As a hack who lived and breathed the financial crisis, you might think that at the start of 2008 and 2009 I would have been more anxious about what lay ahead than I am today. Wrong. In my understanding of the mechanistic link between a bust banking system and the wallop to our prosperity, I could at least broadcast about what needed to be done to clean up the mess. A problem understood is a mendable problem. I am more unsettled today than at any time in 35 years as a journalist because of a political paralysis that makes the destiny of this nation so uncertain. The Prime Minister’s Brexit plan, which would have us pay £39 billion for a largely unknown future relationship with the EU, is set to be defeated. But then what? A chaotic no-deal exit from the EU, which could see factories going on to three-day weeks and cancer sufferers running out of life-saving drugs? A referendum which would be viewed by alienated unemployed and low-income Brexit supporters as a betrayal of their chance to be heard? Even if we knew where we were heading, all destinations are fraught with economic and social costs. I’ll take a financial meltdown over a political one every time — because market confidence is easier to restore than national self-confidence.
If Theresa May loses her big vote, almost no one knows what she’ll do: not her cabinet, not her closest advisers. But if anyone knows her secret plan, it’s Philip May. Their relationship is a model of unusual mutual support and, despite my assiduous efforts to understand what makes her tick, this is probably the only important thing I feel I know about her. A few months ago I observed them at a dinner, where he kept the most continuous, tender and solicitous watch on a spouse I have ever observed. I daren’t suggest he’s her most important adviser (she accused the Tory deputy chairman James Cleverly of pernicious casual sexism for mooting just that). But it is not sexist to say we all rely on our partners, whatever our gender or sexuality, especially in a time of crisis. Her colleagues tell me that when he was on jury service for a fortnight before Christmas, she was visibly out of sorts, and spent more nights than usual at home in Berkshire rather than in No. 10. One member of the cabinet told me: ‘If we get out of all this in one piece, Philip will be a hero.’ For the avoidance of doubt, he was being sexist.
The yang to my ying is the journalist Charlotte Edwardes. The life-enhancing difference between us always comes to mind when listening to Billy Bragg’s ‘Must I Paint You a Picture’, in that she is always taking ‘the precious things we have apart to see how they work’ — which Bragg and I see as a temptation to be resisted. Bragg has been on my mind more than usual because C and I spent the end of 2018 at my favourite posh bed and breakfast, Mary-Lou Sturridge’s blissful Seaside Boarding House in Dorset, which is on a cliff next to Bragg’s well-appointed manor. For years I had believed West Country aristo gossip that the Corbyn-supporting workers’ rock troubadour was a closet nimby, who had tried to stymie the creation of the small hotel and its jobs for locals. Thank goodness one of the owners, Tony Mackintosh, put me right and insisted Bragg had been consistently supportive.
My political conscience these days is Audrey, Charlotte’s youngest. At the age of ten she has just come up with a plan to alleviate global poverty which she calls ‘Three Trains’: she wants all of us to buy a £5 ticket to raise the funds in order to fill trains with the expertise and materials to strengthen developing economies. I’ve been promoting Audrey’s venture to both frontbenches. This isn’t me indulging a child but a child indulging a political class sadly bereft of courage and ideas.
Not all of Audrey’s and her siblings’ friends were welcome guests over Christmas. A chunk of the holiday was spent spraying and combing to evict lice from my unkempt noggin. Sorry Jeremy Corbyn; some strays and waifs are unwelcome.
In my job it’s almost illegal to have heroes. But I admit to being awestruck by the young Irish novelist Sally Rooney. What I love about Rooney is not just that she writes about enclosed and small social worlds with a wit and universality that wouldn’t shame Angus Wilson or Jane Austen, but that she exposes prejudice and stupidity with devastating tenderness rather than alienating fury. She is the antidote to social-media hate — and her gentle realism is a rebuke to my neurotic Brexit pessimism. We’ll muddle through, as ever.
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