I went to a dinner for Toby Young, who has had some troubles of late, at this magazine’s gracious HQ, hosted by the editor. I was slightly dreading being beasted by a reptilian gathering of hard Brexiters, but it was in the diary. So I tipped up last Friday in a somewhat plunging jumpsuit and accepted only water as aperitif, wittering about not having done my column yet and having to do Newsnight later. Half an hour later I was knocking back claret and competing to tell embarrassing stories about Toby and it was still only 7.15 p.m. (the evening started at the ungodly hour of 6.30 p.m.). Over the beef I asked who the greybeard on my left was, across from Douglas Murray and James Delingpole. ‘He was the treasurer of Vote Leave,’ Tobes whispered back. And he seemed so nice! I read aloud rare extracts from Young’s juvenilia that had escaped the rabid attention of the Twitchfork mob, and reminded the guest of honour that he had repaid me for taking him and his wife Caroline on holiday to Marrakech last October by publishing his thank-you letter headlined, ‘My holiday hell with angry Remoaners’. I hope all goes well for my old mate. I can’t think of anyone more committed to the noble cause of improving state education who makes me laugh so much. Even though guests were split between libtards and the alt-right, we were all united by our love of Toby, whom I’ve known since I was a teenager. You can’t make old friends.
In the green room at the BBC, I stood worrying in front of the long mirror that my jumpsuit really was too much, even for post-watershed telly. Edward Lucas of the Economist grimaced in agreement. Then he fished for a safety pin he said he always kept in his wallet. Lucas did his turn at the top. Twenty minutes later Jenni Russell of the Times, Owen Jones of the Grauniad and I took our seats against a lurid backdrop of the Kremlin. The presenter Evan Davis turned to Owen first, but instead of answering the question, Jones went into a mystifying rant he’d prepared earlier about how the BBC was framing Corbyn as a commie stooge, by photoshopping his Lenin cap into a Russian fur hat and putting him in Red Square. On it went. I was bewildered. Why were we talking about Corbyn’s hat, not the national security crisis? I had no idea. I hadn’t seen the previous night’s edition, so when Evan came to me I thought I’d move away from Corbyn’s hat, and said I didn’t think the leader of the opposition should be called a traitor for failing to say that Putin had gone in person to Zizzi in Salisbury to spike the Skripals’ risotto with novichok. Not without some proof anyway. Or words to that effect. Many people on Twitter — with names like @JC4PM accessorised by red rose emojis — approved. The clip of me saying this was retweeted hundreds of times, but that is not usually a good sign in my experience. Meanwhile, fake hatgate went viral (two million social media hits). I staggered out to rehydrate with sauvignon blanc, and found the green room empty apart from Edward Lucas. ‘Why are you still here?’ I asked. ‘I’m waiting to get my safety pin back,’ he replied, as if surprised at the question. ‘It’s my Scottish blood.’
My husband was away but such was the impact of Friday’s Newsnight (inside the Beltway, anyway) that he called me from Barcelona to tell me I was a nutter. ‘Who else do you think did it, you fool?’ he raved. That’s not the point. I’m not saying that the Russians didn’t do it, but in plot terms, the most obvious perp — i.e. the actor who had the means, motive, etc — is the least interesting. The novelist in me wants more mysterious dark forces to be in the toxic mix simply for the sake of the narrative arc. My husband and I like to say that Brexit — the only thing we’ve agreed on for 25 years — saved our marriage. Ironic if Putin is going to destroy it after all.
Saturday morning. Still hadn’t written my column for the Mail on Sunday. But then — boom! At 9 a.m. I was scrambled. Tom Bower had dropped his latest payload of revelations, this time about the eyewatering extravagance of the ‘pampered prince’ in the Daily Mail (which had splashed £125,000 on the serialisation rights). Some of it would have made a Saudi prince blush. But one old friend of Charles and Camilla told me they were ‘quite happy to hunker down in Devon’ like the rest for hunting and shooting weekends. The only extra trouble the hostess ever went to for the duchess was to ‘put out more ashtrays’.
Rachel Johnson is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday.