Magazine article The Spectator

Labour's Double Act

Magazine article The Spectator

Labour's Double Act

Article excerpt

To put it in seasonal terms, if they were in pantomime together, they might be the Broker's men in Cinderella or the good and bad robbers in Babes in the Wood. Actually, I would prefer them as Widow Twanky and Wishy Washy in Aladdin. The good widow is always trying to clip her wayward son round the ear or push him into the washing machine. Who are the performers I am casting? None other than Labour's great double act - the arts supremos (for the moment, at least) Jack Cunningham and Mark Fisher.

Cunningham has been Shadow Heritage Secretary for about a year now. Fisher as Cunningham's 'gofer' has been Labour's arts spokesman for a remarkable ten years, so he is a well-seasoned performer. The reason I am thinking of these two gentlemen in this pantomime context is that I have just had lunch with them at a private gathering, and what a revealing occasion it turned out to be - though, I am sure, not in the way they had hoped. It is quite clear that they are far from being each other's heroes.

On several occasions in Widow Twanky mode, Jack Cunningham slapped his junior colleague down by stopping him talking and even disagreeing with what he was saying. For instance, Mark Fisher, alias Wishy Washy, was talking about the relationship between the regional arts boards and Lord Gowrie's Arts Council of England saying the relationship between them had never been so good. Absolutely not so, exclaimed Widow Twanky pointing out that not even the arts boards themselves would claim that. Wishy Washy ducked that brickbat and was about to discuss the possibility of local authorities in the rest of Britain having statutory responsibilities for funding the arts as they already do in Scotland. Widow Twanky was incensed and would have put him through a mangle if the lunch table had not been wide enough to keep them well separated. What would be the point of giving local authorities statutory responsibilities without giving them the extra money with which to pay for the arts? There was clearly nothing on his agenda about begging for that extra money from the Treasury on their behalf. Suddenly the hard facts of real life took over.

Jack Cunningham has the reputation of being a political bruiser, and I am afraid that the very nice Mr Fisher is not in the heavyweight class of fighters. The two politicians even had a spat in their taxi on the way to the lunch. They had obviously been discussing their strategy about what to say and what not to say, and Mr Fisher most ill-advisedly suggested to his boss that he might describe him as a `war-horse'. …

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