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Questions To Which The Answer Is No #546: Is John Rentoul ever wrong?

Since I inflicted my online ramblings on the world a couple of months ago, I’ve had the real honour – privilege, even – of featuring in John Rentoul’s renowned ‘Questions to Which The Answer is No’ column no less than three times. That’s three more times than Rentoul appears in the index of Tony Blair’s literary tour de force A Journey, and it’s not like he didn’t earn it.

Rentoul launched the column, you see, because he is a flickering flame of Blairite sanity in a world consumed by neo-Bennite madness. Fortunately, he has that rare political insight you can only get from scouring the internet for hyperbolic rhetorical questions to debunk.

My debut on QTWTAIN was number 474: “Will Cameron build a new political consensus?” Well, I can live with a “no” there – and if Rentoul had read the article (why should he?) he’d have seen that this was the conclusion I was leaning towards, too, not least because his man David Miliband had been defeated in the Labour leadership contest.

My second guest appearance was number 477: “The Tories: a party in terminal decline?” Sure, a provocative blog title: but I was reflecting on the fact that every time the Tories have won an election since 1955, it has been on a lower share of the vote than the time before; that while they won over half the Scottish vote in 1955, they are today almost a fringe party north of the Border; that they have not won a general election for nearly 20 years; and that they lost the last election with 36% of the vote, despite the most favourable political conditions imaginable.

Rentoul didn’t engage with any of these arguments – but then again, those hatchet jobs against Labour’s elected leader won’t write themselves.

I wouldn’t say I was flattered by these two appearances, but they’ve certainly been enough to provoke a wry smile. It’s my latest appearance – sensitive soul that I am – that has, I confess, wound me up a bit.

No, I wasn’t expecting Rentoul to second my proposal for Labour’s National Executive Committee to launch an inquiry into John Hutton’s recent conduct. Neither am I surprised that he thinks it is a “swivel-eyed” suggestion, even though he should bear in mind that large numbers of Labour party members and supporters think that providing political cover to a Conservative-led Government is about as treacherous as it gets.

I should confess, though, that I am amused at being described as “swivel-eyed” by a man who self-identifies as an “ultra-Blairite” with “slavish admiration” for Tony Blair, and who has led a near-obsessive personal crusade against current Labour leader Ed Miliband.

But it is his near-farcical misquoting of what I actually wrote that has rubbed me up the wrong way. According to Rentoul:

Jones scores an unusual double, by invoking both Godwin’s Law and the Everything Before the But Is Bullshit (scroll to end) rule in successive sentences. He wouldn’t go so far as to call Hutton and Alan Milburn, also advising the Coalition Government, “collaborators”, he says:

I recoil at carelessly throwing Nazi parallels around. But …

What I actually wrote was:

When it was announced that former Labour ministers had become advisors to the Conservative-led Government, former Labour deputy leader John Prescott denounced them as “collaborators“. I wouldn’t go that far, because it is intended to bring up memories of France’s Nazi-aligned Vichy regime, and I recoil at carelessly throwing Nazi parallels around.

But both Hutton and Milburn were appointed not for their expertise, but as political figleafs – and it is pointless to suggest otherwise…

I brought John Prescott up to show that anger at Hutton was far from confined to the left of the party (though, for all I know, Rentoul thinks Labour’s former deputy leader is a crypto-communist). I was both pointing out that a political moderate was going much further than I’d dream of going, and distancing myself from a pretty blatant violation of Godwin’s Law (I  have a big habit of calling examples out myself).

For the record, I think comparing politically unscrupulous senior uber-Blairites to fascist collaborators who sent hundreds of thousands of French Jews to extermination camps is as offensive as it is absurd. I asked Rentoul to make this clear, but he’s failed to do so: as someone else (who completely disagreed with me politically) put it on his blog: “But you are right to describe Rentoul’s witterings as a farcical distortion, just don’t expect that apology or correction – he is entirely incapable of it.”

And if anyone’s interested, I wrote a piece that argued people on the left should avoid hyperbole at all costs.

My Hutton blog was not the most erudite or informative piece I’ve ever churned out, even if I think it reflects the position of a fair number of Labour supporters. It was a hastily written blog in response to Hutton’s report on pensions, and to be honest I’m surprised Political Betting took it up.

I’m perfectly happy for Rentoul and others to stick it to me: but – and maybe it’s asking a bit too much – perhaps they could quote my “swivel-eyed” views accurately.

After all, I’m sure there’s enough objectionable material in context for them to sink their teeth into.


My thanks to the Independent‘s John Rentoul who, quicker than you can say ‘dodgy dossier’, has apologised for taking me out of context. Very sweet of him.

The only remaining objection I have is his choice of photo. Anyone who has met me knows I’m nowhere near that good-looking.

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