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Press: Sobering lessons from a past leadership crisis

10 June 2022


ONE of the most important things that I ever learned about journalism I was taught as a leader writer at The Independent in the middle of a Conservative leadership crisis.

This was 1992, and the issue was Europe, of course — whether Britain should continue the policy of shadowing the Deutschmark, as it then was, within the ERM, an early precursor of the euro. George Soros had bet against the pound: this would shortly make him unimaginably rich, but, for the moment, the official line from the Chancellor and the Prime Minister was that we would persevere. Meanwhile, about half the Cabinet and some of the most powerful backroom figures were briefing furiously against their own government to selected journalists.

The pressure mounted until, on the night of 15 September 1992, Matthew Symonds, the deputy editor, dictated the paper’s line for me to write up: that the Bank of England must stand firm and defend the pound. As someone ignorant of both politics and economics, this seemed reasonable to me. But, I asked, surely we should have something to say to our readers about the possibility of failure? No, he said. We must on no account admit the possibility.

The next day, when the leader appeared, is remembered as Black Wednesday. The pound crashed out of the ERM, despite the Chancellor’s threatening to raise interest rates to 15 per cent. The Conservative Party did not recover for decades. But the episode did no harm to Mr Symonds, whose daughter, Carrie, is now the third Mrs Boris Johnson.

The point of the leader was to demonstrate Mr Symonds’s power and fealty to whichever politician he was then courting. What I learned then was that you can build a position as a political commentator either by your exceptional skill at revealing the truth, or by exceptional dedication to denying it.

This is a great help when trying to understand the front pages of the Mail and the Express on the morning after the vote of confidence: “Boris vows: I’ll bash on” and “Defiant and unbowed Boris: I’ll lead the party to victory”. The intended readership is not the people stupid enough to believe this, but the players clever enough to appreciate the audacity of the lie.

EARLIER, The Times had sent two political reporters to interview the Archbishop of Canterbury. He had them attend morning prayer in the crypt at Lambeth Palace first; perhaps, as a result, he was remarkably unbuttoned. “Discovering the identity of his true father did not affect him negatively, he says. His main concern was to protect his mother. ‘The two groups of people you really don’t want to talk about sex with or know about their sex life is your parents and your children. . . So to have to ring up your mother and say, Do you remember?’ She had no idea. She said, ‘I am an alcoholic and I was drunk.’”

Archbishop Welby remarked earlier in the interview: “My mum was working in No. 10 and one thing leads to another. You put young, bright people under enormous pressure in close quarters and then you’re astonished that it doesn’t all go terribly well. Well, dream on, where’s your understanding of human nature?”

Of course, nothing like that could happen today. We have the Prime Minister’s word for it.

The Archbishop was clear about his right to political statements: “The idea that I shouldn’t be political . . . is a nonsense. Everyone is political. People like Boris Johnson know that perfectly well. . . every single person or institution or group lives within a political context, every decision we make is a political decision.” However true this is, I doubt very much whether Lord Williams or Michael Ramsey saw the world that way, although others among his predecessors undoubtedly did.

THIS interview was conducted before the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas (News, 27 May/3 June); so no one asked the Archbishop about the problem of evil. But the Revd Tish Harrison Warren, the New York Times’s token Anglican writer, lives a few hours’ drive from the massacre site, and, in her weekly newsletter, had the unenviable task of defending “thoughts and prayers” — a phrase that is the traditional response of politicians who do not wish to antagonise the gun lobby.

The result was an education in the many meanings of prayer. There was the pastor who prayed “Give pastors wisdom as everyone tries to use this as a political football” — about the most political take possible. She went on: “I asked him what he meant by that. He told me that the church needs to stay out of politics. . . He told me that too many people ‘weaponize tragic situations’ for political gain.”

“Weaponise”, indeed.

But, for the most part, her story was a moving depiction of people for whom prayer was not a substitute for action, but its wellspring and nourishment. It is a pity that she was preaching to the converted: her piece, at 2500 words, was far too long to make the main paper, and appears as a newsletter for interested subscribers.

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