Tom Bower

Diary - 3 October 2009

Tom Bower opens his diary

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A week to enjoy the autumn sunshine by the sea. Gluttony is no longer fashionable but what better way to celebrate my birthday on Monday than to spend a few hours at the Royal Native Oyster restaurant in Whitstable? Sitting by the Kent beach, I confess to consuming 24 oysters, a crab, a lobster, two bottles of Pouilly Fumé, a plum crumble and Irish coffee. Thankfully my wife was more modest. All her entreaties for restraint were answered by my description of Samuel Pepys’s vastly superior daily consumption as described in Claire Tomalin’s wonderful biography. Inevitably, I later collapsed on the shingle rereading that day’s lead entry in the Times’s ‘Happy Birthday’ column. ‘I can’t believe you’re writing about my birthday and not Brigitte Bardot’s,’ I had told Russell Twisk the previous week at the Garrick. Naturally, I was thrilled, more so when I returned home and read a congratulatory email from a famous friend lamenting, ‘yours had a photo, which is more than I’ve ever achieved.’

One-upmanship was also the issue in sunny Brighton on Tuesday. ‘The Tory toffs,’ confided a senior minister walking by the sea, ‘are what Gordon really hates. Eleven old Etonians on the front bench, that’s what it’s all about.’ His exaggeration echoes Brown’s war against David Cameron’s privileged background, reflecting a career built on anti-English class warfare. Brown’s successful creation of New Labour depended on assiduously camouflaging his prejudices. Now, his pretence has been virtually abandoned. Readers of my unauthorised biography of the prime minister, published to critical scorn exactly five years ago, will not be surprised. But in 2004, political wonks inhabiting the Westminster village were unaware of Brown’s deep-rooted duplicity. Few realised how Brown’s rise to power across Whitehall depended on his saying one thing but doing the exact opposite. I unearthed stark evidence. While Bob Woodward followed Deep Throat’s exhortation to ‘follow the money’ to solve Watergate, my credo is always: ‘Find the victims.’ Decent people in Scotland and Westminster, and even Brown’s ex-girlfriends, related startling descriptions of his abusive behaviour. Even Sarah Brown suffered until Gordon was persuaded by Neil Kinnock that without marriage, he could not become Labour leader. This week she sang his praises, but even Labour supporters in Brighton now quietly concede that my biography of Damian McBride’s protector was too restrained. May 2010 cannot come soon enough.

Nevertheless, I hope never to be tempted to write an unauthorised biography about David Cameron. My niggling fear is Cameron’s ‘Ecclestone moment’. Namely, when the next prime minister is asked by an adviser to meet a colourful businessman seeking a favour. Until last year I felt pretty sure of Cameron’s moral judgment. My conviction was rattled by the sight of him addressing 1,000 guests at the annual fundraiser for Norwood, an important Jewish charity. Cameron’s host was Richard Desmond, the charity’s chairman, and to my horror Cameron praised the newspaper proprietor to the rafters. I assumed that Cameron had ignored the warnings about Desmond because his downmarket newspapers were proving useful to the Tory party. That prompted fears. Like Tony Blair, Cameron might succumb to billionaires.

Naturally I’m prejudiced against Desmond. Ten weeks ago, his bid to destroy my reputation in a libel trial was crushed by a jury. Despite the benevolence shown by Mr Justice Eady towards the plaintiff, Desmond’s testimony about his non-interference in his newspapers was rejected. Ever since, I have been inundated by well-wishers who always ask when my completed biography of Desmond will be published. Sadly, there are complications. Although I won the case and Desmond will have to pay about £1.5 million in costs, my very supportive publishers had to pay £100,000 excess on their insurance policy. There’s no chance of recovering that cash by publishing the biography. On Friday, I will seek a resolution. British and American libel lawyers have arranged a hearing in the City to persuade John Whittingdale, the Tory chairman of the Commons’ culture, media and sport committee, to promote reforms to Britain’s draconian libel laws. Several people have suggested that the committee should ‘read’ the Desmond book into the parliamentary record to obtain privileged protection of my account of his controversial career. Whittingdale’s reaction will test whether a Tory government intends to reverse Labour’s suppression of our freedoms and Judge Eady’s restrictive definition of England’s libel laws.

This week, my book The Squeeze: Oil, Money and Greed in the 21st century lands in the shops. The untold story of oil’s history over the last 20 years is folded into the account of how its price rose from $7 to $147 and then crashed past summer to $32 and is told through the lives of eight major players. The oil business attracts some scoundrels but there are also remarkably intelligent experts risking billions trading and searching for oil. Until last Saturday, I eagerly awaited publication day. Then my joy soured. ‘October 1 is going to be Super Thursday,’ my wife read from the Guardian, ‘800 books are published on the same day.’ Ever since, fears of its survival at Waterstone’s among the memoirs of divas, crack heads and celebrity chefs have prompted restless nights. Instead of a publishing party, I’m thinking of returning to Whitstable for the solace of oysters and wine.