As pictures go, it could be career death. An amazing young talent caught in a compromising position with two older men. And it’s on my computer. The talent in question is Jack Whitehall, the brilliant actor/comedian, star of Decline and Fall and Bad Education, who was appearing at the Hammersmith Apollo last week. I went with my children to see the show and, afterwards, thanks to the kindness of an old friend, we were invited backstage to hobnob with Jack. My son and daughter posed for pictures with their idol and then their place by his side was taken by two less innocent characters. Jack’s father Michael is one of the greatest film and theatrical agents of our time, as well as a mordantly witty raconteur and on-screen foil for his son. He is also bracingly reactionary on almost every political issue there is. Which is why it’s no surprise that he should be a boon companion of the old friend who swung my backstage access, James Delingpole. Together, Michael and James are to political correctness what Jacob Rees-Mogg is to grime. The picture of the two of them smiling either side of Jack is probably about as credibility-enhancing among his fan base as a shot of him sporting a Vote Leave lapel badge and a Make America Great Again baseball cap. Which is why I won’t be releasing it. But it does make a great screen-saver on my departmental laptop.
Embarrassing pictures are a speciality of mine. Having posed thumbs-up next to Donald Trump, been snapped jogging in an extra-large T-shirt which barely stretched across my stomach and caught by a paparazzo with the world’s worst holiday beard (I looked like someone had stuck glue on my face and then dunked my head in a fox den) I know what its like to regret the existence of Google Images. But one picture taken of me last week I don’t regard as embarrassing. I was snapped sharing a drink with the former Downing Street Chief of Staff Nick Timothy. And the picture of that convivial catch-up was fed into the Westminster rumour mill. It’s impossible in politics to put right every misinterpretation of every action, to correct the mischievous spin placed on every activity, to ensure every false allegation is effectively rebutted. If you did you’d have time for nothing else. And besides, the rumours are often far more fun than the reality, so the reality doesn’t stand anywhere near as much of a chance of being remembered. The reality with Nick is that he’s a highly intelligent, gifted and principled man — genuinely original and rooted. I can’t comment on the details of the general election campaign, because I wasn’t in government at the time. But I do know that Nick, like a number of other people I admire who were once in the political frontline and are now elsewhere, is a big talent. He will be a huge asset for whoever hires him in the future —just as George Osborne has been for Evgeny Lebedev.
I may disagree with George on the odd issue. Like Britain’s relationship with the EU, our trading future and the exercise of democratic sovereignty. And as a Conservative minister, I certainly sometimes wince at the criticism his paper directs at the government of which I’m proud to be a part. Indeed, wince is putting it mildly. But no one can deny that, in journalistic terms, he’s proving a brilliant editor of the Evening Standard. He’s made the paper talked about in a way it hasn’t been since Paul Dacre edited it in the 1990s. He’s produced some great front pages. And he’s put the paper at the heart of critical debates Londoners care about. Some of my colleagues, understandably, do much more than wince in the face of his paper’s criticism of the government. They fume. They argue that George should show more loyalty to the Conservative party, to whose leadership he was once central. I get the emotional argument behind that feeling. But I disagree. Now that George is an editor, his first duty has to be to his readers, to be at their service, to call it as he sees it, to cover events in the way he feels they demand. Our free press is a precious thing. It depends on proprietors being able to appoint who they want, editors being able to say what they want and reporters being able to write what they want. Without them having to feel under any obligation to government. As George Orwell once pointed out, free speech doesn’t really mean anything unless someone is offended. And if the people offended are me and my colleagues then we need to accept that’s the price we pay for freedom.
My own freedom to speak, write and comment as I might wish is slightly more constrained now than it was before 9 June. Because I’m no longer a backbencher and Times columnist but a government minister and Environment Secretary. Even if I wished to opine weekly on the passing show, the sheer press of business in my new role would prevent me finding the time. In the last week alone I’ve visited Wales twice to talk to farmers, Northern Ireland to discuss meat-processing, Borough Market to support quality food retailers and Pimlico to discuss farmland bird numbers. Next week I’m in Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, West Sussex and Hampshire to explore pig-farming, fisheries protection, seabird conservation, re-wilding and hotel management.
Which is why I hope it’s alright if I’m allowed to relax the week afterwards by indulging for a few days in one activity that makes appearing with your thumbs up next to Donald Trump seem positively mainstream. I’ll be listening to 14 hours of opera. In German. In Germany. In August. In a room with no air-con. Dressed in a dinner jacket. Makes Max Mosley seem like a vanilla hobbyist in comparison, I suppose…