‘I had no idea what a news story was’ — Peter Oborne, former Spectator political editor, has abandoned the office and become one of New Labour’s most feared political commentators. James Silver meets him
Monday 30 October 2006 10.37 GMT
One of the greatest anecdotes ever to appear in Street of Shame, Private Eye’s Fleet Street gossip column, concerns the rightwing political commentator Peter Oborne, affectionately known to Eye readers as Peter O’Bore.
One crisp February afternoon, having enjoyed a formidable lunch, the writer – then with the Express – disembarked at Embankment tube station realising that not only had he got out at the wrong stop, but he also desperately needed to relieve himself. “I looked around and couldn’t see a loo anywhere,” recalls Oborne sheepishly, “there was only one of those waterman’s steps leading down to the Thames. So I went down the steps but there was a lady tourist looking, so I went a bit further … and then I slipped in the tidal slime and … SPLOSH!”
A few moments later, he emerged sodden from the pigeon-grey river and, instead of hailing a taxi and going home for a change of clothes, marched up Temple towards the Strand and squelched through the doors of the Savoy Tailors Guild, where he bought a new suit, before returning to work.
I recount the story not to embarrass him, though it doubtless will, but because the scene could have been plucked from one of PG Wodehouse’s stories and it marks Oborne out as one of the more colourful personalities in British journalism.
Yet, despite the Boris Johnson-style buffoonery, Oborne – like Johnson – has a keen intellect. He churns out coruscating copy and few writers can match him when it comes to bringing the frequently dreary world of politics to life. Moreover, he has emerged as a Blair-baiter-in-chief, a trenchant critic of what he sees as New Labour’s smoke-and-mirrors mendacity in office.
Like all good hacks, he occasionally gets up noses too. Not least, when – in a finger-wagging exchange at the Labour party conference in Blackpool in 2002 – the BBC’s Andrew Marr described him as “a sanctimonious shit” who will “do anything for money,” after Oborne criticised Marr’s coverage of the Major-Currie love scandal in the Mail on Sunday.
One thing Oborne, 49, concedes he did for money – as well as the vastly increased readership – was end his tenure earlier this year as political editor of the Spectator (although he remains contributing editor) to join the Daily Mail as political columnist. He insists the decision pains him to this day. However, his pay rise – which saw him swap £500-a-week for an annual salary reported to be in excess of £200,000 – must have helped.
“I still feel very sad about it,” he sighs, “because I was blissfully happy at the Spectator. But it was just that the Mail came along with this offer …” So it was entirely down to the peanuts-level wages the Spectator pays its writers? He laughs. “Yes. It was like the merchant banks in the old days. If you worked for Lazards you were expected to have a private income … No, really, it was a wonderful place to write and I miss it.”
Over much of the last decade, Oborne has written extensively about what he describes as the “rise of the media class”. He argues that Britain has been governed by a political establishment working in cahoots with this compliant group, which is “estranged from ordinary people” and has accumulated “social, economic and political power … at the expense of the great institutions of state, the monarchy and the church.”
Though he is no cheerleader for David Cameron, Oborne – a Tory who believes in “civil society in its fullest sense and in institutions from the army to the Rotary Club” – admires the Tory leader, not least for the “alliance” he has forged with the media class. He explains: “New Labour captured the media in a completely brilliant way, so that the whole public debate – from the BBC, through the Guardian, the Times and, amazingly, even the Sun – was conducted through the media in the parameters New Labour wanted.
“The three Tory leaders after Major – Hague, Duncan Smith and Howard – were not media-class figures. In fact, they attempted to resist the media and speak beyond it to Tory voters. But Cameron and [his adviser] Steve Hilton, the most important man in Conservative politics, have concluded that the only way he could get the Tories back to power was to engage with the media to get their story across … and make these gigantic changes of style and substance.”
But Oborne also acknowledges that those changes have opened up a chasm within the party, alienating more traditional Tories such as his friend, Jeff Randall, the Daily Telegraph’s editor at large, and associate editor, Simon Heffer. “It would be much better if Cameron brought the Randalls and Heffers with him,” he says.
