Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

In the Independent last week, I compared Stephen Byers's performance in the Commons to Marshal Foch, a man whose centre was giving way and whose right was in retreat, and duly concluded, `Situation excellent. I shall attack.' Or rather, I had always thought he did. Angus MacKinnon, a former military history publisher, wondered whether I didn't mean Joffre. I jolly well didn't, I said, hurling the Penguin Dictionary of Quotations his way. A penitent Angus conceded that Sir John Keegan, to whom we all bow in such matters, was on my side, citing Aston's biography of Foch as supporting evidence. In this version, Foch composed the signal, but never sent it. Angus isn't convinced, though. The late father of a friend of his father (that's Angus's father, not Marshal Foch's - am I losing you?), who served on Joffre's staff in 1914, insisted that the Fochistes misappropriated the quote in an attempt to burnish their man's reputation for wit under pressure. Hang on, though: the counter-source, although British, was an ardent Joffriste, so we can't trust him either. And there are those who insist that it wasn't Foch or Joffre at all, but De Castelnau or De Langle de Cary. But let's not go there.

The Anguses of the future will be playing the same game with `Who Said What?' in the annals of New Labour. The permanent secretary Sir Richard Mottram's liturgy of despair, `I'm f-d, you're f-d, We're all f-d' (attrib.) will be set as a gobbet on the political history paper, with a first for anyone who can make head or tail of the Wars of the Department of Transport 2001-02. Rousing debate will continue about the origins of `Tough on Crime, Tough on the Causes of Crime', Tony Blair's battle cry as shadow home secretary. It is claimed most fervently by Gordon Brown as his phrase, nabbed by Tony without acknowledgment in an adumbration of the great outwitting of Gordon for the leadership.

Since his marriage, Mr Brown can no longer be properly called 'dour', the adjective that has unfailingly attended him throughout his political career. The leaving party for the outgoing Times editor, Peter Stothard, was the first social event the Browns had attended since the death of their baby. As such, it must have been a trial for them, and their grace and cheerfulness were exemplary. Indeed, the Chancellor has even become a bit of a flirt - in an entirely proper social way, I should add. He now does a lovely twinkly-winky sort of `fascinated to hear your views' face and chuckles merrily while conversing on tax credits and welfare-state reform. Only when the talk turns to the euro does he come over all flustered and decide that it's time to move on. Is there something bothering him?

Rght-wing London has become very pro-Gordon. I keep meeting Ayn Rand worshippers who have clearly fallen for a man who stands for pretty much everything they don't believe in. There is obviously some spooky transference going on here, because London taxi-drivers are becoming fantastically left-wing. Thatcher's motorised stormtroopers have given way to drivers who tell you that 11 September was a conspiracy by the West in order to attack Iraq, and that everything is a conspiracy by the oil cartels to keep up the prices. The last one I met wanted Tony Blair done for treason and Dennis Skinner for Speaker (now you're talking). …

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