It was the Crosby by-election in 1981, and I was emerging from an evening meeting addressed by Mr Tony Benn. I came on a journalist whom I knew slightly and who had also been at the meeting. He was a leader-writer on The Daily Telegraph and at the same time an adviser to Margaret Thatcher: a lamentable combination which the paper tolerated or even encouraged and of which, indeed, it seemed rather proud. He offered me a lift back to the hotel.
In the car, he embarked on a spirited attack on the local population. They were, he said, idle and shiftless. Why, they were even worse than the people of South Wales. I did not feel like having a row, contenting myself with the observation that they had mostly had a hard life. He replied that, in that case, they had brought their hard lives on themselves.
At that moment the car juddered to a halt. The leader-writer (and adviser) got out, as I did too. We were both equally useless. And then a figure, that of a middle-aged man, appeared out of the Mersey gloom. Having trouble, were we? Well, he would see what he could do. He fiddled around. Miraculously, the car started. He had, he explained, effected a temporary repair which would, however, get us to the nearest garage. It was hard to find, so he would accompany us there, as he proceeded to do.
Bowling back to the Blundellsands Hotel in another car, the leader-writer (and adviser) did not continue with his assault on Merseyside. But nor did he admit that one of the local people had behaved with kindness and efficiency, skill and good sense. The thought, I believe, simply did not occur to him, so taken up was he with the theories which were fashionable in the 1980s and are, perhaps, just as acceptable today.
The leading article on Liverpool in The Spectator eight days ago is evidence of this. That does not mean that the editor, Mr Boris Johnson, should have apologised for it. Nor does it mean that Mr Michael Howard should have required him not only to make an apology but to travel all the way to Liverpool to deliver it in person: this despite Mr Johnson's position as Shadow Minister for Culture and Paperclips, or whatever it is. The real shadow minister is Mr John Whittingdale, which means that Mr Johnson occupies a position in politics of the utmost insignificance, as I am sure he would be the first to acknowledge.
This is not so of his position in weekly or, come to that, in national journalism. The Spectator is not the direct descendant of Addison and Steele's paper but was founded in 1828. Taking one year with another, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer used to do, it has since the mid-1950s, when Ian Gilmour acquired it, been the most stimulating of all the weeklies. Its roll call of political columnists alone cannot be rivalled by any other paper, weekly, daily or Sunday: they include Henry Fairlie, Bernard Levin (whose life was commemorated last week), David Watt, Auberon Waugh, Patrick Cosgrave, John Grigg and Ferdinand Mount.
Its editors have included, if Mr Howard will forgive me, three Conservative politicians of greater ability, intelligence and distinction than he possesses himself: Gilmour, Iain Macleod and Nigel Lawson. Who, not to put too fine a point on it, does this pipsqueak think he is, issuing orders to the editor of a great journal?
It is certainly not the house journal of the Conservative Party or "the Tory bible", as some political correspondents have ignorantly asserted it is. If it were, I should not be contributing to it, as I do occasionally; nor, I suspect, would I be asked. Mr Howard clearly believed that Mr Johnson's small position on his front bench entitled him to make an outrageous demand. He should not have done. But, once he had, it was Mr Johnson's clear duty to reject it, if necessary in the most forceful language.
If Mr Howard had then dismissed him from his front bench, Mr Johnson should have taken it on the chin. As it was, he chose to place his own political career or the interests of the Conservative Party or both above his duty as an editor. I do not want to make heavy weather of this, but he has let down his leader-writer, his staff, his contributors, his readers and, not least, himself.
Mr Johnson is an intelligent and literate man. As Malcolm Muggeridge once remarked, literate editors are usually charming people, but they rarely read the publications for which they are responsible, except on those occasions when their own contributions appear in them. I have little doubt that something of that kind happened here. Mr Johnson wanted a leader deploring false emotionalism in our national life, taking the murder of Kenneth Bigley as the peg; he or his deputy, Mr Stuart Reid, commissioned Mr Simon Heffer to write something along these lines; Mr Heffer went off on a frolic of his own; and to Mr Johnson the result came as a surprise, pleasant or not. He has written in the current issue of the paper that he is apologising only for the adverse reflections on Liverpool and that, in any event - quite apart from Mr Howard's grotesque order - he was contemplating an apology for the section on that city. This does not seem to me to improve matters greatly. The leader in question cannot be split neatly down the middle. And it is no part of an editor's function to go round apologising for leaders which he may not have written but for which he must take full responsibility.
The difficulty that confronted Mr Johnson is not common but it is not entirely new, either. Macleod edited The Spectator as a Tory MP who had in 1963 refused to serve in Alec Home's cabinet. In 1965 I wrote a political column for him pointing out the deficiencies, as I saw them, of Home's successor, Edward Heath. The papers picked this up, implying that Macleod was behind it. All he had said, on press day, was: "Must you really say that about Ted? Well, if you must, I suppose you must." But when Heath appointed him spokesman on the Iron and Steel Bill, Macleod resigned, to be succeeded by Lawson, who was not then an MP.
When Richard Crossman was editor of the New Statesman in 1970-72, there had been an understanding with the Board that he would resign as a Coventry MP shortly after the 1970 election. Crossman soon showed that he had no intention of keeping his word, which was certainly a factor in his eventual dismissal. But though he continued to play an active role in the internal affairs of the Labour Party - for instance, over the European referendum - his political ambitions were past. Not so those of Mr Johnson, a young man in a hurry. He has tried to ride two horses and has, I am afraid, succeeded in falling off both of them.Reuse content