Why is so much political journalism such rubbish? Why are such prodigal resources of energy, quick-wittedness and skill lavished by the parliamentary lobby on every trivial detail in the persecution of, say, Dominic Raab?
“We know no spectacle so ridiculous,” Macaulay wrote, “as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.”
So too the lobby. It makes itself ridiculous by concentrating on the most derisory details of some minister’s supposed misconduct, while insisting the attack is for the public good.
Perhaps it is. Perhaps some ministers lead better lives because they know the lobby is seeking any excuse to rend them limb from limb, while others, the weaker ones, are hunted to death.
The same has been said of foxes. Hunting is reckoned to improve the health of the fox population.
That is not, however, why people want to hunt them. They yearn to do so because it is a wonderful, exhilarating sport.
Forget for a moment any impulse to moralise. High-minded theories are all very well. Politics as actually practised is a blood sport.
Dominic Raab, Gavin Williamson and Suella Braverman are or were the most recent quarry, closely preceded by Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng, before which a blond beast rampaged across the political landscape for three years with excited members of the Westminster lobby in close pursuit.
Four of the six were hunted down, while Raab and Braverman have so far (with intermissions) survived, but might at any moment find themselves once more in mortal danger.
The lobby is trained and ready at a moment’s notice to follow any scent, no matter how faint, rival correspondents for different newspapers acting as a pack of hounds, each leaping at whichever politician is the hunted animal, drawing blood and emboldening the others to fresh frenzies of aggression.
The pursuit of Raab illustrates the collective nature of the sport. According to The Guardian, he created “a culture of fear” during his first stint at the Ministry of Justice, with 15 staff offered a “route out” when he recently returned to lead the department.
The Sun immediately weighed in with shocking new details:
“an insider told The Sun: ‘Raab wasn’t happy with the way he was being briefed. He began a tirade, opened his Pret salad and threw three tomatoes out into a bag across the table making a loud noise.'”
Lord McDonald, Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office when Raab was Foreign Secretary, took to the airwaves on LBC to agree it was “plausible” (a word actually spoken by Andrew Marr) that Raab has bullied staff.
No evidence was provided by Lord McDonald, but he smiled as if he wished he could say more, and incidentally he has a book to promote.
At an early stage in these stories, a moral issue is identified – bullying, for example, or sexual harassment – whereupon to defend the hunted minister opens one to the charge of condoning bullying, or sexual harassment, or whatever it might be.
All sense of proportion is lost, petty allegations are treated as evidence of monstrous crimes, Twitter loudmouths call for blood, Downing Street declares its full confidence in the minister, the BBC reports both sides of the story – allegations and denials – but with the implication that something pretty horrible must have been going on for things to have got this serious, the Opposition describes the charges as “deeply troubling” and demands an independent investigation, and Sir Keir Starmer declares in his most high-minded tone that the Prime Minister really must come clean and say what he knew and when.
It is impossible, if one is a lobby correspondent at Westminster, to stand aside from the full-blown crisis which rages, and any case, few experiences are more exhilarating than to be in at the death of a Prime Minister.
Every journalist, indeed everyone in the slightest bit interested in politics, will remember the first time he or she witnessed such a drama: in my case I was lucky enough in November 1990 to be in the Press Gallery to watch the fatal resignation speech delivered by Sir Geoffrey Howe, and 19 days later was in the crammed Committee Corridor on the evening it was announced amid almost unbearable excitement that Margaret Thatcher had fallen four votes – four votes! – short of beating Michael Heseltine by the necessary margin in the first round.
Such crises becomes all-consuming. You surrender yourself to the experience, and nothing else seems to matter. If you are a reporter, your news editor and editor demand constant reports from the front, and you want to distinguish yourself by revealing dramatic new charges, whether solid or flimsy, against the embattled minister, rather than just repeating what your rivals have said.
Such work requires the ruthless expertise to spot in an instant the two or three words in some dreary speech or answer which can be held to constitute a new development. The lobby are brilliant at this: they see the new angle, the incriminating admission, where a normal person would notice nothing.
News becomes an artificial commodity, an esoteric language only comprehensible to highly intelligent and practised correspondents, who translate it into the latest thrilling episode of a story which is intelligible to the dimmest of us, for it is as old as history: will the ruler live or die?
This question of life and death simplifies everything, and lends it a personal flavour. Does one like the look of whichever minister is just then being hunted, and hope he or she will get away? Or would one much rather see him or her bumped off?
The tyranny of the story extends to the comment pages. Leading articles and columns are written for or against the hunted person, most likely against, for it is much easier to write a vivid piece denouncing a politician for being disreputable than to compose a vivid defence.
In order to purify public life, the offending minister must be drummed out of it. Nothing which might serve this noble end is too cruel to be said; too piffling to be taken down and repeated.
Let the victim and his or her family cope as best they can. It would be wrong to spare them the full blast of public disgust. We find ourselves in a primitive world where human sacrifice is demanded; not in a rational one where events can be weighed and assigned their due importance, or unimportance.
Recall for a moment partygate, and how grown men and women, professional journalists with a complete grasp of their trade, spent months investigating who had drunk from, or even been present at the opening of, bottles of Prosecco which had been spotted on Downing Street desks (or in the case of Sir Keir how he justified raising a bottle of beer to his lips one evening in Durham).
The great moral issue which was held to justify such minute researches was the breaking of rules which the then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and his colleagues had drawn up. He had broken his own rules, so out he must go.
Voltaire remarked that in this country we kill an admiral from time to time “pour encourager les autres”.
There is a deep satisfaction to be derived from getting rid of a Prime Minister, so deep that we have in recent years got rid of three. For a short time, very short in the case of Liz Truss, we allow them to triumph, before restoring equality, for which all democracies have a deep yearning, by dragging them down with brutal abruptness to our own level.
So the lobby serves its purpose, which turns out to be an old-fashioned one. It’s a free country, as people used to say, before fox hunting was declared illegal.
As a traditionalist, I rejoice that we can at least still hunt our politicians. The lobby does it very well. The process is neither fair nor kind, indeed often looks, to a detached observer, monstrous. But it is one of the fiercest checks on arbitrary power that we have.
It was in 1828, when public opinion was making itself felt as a force which politicians could not ignore, that Macaulay remarked, “The gallery in which the reporters sit has become a fourth estate of the realm.”
The press was in the process of replacing the London mob, which smashed the houses and overturned the carriages of politicians it had taken against.
What the lobby does, or helps Conservative politicians to do, is the modern version of an ancient and savage tradition. All else is forgotten while the tribe slays its chief.