John Street’s Diary

Written By: John Street
Published: December 12, 2017 Last modified: December 18, 2017

I’ll be your mirror
Theresa May’s policy chief is standing down to concentrate on boosting the Conservative Party’s campaigning strength and “appeal to younger voters”. George Freeman said the party needed to change after its “ill-conceived” general election campaign. He warned the PM during the campaign that they risked becoming “a narrow party of nostalgia, hard Brexit, public sector austerity and lazy privilege”. Doesn’t that speak volumes about the current state of the Tories?

Beginning to see the light
Quizzed by House magazine, culture media and sport select committee chair Damien Collins said: “We need to be really clear at calling out lies when we see them. On the other hand journalists should also call out politicians when they use fake news, not to describe a lie, but something they don’t like. Journalists who are accused of fake news should say to that politician ‘are you calling me a liar?’ because that is what the term effectively means and we shouldn’t let people use it in a casual way. Donald Trump is obviously the most pernicious exponent of fake news as a catchall for something you don’t like.”

Foggy notion
Labour peer Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, who has died aged 102 (see p 17), defended Paul Ableman’s historical treatise, The Mouth and Oral Sex, in a 1969 obscenity trial. The judge, Mr Justice King-Hamilton, asked the writer Margaret Drabble, one of the defence witnesses, why anyone needed to read about oral sex: “We have managed to get on for a couple of thousand years without it.” In his closing speech to the jury, Hutchinson was sympathetic. “Poor His Lordship! Poor, poor His Lordship! Gone without oral sex for 1,000 years.”

Some kinda love
Hutchinson was also briefed for the defence in 1982 when campaigner Mary Whitehouse brought a private prosecution against the National Theatre’s production of Howard Brenton’s play The Romans in Britain. The prosecution claimed the director had “procured” an act of “gross indecency” between actors in a scene in which a Roman soldier had anal sex with a druid. A witness who had been in the upper circle claimed to have seen an erect penis, but Hutchinson, during a speech which produced hilarity in court, demonstrated that the actor had been wiggling his thumb.

It was a pleasure then
Obituaries of Fleet Street legend Don Mackay, who has died aged 63, focused on his career as a hard-nosed reporter on the Mirror and other tabloids. What few realised was his stalwart picket line participation in the six-month NUJ strike at Kettering over the bitterly cold winter of 1976-77, in many ways an early campaign of the brutal Press wars that led to Wapping. Fellow Kettering veteran Ian Hernon writes: “Despite his later pugnacious reputation, Don was often a peace-maker on the picket line, preventing rather than sparking violent clashes. But he was also the best man to have beside you in a battle. He is the only man I ever shared a bed with – during a fund-raising overnight in London, the late Paul Foot put us up for the night; his flat had just been wrecked in a Special Branch raid and there was only one bed left intact. On the picket line I helped a passing nurse give Don an emergency tracheotomy. When I later visited him in hospital, cigarette smoke was coming out of his throat puncture in two distinct streams. He picked up a notebook and scribbled: ‘Hi, pal. How’re you?” I took the notebook and wrote: ‘I’m fine, Don, how’re you?’ He snatched it back and wrote: ‘I can’t speak, I’m not fucking deaf.’ To have known Don is to have a thousand such memories.”

What goes on
A primary school in Theresa May’s Maidenhead constituency has asked parents for a £1 daily donation to help pay for stationery and books. Robert Piggott CofE School in Wargrave, Berkshire, which has 311 pupils, wrote to parents after “national changes to school funding”. It said: “One of the elements of [the funding plan] was to ask parents and the community to consider donations to help meet the predicted shortfall in funding. Like many other schools, we are now requesting voluntary contributions. We would like to suggest parents donate £1 per school day for each child to help the school through this funding crisis. This equates to £190 per year.” The school said it would help pay for glue, pens, exercise books, paper and reading books. Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said: “The Government can spin all they like but Tory cuts are hitting schools badly, even in the PM’s own constituency.” At the time of writing, there was a deafening silence from No 10. And we thought that Margaret ‘Milk-snatcher’ Thatcher was bad enough.

I found a reason
Lord Chancellor David Lidington signalled that his department intends to bring back employment tribunal fees scrapped in July after the Supreme Court decided they were unlawful. He told the justice select committee that the judgment did not rule out charging fees entirely. He said, “I think it is necessary as a contribution to costs. … and sensible as a deterrent to frivolous litigation, something the court acknowledged.” He added: “The key lesson I took from the judgment was that fees are… a reasonable way to secure a contribution towards the costs of the tribunals service but that, in setting fees, the government needs to have regard to questions of access and affordability.” Lidington said he accepted that the government had got the balance wrong. But Bob Neill, chair of the committee, resisted the suggestion that the decline in claims – cited as much as 70% during the case itself – had been caused purely by those with meritless claims pulling out, saying the judges had also made this point in their ruling.

Femme fatale
A former Tory member of the Welsh Assembly hit back at claims that Tory MPs aiming to amend the UK government’s Brexit plans are “collaborators” with Labour. Antoinette Sandbach, now MP for Eddisbury in Cheshire, said the use of that word was “personally offensive”. She referred to her mother’s family, who had lived under Nazi occupation in the Netherlands during the 1940s. Ms Sandbach said: “We must work together and not seek to divide.” The MP, who represented north Wales in the assembly from 2011 to 2015, had been named as a potential rebel on the EU Withdrawal Bill.”

I can’t stand it
Ian Dunt of politics.co.uk blogged: “The chief obstacles to Brexit do not come from its opponents, but from the incompetence of those trying to deliver it. This fact has largely escaped Remainers, who often worry that there is no-one to lead their side of the argument. In reality, no political figure – regardless of how charismatic or principled they were – would be able to compete with the Brexiters’ capacity to sabotage their own project. This sabotage is mostly the result of a lack of planning. And that lack of planning is the result of purposefully-created Brexit echo chambers at the height of government. Industry leaders going to see David Davis when he became secretary of state were taken aside by civil servants ahead of the meeting and told to walk in saying that Brexit presented huge opportunities. Any who didn’t were soon asked to leave. Since those early days, Davis has avoided those who highlight the complications of Brexit or who insist on reporting the views about Britain’s behaviour from the continent. Instead, he has surrounded himself with low-calibre ideologues and cultivated media contacts only with the most pathologically supportive columnists. Echo chambers tend to rot the brain and Davis’ echo chamber is no different. His speech to German business leaders was an unmitigated disaster, met with a mixture of bemusement and outright mockery.”

About John Street

John Street is Tribune's diary columnist.