The changing of the guard at 10 Downing Street always creates opportunities for the commentariat. I don’t just mean it gives them something to talk about for the next week or two; it also provides a chance for reinvention and renewal.
Suppose you have been a relentless critic of Brexit for the past three years, convinced the British public made a catastrophic mistake. You’ve been pushing that line day in, day out, whether reviewing the papers for Marr or as a panellist on Politics Live. And let’s face it, you’re a little bit bored of hearing these same arguments coming out of your mouth. Well, the good news is, you can now change tack. You can join the Boris bandwagon and become a born-again Brexiteer.
In truth, I don’t expect Alastair Campbell, Matthew Parris and Carole Cadwalladr to buttonhole me in the Newsnight green room and say: ‘You know Toby, I’m beginning to think you were right all along.’ But some undoubtedly will. And the funny thing is, it won’t do their careers a jot of harm.
No one is likely to pick them up on their change of heart, because few people will remember what their previous positions were. Pundits are like TV wallpaper. Their job is to cover up the joins between news bulletins and political interviews. All that’s required is a vaguely plausible manner. Consistency from one appearance to the next isn’t part of the job description.
You might ask why they bother to take up positions at all. Shouldn’t they at least keep up a veneer of neutrality? The answer is that you’re much less likely to get booked if you don’t have an opinion on the burning issues of the day. Ofcom’s rules dictate that the panels on news and current affairs shows should be balanced, which means that if one of the pundits has a strong view on, say, free TV licences for the over-75s, another should have the opposite view. Moreover, the producers don’t want a studio full of reasonable, well-informed, impartial observers who begin each answer with ‘On the one hand…’. They want two Rottweilers who are going to go for each other’s throats. That’s entertainment.
The way to get booked as often as possible is to take up a position which is borderline indefensible. A case in point is Henry Newman, a former special adviser to Michael Gove and now director of Open Europe. In the past 12 months, he has become a virtual celebrity by being almost the only pundit in the western hemisphere willing to stick up for Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement. If you were a booker who had to find someone to appear opposite Steve Baker or Nicholas Boles, Newman was the only name in your Rolodex. At almost every hour of the day, he was on one channel or another, gamely sticking up for the beleaguered Maybot. Had it been a calculated career move — which I’m sure it wasn’t — it would have been a masterstroke.
I am hoping to carve out a similar niche over the ensuing months by being one of the few pundits to offer a full-throated defence of Boris. There will be those prepared to offer qualified support, but reluctant to go too far out on a limb.
Not me. I intend to crawl right out on to the very thinnest part of the branch until it begins to bend and crack under the strain and then start gesticulating with wild abandon. If, God forbid, we still haven’t left the EU by 11.55 p.m. on 31 October, I will be in the Sky studio, banging my fists on the desk, confidently proclaiming that he’s going to meet the deadline. And if I turn out to be wrong? Won’t matter. I’ll appear the following day, having done a complete volte-face, and no one will notice.
The great thing about this strategy is that there’ll be no shortage of pundits on the other side lining up to pour vitriol on the new Prime Minister. Initially, a few of my colleagues will be prepared to stick a cautious toe in the water — ‘Jury’s out’, ‘Could still pull a rabbit out of the hat’ — but as time marches on they will begin to retreat, making it harder for the bookers to find anyone prepared to go up against Campbell, Parris and Cadwalladr. I’ll be the last pundit on earth willing to stick up for Boris, which will mean an almost limitless demand for my services. This was Henry Newman’s great discovery. As the oxygen went out of Theresa May’s premiership, and her withdrawal agreement began to breathe its last, the great balloon of his career became more and more inflated. He is my new role model.