Justin Welby, the nominated Archbishop of Canterbury, accepted his Spectator award for Peer of the Year (in recognition of his work on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards) by conceding that, after the General Synod rejected women bishops yesterday, he has achieved the rare distinction of losing a vote of confidence without having assumed office. This joke was the start of a masterful comic performance in what was, clearly, an off-the-cuff speech.
He went on to correct the Spectator: we had described him as a former banker when in fact he is a former financier of an oil firm (Treasurer at Enterprise Oil). ‘I learned to hate them then,’ he said with twinkling jest rather than righteous indignation. ‘But we forgive,’ the Archbishop-elect said. ‘It comes with the territory.’ Then he added that he didn’t mean any of that, again with wonderful comic timing. He ended his self-deprecatory homily by remarking that he is still learning not to say things. Then he added that he enjoys working with Nigel Lawson on the commission. Things are looking up for the Church of England, even at this dark moment. At lunch, the Bishop was asked whether he intends to use his new powers to campaign against these greedy bankers. “Actually, I’m more interested in God,” he replied. The table was silent: a bishop who believes in God?
Liz Truss, crowned Minister to Watch, was resplendent in retro seamed tights with a bow detail. She thanked her boss Michael Gove, saying “he hasn’t gagged me, he hasn’t tethered me in the department” to much guffaws from the audience. “Yes, Tory governments aren’t what they used to be,” said Fraser Nelson afterwards. Gove also accepted non-resignation of the year on behalf of Lord Hill, another one of his underlings.
It has been a busy afternoon for Sir George Young. The Chief Whip began by travelling to Buckingham Palace, where he accepted the Companion of Honour, awarded for, he said, ‘leaving the government’. Then he proceeded across the damp West End to the Savoy in order to collect his Spectator award of Resurrection of the Year, given for, as he put it, ‘re-joining the government’. The paradox appealed to him.
Boris Johnson made a muscular speech, asking for a ceasefire on press regulation. He compared himself to a bewildered shepherd staring at the crossfire in the night sky. It all started, he said, with the Daily Telegraphs making inquiries about he financial origins of Michael Gove’s sofa (from Oka, on expenses). It ended in a cycle of reprisals which may end up sacrificing Britain’s 300-year-old tradition of press freedom. “MPs, don’t you for one moment think about regulating a press that has been free in this city for more than 300 years,” he said. The “very feral fearlessness and ferocity” of the press “ensures that we have one of the cleanest systems of government anywhere in the world.” Gove applauded loudly.
As for Gove, he had earlier taken a swipe at Lord Leveson:
“It’s … a pity that His Honour Brian Leveson cannot be here so he could receive the Bureau of Investigative Journalism award for commitment to truth-telling for his wonderful comments: ‘I don’t really need any lessons in freedom of speech, Mr Gove, really I don’t’.”
As our own Rod Liddle put it: “yes you do, Brian me ol’ son, yes you certainly do.” As Boris left, he clutched his award and said “I’ll accept this award on behalf of… em… em…” Yes, we get the message Boris. The glory is all yours.
Andy Burnham accepted his award for Campaigner of the Year on behalf of the 96 families of the Hillsborough Disaster. He said that the award might make his mum buy the Spectator, which would, he predicted, push sales of the magazine on Merseyside into double figures. Special mention goes to Margaret Hodge who revealed that, unbeknownst to the people sitting at Mr Steerpike’s table, she had been born abroad (in Egypt to German refugees in 1944, as it happens) and had undergone a British naturalisation process in the 1950s. She felt that her award for Inquisitor of the Year, won for her leadership of the stirring Public Accounts Committee, would have pleased the immigration officers she encountered all those years ago because it represented quintessential Britishness. Mr Steerpike can think of no higher compliment.