Rees-Mogg's Style Guide, a New Editor at the Standard and Why Politicians Change Their Names

By Wilby, Peter | New Statesman (1996), August 2, 2019 | Go to article overview

Rees-Mogg's Style Guide, a New Editor at the Standard and Why Politicians Change Their Names


Wilby, Peter, New Statesman (1996)


Can newspaper columnists and feature writers please stop calling the new prime minister "Boris" as though he were some old family friend or a favourite teddy bear? The journalistic convention is to use the given name and family name at first mention, and then only the latter subsequently. Moreover, as every schoolchild must now know, Johnson's true first name is Alexander. He was called "Al" throughout his childhood.

Like film stars, politicians treat their names as part of their brand. George Osborne, for example, rejected the eternally unfashionable Gideon at 13, while Menzies Campbell ditched Walter, a name that hasn't been in favour since early last century. Four out of Labour's six prime ministers dropped their first names in favour of their middle names. Curiously, three of them--Ramsay MacDonald, Harold Wilson and Gordon Brown rejected James while the fourth preferred it, dropping Leonard and calling himself James Callaghan instead. He probably liked James because it was plain and ordinary while the others wanted something more classy.

As for Johnson, he rejected a name that has grown in popularity since the 1960s, and opted for one that has never been in parents' top 100 choices. Perhaps he thought "Al" sounded like a gangster. Certainly, nobody would call their teddy bear Al.

Crimes against style

In a writing-style guide for his staff, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the new leader of the Commons, forbids "unacceptable" and "disappointment". He is right: along with "inappropriate", they are pompous substitutes for saying you disapprove of something. But he is wrong to ban "meet with". Though I too once found it an irritating Americanism, I have changed my mind. The bare "meet" could be a brief encounter at a party; "meet with" suggests something longer and deliberately planned.

Unlike Michael Gove, who also issued style guides when he was at the education and justice departments, Rees-Mogg does not advise cutting adjectives. Since the Prime Minister, in his first Commons statement, promised "a clean, green, prosperous, united, confident and ambitious" future, this is probably a wise omission.

Osborne's farewell

Now that Theresa May has stepped down, expect George Osborne to do the same at the London Evening Standard. His main reason for fitting the editorship into his bulging portfolio of jobs was presumably to deploy it as a platform for his revenge on May, who sacked him as chancellor as soon as she got into Downing Street. For a time, his gleeful chronicling of her stumbling premiership created a buzz around what is otherwise a dull and ailing newspaper. According to Fleet Street rumour, the proprietor Evgeny Lebedev has his eye on a successor: Rachel Johnson, whose Remainer and Lib Dem sympathies will make her views on the premiership of her Brexit-supporting Tory brother Al even more fascinating and less predictable--than Osborne's views on May. …

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