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Theresa May probably thought she was playing clever politics when she put Boris Johnson, a potential rival, into the Foreign Office. First, he would be abroad much of the time and therefore out of the limelight and unable to plot against her. Second, the Foreign Office requires diplomacy and, whatever Johnson’s merits, that isn’t among them. May set him up for isolation, obscurity and failure.
It hasn’t worked. Johnson is too accident-prone for a department that runs tangible public services – make him Home Secretary and half the nation’s prisoners would have escaped within a week – but, short of war breaking out, the Foreign Office holds few risks for an ambitious politician. Johnson’s “gaffes” – threatening the Italians that we won’t buy their Prosecco, blaming the Saudis for wars in the Middle East – aren’t gaffes at all. They are calculated attempts to get himself noticed, win public approval for putting foreigners in their place and challenge May to fire him and make him a martyr. So far, his gaffes are working.
Don’t expect the government to try to stop Rupert Murdoch’s £11.2bn bid, predicted in this column in October, to buy the 60 per cent of Sky that he doesn’t already own. A similar bid was withdrawn in 2011 after a public outcry over phone-hacking. Sky was then called BSkyB and the bidder, now 21st Century Fox, was News Corp. But Murdoch was and is behind them all and not much else has changed: if anything, hacking turned out to be even more widespread in his papers than was then thought.
May met him in September. An understanding was almost certainly reached. Don’t believe denials. It was persistently denied that Murdoch had met Margaret Thatcher to discuss his bid for the Times and Sunday Times in 1981, which Thatcher’s government refused to refer to the regulatory authorities. Three decades later, Thatcher’s private files showed that the meeting indeed took place.
It is hard not to laugh at Americans’ indignation over Russia’s alleged meddling in the US elections. For at least a century, the US has done everything possible to influence the outcomes of other countries’ elections.
Just after the Second World War, the CIA lavished money on Italy’s Christian Democrats and invented sex scandals to discredit left-wing leaders. In Iran in 1953, the CIA launched a successful coup to overthrow the democratically elected Muhammed Mossadeq. In Chile in 1964, it spent $4m on “covert action projects” to stop the socialist Salvador Allende winning an election. After Allende won the presidency at his fourth attempt in 1970, the CIA organised a coup to oust him. As US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton herself opposed the reinstatement of the elected president of Honduras after a military coup in 2009.
Americans should be thankful that they are unlikely to suffer a coup because, as the Latin American joke has it, there’s no US embassy in Washington.
At a reunion of former Observer hacks (I worked there from 1968 to 1975), I talk to Geoffrey Lean, formerly of the Daily Telegraph and Independent on Sunday as well as the Observer. and widely described as the doyen of environment correspondents. How fares the planet, I ask. Not well, he says. The year 2016 is poised to be the hottest on record, beating 2014 and 2015, the previous record-holders. Wasn’t October unusually cool? Only by recent standards, Geoffrey explains. It was hotter than any October before 1998 and this November beat all previous Novembers for warmth.
Readers of most British newspapers can be forgiven if they are only dimly aware of this alarming intelligence. By my calculations, ten global-warming sceptics – including the Sunday Telegraph ’s Christopher Booker, the Mail on Sunday ’s Peter Hitchens and the Times ’s Matt Ridley – have regular columns in the main sections of national newspapers. I ask Geoffrey how many columnists in national newspaper comment sections accept the overwhelming scientific consensus and write about the subject as often as the sceptic ten do. “There used to be four of us,” replies Geoffrey, whose contract with the Telegraph ended last year. “But three of us have been sacked in the past 18 months.” The Guardian ’s George Monbiot now stands as the lone “warmist”.
Amazingly, climate-change deniers still portray themselves as a beleaguered minority, struggling to get a hearing.
Loughton, Essex, where I live quietly and unfashionably, is a town of “handsome Tudorbethan architecture”. Not my description but that of the Daily Mail. which devotes a double-page spread to Loughton’s high street, featuring the loss of “once-loved” independent retailers and the rise of “unlovable replacements” such as estate agents and coffee shops. I am in sympathy with the Mail ’s general drift, but I cannot quite share the sniffy tone about the spread of beauty clinics, nail bars and Pilates studios. Almost every day, I read reports about how machines will soon destroy most people’s jobs. Then I walk down the high street and marvel at how human beings manage to prosper by selling each other services that nobody previously thought were needed.
When I get up on Christmas Day, I shall light a fire. It will be one of a diminishing number of days that I do so. That is partly because of environmental worries but also because, as I get older, logs and coal seem to require too much physical exertion.
As I carry the loads from the cellar, my body simultaneously struggling with the effects of seasonal overindulgence, I shall reflect that my parents did this every day for more than 40 years. Forget motor cars, TVs, vacuum cleaners and washing machines. The most transforming technology of my lifetime was domestic central heating.
Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS .