Does the failure of the Daily Mail to stop David Cameron’s leadership bid in its tracks mark a significant moment in the relationship between press and politics? Fear of the effect of ‘dirt’ on a leadership candidate is always very potent, and there has long been a belief among some Tories that the hostility of the Mail is fatal to a candidate’s chances of success (this despite the fact that the Mail promoted Michael Heseltine in the late 1980s and supported Ken Clarke not only this time but in 2001). So when the Mail decided to get agitated about whether David Cameron had taken drugs at university, and then started bawling the why-can’t-he-give-us-a-straight-answer routine, things looked black for the youngest entrant in the race. But his success this week proves that he has passed a key test, and is liberated as a result. One error that Cameron learnt from was that made by Michael Portillo when he tried to become Tory leader in 2001. By admitting his previous homosexual experiences, Portillo hoped to slough off the tabloid threats which had plagued him for years and get the credit for the ‘honesty’ for which the Mail always calls on these occasions. This did not happen. Those who had said they wanted honesty just called for more of it — Who? Whom? as Lenin asked in a rather different context. Those who found frankness on such matters unpleasant did not like the way the admission amounted to an unspoken demand for approval, when they would have preferred to offer quiet tolerance. Mr Portillo’s sexual identity became an issue which worried people, and limited his appeal. By not positively admitting drug use — though not indulging in dishonesty — Cameron left us the space to make up our own minds. If you support him, you don’t have to say, ‘Yes, I’m for druggie Dave,’ which would be difficult for some; you can simply say, ‘I respect Mr Cameron’s desire to protect some privacy.’ So funky people think he knows what they’re like, and the rest of us think he is quite respectable and restrained.
Even more important than Portillo, though, was George Bush. It was the way he handled allegations about his youthful drug and drink problems (much more serious than any of which Cameron stands accused) which the Cameron campaign studied and adapted. Mr Bush’s line was, ‘When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.’ This neatly combined apology with the charm of human fallibility, and avoided the horror of specifics. Admittedly, Cameron, unlike Bush, has only been born once, but his technique of differentiating his salad days from his current maturity still works. As a result, the Daily Mail is now in a weak position. Its third-time-unlucky candidate came last, and the likely winner owes it nothing. It will try to get its revenge, of course, and it is good at that. But if the Conservatives are ever to break out of the ghetto of opposition, they cannot afford to take orders from Derry Street.
The Pocket Book of Patriots was published last week. Behind it lies a tale of our times and, like so many authors’ stories, of struggle against the forces in our society most hostile to good books (publishers). It all began when George Courtauld, a youngish headhunter, husband and father with school fees looming, was sitting on a train one day. Near him were some jolly boys aged 13 or so with their grandmother. One boy had his arm in a sling, and his granny said, ‘Move over here, little Lord Nelson.’ He said, ‘Less of the “little”, Granny. And who is Lord Nelson?’ She said, ‘You know, Admiral Nelson.’ ‘Ah yes,’ he said, ‘the guy in Star Trek.’ Courtauld decided that this ignorance represented a national crisis, went home and wrote the Pocket Book of Patriotism, crystallising British glories in short and entertaining form. He took the manuscript to seven publishers, who all curled their lips. One said, ‘Who’s the market?’ Courtauld said, ‘Ninety per cent of the population. I’m patriotic; you’re patriotic.’ ‘Don’t you dare call me patriotic,’ said the publisher. ‘Anyway, patriots don’t buy books. They buy tacky little flags. Patriots are thick.’ All seven rejected the book, so George Courtauld published it himself, printing it on British paper, British-bound, in time for Christmas last year. Almost all wholesalers rejected it. But on the Monday after it appeared, it sold 37,500 copies off the website alone. A queue of 2,500 people appeared at Courtauld’s office, trying to buy. The book became the bestselling item even in the Labour party shop, presumably to its chagrin. Now the Pocket Book has sold 210,000 copies.
Hence the new Pocket Book of Patriots. The seven publishers who had spurned Courtauld wrote to him saying things like, ‘We’re so glad that you took our advice and followed your own dream. We’d love to publish your next book.’ George Courtauld is not a vindictive man, but he did not take up the offer. Instead, he accepted an invitation from Ebury Press. Using his headhunter skills, he wrote up 102 British patriots in the form of CVs. It starts with Boadicea and ends with the Queen, who comes last because she is just a little younger than Lady Thatcher. When he appeared on the Today programme to promote it, he explained how patriots inspired others. His wife, he said, had become a nurse because of what she had read about Florence Nightingale. He was attacked by Professor Lisa Jardine, who complained that the book was too cosy because no one in it had been born abroad. Courtauld was too polite to point out on air that the reason Florence Nightingale was so christened was that she was born in Florence…. Anyway, the first print run of 20,000 copies went within 24 hours, and the reprint was ordered.
So successful is the idea that Americans quickly grabbed it. Courtauld got wind of five attempts there to produce the equivalent, and since patriotic deeds and dates are not easy to copyright, he thought the best thing to do was to hurry up and get an American version done before anyone else did. The US Pocket Book of Patriotism, written by Jonathan Foreman, based on Courtauld’s template, was published last week by Stirling, the publishing house of Barnes & Noble. Even this has not been without its difficulties. In the section on charters, speeches and such like, the Ten Commandments had been included. American publishers thought that the separation of Church and State should apply not only to the Constitution but also to the bookshop. The book also includes the slogan of Samuel Colt’s revolvers: ‘The Lord God made all men equal. Samuel Colt keeps them that way.’ The publishers were in agony that this was ‘militaristic’, but it survived. Four thousand copies sold on its first day of publication in the US last week.