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Coffee House

Chris Patten keeps failing upwards – now he’s advising the Pope. Poor Pope.

10 July 2014

8:24 AM

10 July 2014

8:24 AM

There is a wearying inevitability to the announcement that Pope Francis’s reforms of the Vatican media will be overseen by Lord Patten of Barnes. Of course it was going to be him. It always is.

The man defies the laws of political gravity. As Margaret Thatcher’s environment secretary he was responsible for the poll tax. He walked away from the disaster unscathed, explaining that it was nothing to do with him, guv, it was Thatch. As Tory chairman he presided over Major’s 1992 victory but lost his own seat. He was made governor of Hong Kong, where he stood up to China. But he went native with a vengeance as an EU commissioner: according to Denis MacShane, former Europe minister, Patten was so Europhile that he might have been France’s candidate for Commission president in 2004 if only he spoke French.

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In 2003 he was elected Chancellor of Oxford University (he read history at Balliol though I can find no reference to his class of degree: if he got a First he has been uncharacteristically modest about it). In 2010 he became chairman of the BBC Trust, in which troubled role he drew heavily on his blame-shifting skills. As Peter Oborne wrote in the Telegraph, ‘the hallmarks of Chris Patten’s chairmanship have been a lack of grip and repeated evasion of responsibility. The grotesque pay-offs made to executives; the incompetence of management; the mishandling of the Jimmy Savile scandal: none of this apparently has anything to do with Lord Patten.’

A risky choice to reinvent the Vatican media, you might think, but you need to remember that Chris Patten is – to use a phrase that even he could translate – impeccably bien pensant. He belongs to a group of well-upholstered ‘progressive’ Catholics, including high-ranking soldiers and diplomats, who would whisper in the ear of the convivial Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor as they passed him the port. Cardinal Cormac, now retired, is still a virtuoso buttonholer of Vatican officials and friendly with the Pope. I’d be amazed if this appointment had nothing to do with him. Cardinal Vincent Nichols will have supported it, too. He owes Chris Patten, big time, after the latter was parachuted in to sort out the incredible balls-up Nichols’s officials made of preparations for Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain.

As president of the committee on Vatican media, however, Patten will report to a cardinal in a very different mould: George Pell, Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, an Australian ass-kicker who is not only a mate of Tony Abbott but also a climate sceptic who admires the work of our own James Delingpole. Unsurprisingly, Pell is no fan of The Tablet, a magazine for geriatric Catholic lefties whose trustees have included Edward Stourton, Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws QC, the Rt Hon Baroness Williams of Crosby and, it goes without saying, the Rt Hon Lord Patten of Barnes CH. Although Cardinal Pell welcomed Patten’s appointment this week, I suspect he has his doubts. After all, Lord Patten has been close to the heart of the English Catholic Church for decades and has never, to my knowledge, criticised its stupid and wasteful media department or the hijacking of Catholic charities by public-sector lobbyists.

How the Pell-Patten dynamic will work in practice is hard to predict; his lordship is good at forging unlikely alliances. But, whatever happens, we can be sure of one thing: he will walk away from this post, as he has from all the others, sporting his cold and chubby smile and looking for his next sinecure.

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