“He needs the people they speak for, the ordinary decent people who are naturally Conservative. I think Cameron is wrong to try to estrange them. There is a misperception that he has to have a Clause 4 moment, and that Randall and Heffer are sort of Scargill figures when, in fact, they are old-fashioned Conservatives who probably just need to be hugged like hoodies.”
Although he “very nearly voted for Tony Blair” in 1997, these days he finds New Labour infuriating. He is incandescent about government ministers’ “litany of condemnation” of Muslim women who wear the veil and has characterised it as an “anti-Islamic crusade”.
“John Reid is the most sinister British politician in the last 50 years,” he claims. “He wrote a great big article asking Muslims to hand over their kids if they suspect they are involved in terrorist activity in the Sun. That’s really going to reassure Muslims! If you want to bring Muslims with you, I would humbly submit that you should not talk to them through the Sun …”
He starts to sound very cross now. “I think this is the most shaming thing this government is doing. It is fighting the war on terror for domestic political purposes. New Labour has given up on the Muslim vote after the Iraq war, so it’s now bashing Muslims to get back the white working-class vote and the veil row is a very carefully orchestrated political strategy.”
Born in 1957, Oborne, who lives with his family by Highbury Fields in north London, went to Sherborne school before going on to read history at Cambridge University. He describes his 20s as “a complete shambles, really”. After “messing around with a PhD”, he joined City bank NM Rothschild in the corporate finance department and quit after three years. At 27, with £500 savings in the bank, he spent the next six months trying to write a novel. When the cash ran out – and the novel remained stubbornly unfinished – he started writing articles on spec, finally landing a job on Financial Weekly magazine.
By 1986, he had moved to the Evening Standard’s City office before being poached by Max Hastings to join the Daily Telegraph, where his career hit the buffers once more. Oborne had been hailed by his new boss in an interview in Press Gazette as “the salvation of the Telegraph’s City pages”, but promptly fell flat on his face, storming out after a blazing row with City editor Neil Collins. After “crawling back to the Standard and spending two years as a casual”, he was sent by editor Paul Dacre to the lobby, as a junior political reporter. Oborne found the ensuing months so stressful that he lost a stone and a half in weight.
“The problem was I had no idea what a news story was, let alone how to write one,” he confesses. “The Maxwell pensions story was the big story at the time and I was sent to cover a pensions committee meeting in the Commons. I couldn’t make out what the hell was going on. Then I was called out of the meeting and told it was the lunchtime splash. I sat in front of the screen trying to work out how to turn my gibberish into a story, with messages coming through every few minutes from the news desk saying ‘Copy Needed’. Eventually, [political editor] Charles Reiss was forced to sit in my chair and attempt to disentangle it. It was a very public humiliation and my stomach was on the floor.” But that night, fearing he might be sacked, Oborne received a call from Dacre himself. “He said: ‘I hear you got into a bit of a scrape today. Well, don’t worry, we’ve still got faith in you’.”
In 1996, he was hired by Sue Douglas to become political commentator on the Sunday Express where he stayed for five years, also writing for the Daily.
The day he left to join the Spectator was the last Oborne ever worked in an office. Currently working on another political book provisionally entitled Triumph of the Political Class – as well as writing his Mail column – from home, he says “wild horses” could not drag him back into an office.
“If you’re a writer in an office there are always executives who hate you. They want to destroy you because they’re envious. They see you going off to lunch and in order to show that they count, they want to demonstrate that you as a writer don’t. So you have to deal with this bollocks all the time …”
He leans back on the sofa. “These days, I don’t have to put a suit on and I can just shamble around Highbury going to the local cafe for lunch …” It sounds like a wonderful life. And, happily, at a safe remove from the Thames.
Sherborne school, Dorset, and Cambridge University
1981-84 NM Rothschild 1986-87Evening Standard 1987 Joins Daily Telegraph, stays five months 1987-96 Evening Standard, City reporter, then political correspondent 1996-2001 Sunday and Daily Express, political commentator 1999 Publishes Alastair Campbell biography 2001-2006 The Spectator, political editor; Evening Standard, columnist 2002 Makes Channel 4 film in Zimbabwe; later reports from Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan 2005: Publishes The Rise of Political Lying 2006 Daily Mail, political columnist