Robert Peston

Diary - 14 July 2016

Also in Robert Peston’s diary: sympathy for Tony Blair; stung by Piers Morgan; the Leadsom moment

Diary - 14 July 2016
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I first met a boyish, sunny Tony Blair more than 20 years ago. Our encounters have always been slightly tense since I reported some clumsy remarks he made about tax when he was still an apprentice PM — and he reacted much as Andrea Leadsom did against the Times last week (though via A. Campbell rather than Twitter). On Wednesday afternoon at Admiralty House he is a stricken caricature of how he was: painfully thin; waxy skin; astonishingly terrible teeth. He is a brilliant actor but not that good: he has been tormenting himself over Chilcot. But he isn’t sorry for the invasion, as he told me, and would do it again if circumstances repeated. His journey from fêted hero in 1997 to perhaps the most isolated man in Britain is a national tragedy. That said, he still knows the tricks. My cameraman Chris told me afterwards that Blair played to an imaginary audience just to his left with a skill and pathos like no other politician.

Later, at the Spectator party, I run into one of Michael Gove’s team, and ask if that now notorious email by Sarah Vine, his wife, was leaked deliberately as part of a fiendish plot to soften people up for his betrayal of Boris. I am shown another message that supposedly proves Vine was being clumsy-fingered and had accidentally sent the incendiary email to a consumer products PR. So was that the source of the leak? It would be a brave PR who would pass such a message on and risk alienating a columnist as formidable as Vine. I suspect we don’t yet have all the jigsaw pieces.

At Wimbledon I run into a hedge-funder, and ask whether Britain is now the Big Short. He funded the Leave campaign and has made a colossal fortune from betting on sterling’s post-Brexit fall. Does he think leaving the EU will make us all richer? Well, not before creative destruction on a terrifying scale. Like me, he fears a ballooning in the UK’s already excessive current account deficit — which would precipitate a further fall in the pound of at least 10 per cent. That would be inflationary and force an increase in the cost of capital. We would see sharp falls in asset prices and potentially a deep recession. Maybe we would emerge as an economy leaner and meaner in the long term. But only after huge pain for millions, especially the poor — although my hedge-fund pal and his chums would become considerably wealthier from their short-sterling position. ‘People don’t really like the rich very much at the moment,’ he says to me. Oh dear.

At a north London dinner party, my neighbour is the Times interviewer Rachel Sylvester, who suddenly becomes a bit distracted — because Andrea Leadsom has just accused her on Twitter of ‘the worst gutter journalism I’ve ever seen’. Oof. I don’t even have to see the Times headline or hear Rachel’s account of what happened to know Leadsom is in trouble. Earlier in the day her aide told me that she would not appear on my show or do any media on Sunday, the first proper day in the leadership contest, because she needed to recharge.

Preparing for my show, I have to take a sharp intake of breath. Piers Morgan in the Mail on Sunday quotes me as saying that Boris Johnson would have been ‘an absolute shambles as prime minister’. I probably did say it. I worked for Johnson at this magazine, and he drove me bonkers with his dithering and changes of heart. But that’s not the point. I wasn’t on the TV sofa with Piers; I was having a jolly private chat with him at the birthday party of mutual friends. Still, that’s too nice a distinction for him and I should have known better. Biter bitten.

Having just done the last of the first series of Peston on Sunday, I suddenly feel overwhelmingly sad. Dad died ten days before episode one. I wish he had seen it.

On Monday, Angela Eagle, standing in front of pink Union flags, announces her mission to defenestrate Corbyn. I am trying to remember what I didn’t ask her yesterday on the show when my paparazzo cousin Alan Davidson asks me if I’ve heard that Leadsom is making a statement. Flippin’ ’eck. Quick call confirms she is over in Cowley Street, about to pull out of the Tory leadership contest. I have to dash, because we’ll have a new PM any minute now. But no one tells Eagle, who very generously — and on live television — calls me out to ask her a question, when I am already hot and sweaty half a mile away. Hope Eagle forgives me. I tweet her that I am pretty sure Leadsom didn’t quit the Tory race with the express purpose of destabilising her attempt to make Labour electable — though in these strange days you can’t be sure.

Robert Peston is ITV’s political editor.