The Scotsman'. Age 34, he is a brash Conservative whose outspoken views have induced apoplexy north of the border. He would have to uproot his young family from Edinburgh if he took the job, but may already be feeling that Scotland is too small for him.

John Micklethwait

The Chris Huhne of this contest. The Oxford-educated US editor of 'The Economist', Micklethwait has authored books on globalism, corporations and the American right. He comes garlanded with awards for business journalism, but as an editor he may lack the common touch. A stint editing 'The Spectator' would, however, boost his long-term ambition to edit 'The Economist'.

MEDIA DIARY

Bryant bears fruit

John Bryant seems to have his hand firmly on the tiller at The Daily Telegraph. Despite disappointing new ABC figures, the word emanating from the upper echelons is that caretaker Bryant is likely to be installed in the editor's chair for up to a year while the Barclay brothers scout out a new boss after Martin Newland's resignation in November.

Bryant has also begun making his mark on the staff rota. He has hired The Times's veteran associate editor Brian MacArthur - the two were old muckers there - to look after book serialisations following MacArthur's retirement from Wapping. Other upgrades include the installation of large TV screens in the lobby showing grainy old Telegraph ads and some personal touches in the office.

"He suddenly seemed to relax a couple of weeks ago, as though he finally felt comfortable," says my man at Canary Wharf. "You walked into his office and he had put up photographs of his family, and there was even a fruit bowl." Fruit bowl? Not quite the boxing gloves that Newland hung on the wall.

Celia comes over all coy

Following Piers Morgan's adulation of Celia Walden in GQ, accompanied by some rather revealing photographs of the Telegraph diary's siren, what greater heights could await? Well, Miss Walden has been approached to take part in Miss Great Britain, so impressed by the shots were its organisers. Sadly, Celia will not be competing in the swimsuit competition, or talking about her love of animals. "I was honoured, but I decided not to do it," she tells me. "It's not quite my thing."

Shamelessly blameless

There's a surprisingly glowing portrayal of Alan Hayling in the forthcoming BBC4 documentary A Lot of Balls. Part of its Lefties series, the programme tells the tale of the ill-fated left-wing newspaper News on Sunday, which appeared briefly in 1987 and with which John Pilger (now of the New Statesman), Anna Coote (now with the Healthcare Commission) and Hilary Wainwright (now editor of Red Pepper) were associated. Hayling, one of the founders, is portrayed as largely blameless for the errors that led to the paper's farcical demise. However, BBC4 leaves it to the final credits to point out that "Alan Hayling is now head of documentaries for the BBC". How convenient. Before joining the BBC in 2004, Hayling assisted in a more commercially successful lefty venture, Michael Moore's film Bowling for Columbine.

Moly smoke, Madge!

As guerrilla marketing goes, you can't fault the Madonna promotions division. The "queen of pop" gave a special advance release of her video Sorry to Holy Moly!, the gossip website and mailout. Surely this unHoly alliance with Madge won't stop them running little gems of stories like the one on 20 January. Noting that Madonna's new rollerskating video was being filmed at Canvas, it continued: "The crumple-faced 'queen of pop' (© every lazy showbiz hack ever) arrives every morning with a wig on, but one morning this week a workman spotted her, leaned out of his van and shouted, 'Give it up, love!' Rumours are flying around that Madonna has been a naughty girl... Poor Guy." How charming.

Once an 'Obs' woman...

A minor note. The Observer's supplements, Sports Monthly, Music Monthly, Food Monthly et al have their frequency in their title. Then there is the Observer Woman. Perhaps that is just a permanent state of being.

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