Watching the general election from my newsroom is an out-of-body experience. I’ve been involved in the last five general elections variously as photocopy boy, parliamentary candidate, shadow minister, campaign manager and chancellor. This time I’m reporting on the election as editor of the Evening Standard. I have a lot to learn; but I have a great team to help me. There is something remarkable, magical even, about the way every day tens of thousands of words are written on everything from the implications of the French election to Arsène Wenger, to this summer’s trendiest cocktails; then laid out on pages with striking pictures and adverts; printed on a million copies; and delivered to hundreds of tube stations, supermarkets and the like around our capital every afternoon — all so you can have in your hand a daily quality compendium on what’s going on in the world. And it’s free. Amazing.
Newspapers should inform in an entertaining way. To help do that we have reintroduced the political cartoon into the pages of the Standard, the home of some of the greatest cartoonists in the history of Fleet Street from Vicky and Jak, to Low. Low’s depiction in the Standard in June 1940 of the British soldier standing on the cliffs over a stormy English Channel under the caption ‘Very well, alone’ is probably the most famous cartoon of the 20th century. It’s a high bar, but our new cartoonist Adams is off to a strong start. He was thrown a tough challenge on day three when it was announced at 10 a.m., an hour before our deadline, that Prince Philip was retiring from public life. I asked Adams whether he could produce a new cartoon. It normally takes him a couple of hours, but 40 minutes later he had done a brilliant drawing of the Duke turning out the light on his black taxi cab. There was one problem. The ink wouldn’t dry. So he stood there frantically giving it a blow dry with a hairdryer borrowed from the features department. It made the first edition.
All the papers have been filled with stories from people who have met the Duke of Edinburgh. I can now tell mine. Early on during my time at the Treasury, I was announced to the receiving line at the state banquet in Buckingham Palace for the President of Indonesia as ‘Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer’. The President looked a little bemused, so the Duke turned to him and explained: ‘He’s the man in charge of all the money.’ He then paused, and added helpfully: ‘Except we haven’t got any money left.’ On another occasion, I found myself answering engineering questions from him about why we had chosen a pressurised water reactor design for the new Hinkley Point nuclear plant. The interrogation I faced from this remarkable nonagenarian, covered in medals and gold braid, was considerably more taxing than any I got on the issue from any parliamentary committee — or journalist.
Last Thursday lunchtime I was walking along Portland Place, outside the BBC’s HQ, and looking at my mobile at the same time. Suddenly a moped swooped past me on the pavement, and the passenger on the back reached out and tried to grab my phone. His hand slid off, the moped sped away, leaving me still clutching the phone and completely stunned. At next morning’s news conference, our picture editor said that he’d got hold of an extraordinary photo of two thugs on a moped, with the one on the back wielding a hammer. We put it on the front page, and it was picked up by the dailies. When we asked the sharp-witted photographer Ian Lawrence where and when the photo was taken, he replied: ‘Yesterday, on Portland Place.’
The new Conservative candidate for my old seat of Tatton is Esther McVey — and I’m thrilled for her. It’s a wonderful part of the country, and she is a spirited and courageous campaigner. She helped me promote the Northern Powerhouse, which is championed through the not-for-profit partnership that I helped create and now chair. I first met Esther 15 years ago or so, when we sat next to each other at an amazing fancy-dress party that Nick Boles threw at Wilton’s Music Hall in the East End of London. Nick is simultaneously recovering from cancer and campaigning to be re-elected to Parliament — an extraordinary, brave feat that we should all applaud. The clever, funny after-dinner speech was given by someone dressed in the scarlet robes and wearing the square, ridged Biretta cap of a cardinal. It was very convincing. Michael Gove may have missed his true calling.