Friday night is usually quiet at The Spectator's lovely offices in London's Doughty Street. The venerable conservative weekly is printed on a Thursday and its editorial team expect to have more socially exciting things to do than making calls to friends in the less gentlemanly world of daily newspapers.
Friday night was an exception. Spectator staffers were glued to their handsets, frantic to obtain reliable intelligence about a compelling rumour. For once it had nothing to do with the sex life of publisher Kimberly Quinn or the equally colourful antics of associate editor Rod Liddle. The question on everyone's lips was the identity of their new editor.
The formal announcement of Boris Johnson's departure to take up an almost full-time career as Conservative front bench spokesman on higher education was no great surprise. A few loyalists had dared hope that non-inclusion in David Cameron's shadow cabinet might extend their editor's stay at the helm. But those familiar with the instincts of chief executive Andrew Neil were not deluded. Neil decided long ago that Johnson's career in politics was incompatible with his editorship. The chief executive was not about to allow a less prominent appointment than his editor had hoped to obtain to prolong the agony. That the tousle-haired Old Etonian had taken The Spectator to a circulation of 70,000 copies per week for the first time in its history was inadequate defence.
Inside The Spectator, the view is unanimous. Neil disliked Johnson from the moment his employers, the Barclay Brothers, gave him control of the magazine. An insider says "Andrew Neil bristled every time Boris appeared on television. He winced at every carefully weighted witticism. Andrew is an excellent television presenter and a brilliant writer, but he cannot live with the reality that Boris is slightly better at both and considerably better looking."
Another Spectator columnist says "Neil has a reputation for being hard on his editors. But on virtually every previous occasion, he has sacked them for not delivering. He simply can't make that excuse about Boris. The Spec has gone from strength to strength under his editorship - both editorially and financially."
The name of Boris's successor has been the subject of media speculation for months. The latest smart rumour animating staff on Friday night was that Neil had decided to appoint his protégé and friend Ian Martin, the 34-year-old editor of Scotland on Sunday and former editor of The Scotsman. It was widely believed in both London and Edinburgh mere hours after the announcement of Johnson's resignation. That it gained such currency so quickly speaks volumes about the relationship between Neil and The Spectator.
In the patrician, high-establishment world of Doughty Street, Neil, the proudly self-made boy from Paisley with his degree from Glasgow University - not Oxbridge - was viewed with distrust. Appointing Martin, a journalist who has risen from similarly humble Scottish origins, was felt to be "just the sort of thing he would do". And, indeed, Neil is man not averse to springing surprises.
There is, of course, a good deal of prejudice in the way Neil is regarded on Doughty Street. On Friday night he was reported to be planning to make an announcement in the new year, having assured Johnson that he would approach no one until the latter's departure was announced. He knows what a plum role it is, far more significant than any editorial appointment he has made in his years in charge of the Barclays' Scottish titles. Spectator editors go on to great things. Neil had had time to ponder his choice but was playing his cards close to his chest.
The new editor will find a gifted team already in place. Johnson spoke the truth on Friday evening when he thanked his staff by saying: "For most of my time I have been propelled by their talents, as a fat German tourist may be transported by superior alpinists to the summit of Everest. I am completely confident that they will continue to expand and improve the oldest and best-written magazine in the English language."
Among the totems of that set-up is Stuart Reid, Johnson's loyal and low-key deputy, favoured by some as his successor, who kept the ship elegantly afloat through sexual shenanigans, insults to the people of Liverpool and Johnson's regular absences at the House of Commons and elsewhere. He has, for years, been the executive from whom Spectator contributors have taken briefing and to whom they have submitted ideas.
Johnson's Spectator was a much more contemporary magazine than ever before. His deployment of columnists including political editor Peter Oborne, former Today editor Rod Liddle and neo-con super-stylist Mark Steyn lifted it into the Blairite age with aplomb.
But Johnson was hardly obliged to address the proper identity for the house journal of Conservative politics in the age of David Cameron and new Toryism. Despite his support for his party leader, his Spectator remained an essentially elitist publication aimed squarely at the very rich, the very establishment and the very clever.
For many, The Spectator is redolent of claret, double-breasted suits and fogeyish men from Eton, Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge. Despite his recruitment of less crusty figures such as Liddle and Andrew Gilligan, Johnson himself embodied this tradition. His editorship was made on the playing fields of Eton even if he did embrace pedal-cycling as a commuter fashion. He nudged The Spectator into the present but never risked alienating it from the classical tradition set by his eminent predecessors.
Neil will be concerned that this image scarcely fits The Spectator for the 21st century. Confronted with a Conservative leader who believes in global warming, he will have a wary eye on maintaining circulation and profitability. Old debates about social etiquette, aristocratic privilege and high life on the slopes of Gstaad have never been Neil's own cup of tea. He cares about economics, mass education, technology and business. His own grounding, at The Economist, hints at a harder- edged magazine - one that involves itself in every detail of the modern Tory party's thinking.
He may take the view that The Spectator made Johnson just as much as Johnson's six and a half years at the helm made The Spectator. That would risk resentment. Insiders have been saying that the magazine is not broken and does not need fixing.
All work and no play
There was a good turnout at the newspaper quiz challenge the other night, organised by PR firm WMC Communications. The Times won the contest, narrowly defeating The Independent and more easily seeing off teams from the Daily Mail, the Financial Times, the Evening Standard and The Guardian. The one disappointment was the failure of the Telegraph team - taken mostly from the City desk - to turn up for the event, which started at 8pm. "The problem is," says a tremulous desk-tied figure, "nobody dares leave the office before 9pm."
Rise of a little helper
David Blunkett may be out of the Government, but his influence is being felt at No 10. David Hill, Tony Blair's director of communications, has found a home for Blunkett's ex-spin doctor Matthew Doyle as "special communications adviser" to the Prime Minister. Clearly, Hill feels that all the bad press the former work and pension secretary got was down to Blunkett himself, not the PR helper and a former Labour publicist.
Movers and apologisers
Bosses at The Observer are highly sensitive to the needs of their employees. They booked a bar called The Priory for the office Christmas party, only to find that it had had its application for a late licence turned down. Happily they have managed to book some space in the Turnmills complex across the road from the offices, and wrote to staff apologising for the change of venue. "The least you could expect was a good party after all the money they're spending on their relaunch," sniffs a Farringdon mole.
Maggie never forgets
Spotted dining at The Ivy some days ago was the ex-Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan, accompanied by a pretty blonde. Also present was Lady Thatcher, before she had her turn. As the Iron Lady stood up to leave her table, Morgan jumped up and ran over to say hello. "Lady Thatcher, it's Piers Morgan," he exclaimed. "I know who you are," snapped Lady T, who turned on her heel and continued to make her exit.
The Best-laid plans
To be filed under "Oops": Men's Health could not really have picked a more inappropriate interview for their January/February issue. They interviewed George Best, hardly an advertisement for healthy living at the best of times. It was also woefully mistimed, the footballer dying a fortnight ago after eight weeks in hospital.
"We did the interview just before he went into hospital," says the features desk. "Our lead times are two months. There's been some argument in the office to see if we can say this was the last interview with Best."