20 NOVEMBER 1999, Page 38


Max must be spared the terrible fate of Charles Wintour and Stewart Steven


Several weeks ago I wondered in this column how John Major would treat Stewart Steven in his autobiography. From 1992 until 1995 Mr Steven was edi- tor of the London Evening Standard, and during Mr Major's darkest days he was for ever popping around to Downing Street to pat the Prime Minister's trembling hand and listen to his tales of woe. For a time Mr Steven was virtually Mr Major's only supporter among newspaper editors. Many of his friends were surprised that he did not receive a knighthood in Mr Major's resignation honours, but we lived in the hope that Mr Major would at least acknowledge his enormous debt when he came to write his book. Surely at the very least he would have something to say about those indispensable fireside chats.

Readers will find this difficult to believe, but Mr Steven's name — Sir Stewart's name, as by rights it should have been does not even appear in the index. The nearest Mr Major gets to acknowledging the existence of his old stay and comforter are a few brief sentences referring to his leadership battle with John Redwood in July 1995.'1 accepted an invitation to place an article in the London Evening Standard. It was a good shop window because the paper is widely read in the Commons tea room by the electoral college of MPs. It would also provide copy for the media the following morning.' Whatever lingering feelings of sympathy I still had for Mr Major have been destroyed by the chilling egotism of this passage. Mr Steven had cleared the decks to assist his old friend in his do-or-die battle with Mr Redwood, but all the ex-Prime Minister can think of is some petty advantage that may have accrued to him.

It is a cautionary tale and I am deter- mined to do all I can to ensure it is not repeated. That is why I am today launching a campaign for Max Hastings, Mr Steven's successor as editor of the Evening Standard, to be awarded a knighthood. Oddly enough, Max does figure in the autobiogra- phy. Mr Major writes, in recollecting the run-up to the last election: 'I predicted that the London Evening Standard, under the editorship of the disaffected and unsympa- thetic Max Hastings, would be truly awful for us.' So, indeed, it was. The paper, so loyal to Mr Major during Mr Steven's reign, turned against the Tories with a vengeance, and advised its readers to vote Labour in May 1997. Since then Max has declared that he is no longer a Tory, turned his guns on William Hague, and become an almost demented supporter of the euro and the European Union. I recently remarked here that he might be rather well suited to edit- ing the Guardian.

Not surprisingly, Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell are head over heels in love with this renegade Tory. He does not give them much trouble. From time to time Max is summoned to his own fireside chats at Downing Street. Of course, there are no longer any hands to pat or brows to mop, but we may be certain that Max's views on a wide variety of issues are eagerly sought. It would probably not be too much to say that something of the same sort of relationship is developing between Mr Blair and Max as once flourished between Mr Major and Mr Steven. We must do everything in our power to make sure that history does not repeat itself.

Imagine, if you can, what it is like to be Max at this point in his life. He has achieved a great deal. He has a flat in Kensington and a country house in Wilt- shire. He has a new wife and a Range Rover. Several distinguished books lie behind him, and perhaps a few ahead. It is true that he suffers what he and his grand friends may regard as the minor indignity of having to edit the Evening Standard, but nothing in life is perfect. What does he lack? Only one thing that the world can give. As he moves among rich or titled folk, he would be superhuman if he did not from time to time wonder what it would be like to be Sir Max Hastings. Other editors have received knighthoods in recent times, but on the whole their titles did not have quite the same ring: Sir Nick Lloyd, Sir Larry Lamb, Sir John Junor, Sir David English. Sir Max Hastings is much more in the Sir Peregrine Worsthorne league.

That he would welcome the bauble can be deduced from reading the Evening Standard. I am not referring to his support for the government and his constant ridi- culing of the Tory party. It would be igno- ble to suppose that this was in any sense motivated by hopes of reward. No, Max- watchers have noticed a number of articles which fret about the difficulty of advanc- ing to the ranks of the great and the good in a Blairite world. A couple of months

ago one long piece bemoaned the endless `form filling' now involved for those who wanted to be admitted to these hallowed circles. Once `a chairman would have a quiet word with one of his chums'. Now there were 'lengthy application proce- dures' and a general 'obstacle course' for those willing to serve. Max seemed to be saying — for if the byline was not his, this is one of his well-known hobby-horses which has found its way into the leader column — that a busy chap doesn't have the time to go through all this rigmarole. Max may not feel so much at home under New Labour after all.

The best insight into his secret longings came two weeks ago, after the death of Charles Wintour, architect of the modern Evening Standard. The paper's own story quoted a number of appreciations, includ- ing one by Max. This is what he said: `The most telling tribute to his courage and independence is that both political parties ended by hating him too much to give him the knighthood he so richly deserved, as one of the greatest British editors of the post-war period.' This was all very hand- some, but one does not have to be a prac- tising psychotherapist to see its deeper sig- nificance. Of all the things Max could have mentioned about Charles Wintour, he chose to dwell on the fact that he didn't get a knighthood. It was something he should have got, and was definitely worth getting, but was denied him.

Did Max have a presentiment of his own fate? Of the treachery of politicians? He must not be cheated. What was done to Charles Wintour and Stewart Steven must not be done to Max. I hope Mr Blair will break this dreadful curse that afflicts editors of the Evening Standard. Many people will judge the Prime Minister by what he does. We are watching. But a word of warning: the worse thing would be to offer Max a CBE, the inferior hon- our bestowed on Mr Wintour. That might finish him off, Nothing less than a knight- hood will do. I believe that under the new dispensations any citizen has the right to recommend anyone for an hon- our. What I have in mind is a national campaign in which many people from all walks of life will join. Sir Max Hastings! Perhaps — or are we pushing too far, too fast? — he might one day be advanced to the peerage.