The best thing about the Evening Standard going to print at lunchtime is that we can be first to a story. The worst thing is that we can get that story wrong. On Monday, our splash headline about the Prime Minister and her Brexit deal was ‘Outnumbered. Outflanked. Out of time’. I thought we’d called it right. On Tuesday, I woke up to the headlines ‘May claims victory’ and wondered. Then Geoffrey Cox spoke and sank her premiership. Later that day he told the Commons it was highly unlikely David Cameron would ever have made him his attorney general. Geoffrey, you’re right.
As this is The Spectator, we should talk up the benefits of Brexit. I’ve found one. I am back in touch with Mark Francois. Mark was a key member of my shadow Treasury team when I was shadow chancellor — and I’ve always liked him even if, now he’s part of the ERG, we don’t always see eye to eye. I asked him last week whether he was going to blink. He replied ‘no’. A few days later, he got into a staring match with Will Self on live TV. True to his word, Mark literally didn’t blink. And he didn’t blink this week either.
Have the journalists finally welcomed me as one of their own? Last Thursday I was asked to give the annual Hugh Cudlipp Lecture. I followed in the footsteps of a distinguished roll-call of editors: Paul Dacre, Andrew Marr… and Piers Morgan. Most began with their journey from local cub reporter via the night desk to the editor’s chair. Mine, I explained to the audience, has been a little different. Before the Standard, the only publication I’d edited was a student newspaper called Isis. When I travel to America I always worry that I’m going to be interrogated about my time with a murderous terrorist organization. As it is, the most subversive thing we did was print a whole edition on hemp paper made from the cannabis plant.
California is one of the places that has legalized dope, like Canada and Colorado. It’s my guess that Britain will follow suit. Another Californian idea whose time may have come is that of a ‘data dividend’: instead of big tech companies owning all the valuable data on who you are and how you use the internet, you should own it yourself. I used my Cudlipp lecture to propose we look at the policy over here. Putting power in the hands of consumers rather than producers and breaking up monopolies is progressive Conservative thinking. And being paid to watch funny online animal videos and play Fortnite is definitely an election winner, in case anyone’s starting to think about manifestos…
This often used to be Budget week. I was lucky enough to give eight of them. There’d be no annual Budget at all if the Treasury mandarins had their way. They see them as an expensive distraction from the serious job of stopping the government spending money. A March Budget is especially inconvenient because every few years Budgets coincide with general elections, making them doubly expensive; even worse, they clash with Cheltenham. When Philip Hammond arrived, the officials pounced. They persuaded him to move the Budget to the autumn and deliver only an economic update in the spring. I’m pleased to see it hasn’t lasted. Philip has taken back control. This week’s spring statement came with a promise to spend billions more. But even Phil’s red box stuffed with cash couldn’t trump the disaster caused by his neighbor’s red lines.
I was reminded about the intellect and integrity of Britain’s civil servants when I spoke on Monday at the Society of Professional Economists. I am not a professional economist, but I was surrounded by some of the Treasury and Bank of England staff who helped me sound like one for six years. My former principal private secretary Clare was there. She was the one who advised me against putting a tax on pasties; and she told Iain Duncan Smith to his face that his universal credit would be a disaster. My message to the experts? Speak up more. To the politicians? Listen.
I am part of a WhatsApp group called Make Hancock Great Again. Matt Hancock doesn’t know this, even though he used to be my chief of staff. He’ll be disappointed to hear that, despite the name, the group chat isn’t all about him. It was just set up around the time Theresa May became PM and decided to demote him. Now she depends on him, and others she fired or relegated, as her last line of defense — an irony not lost on them. Last Sunday, for the first time, Matt was asked on TV whether he had ambitions to be the next prime minister. He didn’t answer, of course. He’s been well trained. Our WhatsApp group has achieved the ambition in its name without even trying. That’s the power of social media for you.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.