by Stephen Tall on September 5, 2010
Anyone who has read Nicholas Jones’s previous books – especially Soundbites and Spin Doctors (1995) and Sultans of Spin (1999) – will look forward to a new tome from the BBC’s former political correspondent, who has proved himself to be an acute observer of the Westminster scene, and a fearless revealer of politicians’ trade secrets.
Campaign 2010, Mr Jones’s new work, is billed by publisher Biteback as “political theatre brought to a fresh level”. Can it live up to such hype? Sadly – and it genuinely pains me to say it, as I have high regard for his earlier works – the answer is no.
A book of two halves
The book essentially breaks into two halves.
The first 150 pages recount David Cameron’s rise without trace to the leadership of the Conservative party, right up until Gordon Brown’s decision to duck the chance of an early meeting with the voters in October 2007 (‘the election that never was’). Perhaps the general reader will find it an enjoyable recounting of recent history, but political devotees – presumably the bulk of the book’s intended target audience – may well find it pedestrian, with heavy reliance on press cuttings and very little insider gossip.
Even in this re-telling of the years 2005-07, there are some curious omissions. For example, one of the crucial components of Mr Cameron’s triumph in the Tory leadership race was the positive media attention garnered by US pollster Frank Luntz’s focus group for the BBC’s Newsnight – in which the Young Pretender was the runaway winner – at the start of the party’s 2005 conference week. Together with his slick campaign launch, and that speech, the Luntz findings catapulted Mr Cameron into pole position. There are, I should stress, lots of reasons to question Mr Luntz’s credentials; but to ignore his part in the creation of Brand Cameron is odd.
Also glossed over is David Davis’s clear victory (admitted even by Team Cameron) in the BBC Question Time leadership special – a forerunner to Mr Cameron’s failure in the first leaders’ debate. Nor is there any mention of Mr Cameron’s first attempt to crow-bar a ‘Clause IV moment’ by forcing all members to approve his bland statement of aims and values: the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson orgasmed, a nation yawned. In the end his true ‘Clause IV moment’ – the Coalition agreement – was forced on him by the voters.
Nor does Mr Jones give any space to questioning why the Tory party initially underestimated Gordon Brown, complacently assuming the British public would loathe the Iron Chancellor’s translation to Number 10 as much as Tory activists did. The Tory leadership was thrown completely by the Brown honeymoon: their only Plan B was a show of bravado and a last-ditch tax-cut. It proved to be enough, just, but there’s no analysis here of quite how ‘squeaky bum’ the summer and early autumn of 2007 was for Team Cameron. And, irritatingly, the tired myth – given wide prominence by the tribal Tory press and blogosphere – that Gordon Brown bigged-up the Arctic Monkeys in a desperate attempt to drink the kool-aid is recycled yet again.
On the news media’s hypocrisy…
Of course, even the first half of the book’s not all bad. Mr Jones makes a telling point about the media’s exclusion from the Coalition negotiations – which, as I’ve blogged before, has contributed to the ridiculously negative press to which it’s been subjected by the tribal press of both right and left.
There are also a couple of very entertaining illustrations of how political commentators are able to get away with just the kind of fallibility they would be swift to condemn if perpetrated by politicians. For example, Mr Jones notes how the hopes of the Cameron leadership campaign was written off in its early days by, among others, Michael Portillo, John Rentoul, Steve Richards and Simon Heffer. And again, in 2007, at the peak of the Brown honeymoon, pundits such as Andrew Rawnsley (‘Could Cameron turn out to be the Tories’ Kinnock?’) and Melissa Kite were quick to declare the Cameron leadership close to dead. Imagine if the commentariat judged themselves by the same exacting standards to which they subject politicians?
Is Coulson really all that?
The second half of Mr Jones’s book is far, far better, as it turns its focus to the role of the media in Mr Cameron’s eventual ascent to Number 10. Here the author is in his element, no longer so reliant on press cuttings but instead offering his own informed view of the interplay between the Tory leadership and the mass media.
If you read only one chapter of Campaign 2010, can I commend ‘Murdoch switches’, which provides an insightful view of the influence wielded by the media magnate, and the importance of the appointment of Andy Coulson as Mr Cameron’s spinner-in-chief. To those of us who know the former News of the World editor only through the illegal phone-tapping tactics he (apparently unwittingly) presided over, the portrait presented here offers a far more positive, at times almost hagiographical, antidote: Mr Coulson is depicted as a popular boss, superbly adept at his job.
Of course Mr Jones is now retired from his BBC post, and his view of the Cameron-Coulson dynamic appears to be based on seeing them, once, as the guests of the Journalists’ Charity. Compared with the close analysis he applied to the roles of the spinners in the Major and Blair governments from personal observation, Campaign 2010 is much more superficial.
Even in the second half of the book – generally interesting as it is – it is what’s lacking, or even missing, which is more striking. For example, in the chapter on how the expenses scandal affected politics, from the start of the Telegraph’s revelations in May 2009 onwards, Mr Jones is emphatic in his praise of Mr Coulson’s (and Mr Cameron’s) handling of the affair from a media management perspective, contrasting it with Labour’s sluggish response, partly as a result of Gordon Brown’s red-mist fury at the Telegraph for attempting to implicate him personally.
Which is all very well, but the Tories were hit just as hard as Labour were in the polls by the shenanigans of their duckhouse-buying-phantom-mortgage-capitals-gains-dodging-expenses-flipping shyster MPs: both parties lost 5% in the polls as a direct consequence of the public’s outrage, and the Tories never again managed to gain a consistent 40%+ score, which would have delivered them an outright majority at the election. Regardless of the media management, then, the political impact of the expenses scandal was at least as much as a disaster for the Tories as it was for Labour – yet to read Mr Jones’s account you’d imagine it was a (relative) victory.
Leaders’ wives but no Lib Dems
And then there’s the Lib Dems… Surely any comprehensive account of Campaign 2010 – climaxing as it does with the formation of Britain’s first peacetime coalition in 70 years – has to pay some attention to the other partner: its significant players and policies, its role in opposition, and the connections (or lack of them) between the Conservatives and Lib Dems in the last Parliament.
Yet there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, here. Sure, there’s an interesting enough account of the leaders’ debates – though nothing you won’t have picked up from reading the Sunday broadsheets during the campaign – but of the Lib Dems travails’ between 2005 and 2010 (which are hardly lacking in spice and intrigue) there is zilch. It’s a significant failing in a book which claims to offer a “chronicle of this riveting electoral saga”.
And it’s all the more perplexing a lacuna given Mr Jones finds space for a 21-page chapter on the leaders’ wives (not uninteresting as it happens, but still). Let me finish, though, on a positive note in connection with the spouses … Flick to the index, and I was at least pleased to note that under ‘Clegg, Miriam’ was the clear injunction, ‘see Gonzalez Durantez, Miriam’. Quite right, too.
To sum up:
This is the first of what will doubtless be many accounts of this most fascinating of elections. In truth, it is likely to be bettered. What marked out Nicholas Jones’s earlier works as classics of contemporary history was his first-hand knowledge of the dramatis personae and the telling anecdotes which illuminated their personalities. Where Mr Jones is always readable is in his assessment of the inter-connectedness of politics and the media, and these provide the best moments. But too much of this book is reliant on secondary sources to be of any real, lasting interest.