Midway through the afternoon, all news organisations were informed by Buckingham Palace that a major royal story would be dropping at 6pm. The advance warning was to give everyone time to prepare. On the dot of six came the news that the king had cancer. It had been detected during his prostate treatment but was unrelated. The king was in good spirits and would start treatment very shortly. In the meantime he would cancel his public appearances but would attend to matters of state. That, you would have thought, just about covered it. Everything that needed to be said had been said. We could give the king some space to recover at home with his family.
Not a bit of it. The TV channels went mad. As did the Daily Mail. Within 30 minutes Sarah Vine had written an overwrought piece about how devastated all the king’s subjects were to hear the news and that she wasn’t at all sure she could cope. Getting through the next 24 hours would be a hideous ordeal for her. Something tells me that she managed just fine. An hour later ITV was still broadcasting a special news programme in which two royal experts took 20 minutes to say that they really didn’t know what was going on and that all we could do was speculate. The BBC was no better. On the 10pm news we had a royal reporter talking nonsense in front of Buckingham Palace where the king wasn’t followed by a health correspondent talking outside a clinic where the king also wasn’t. The BBC could have sent someone to my house as well because the king wasn’t there either.
The next day showed no sign of improvement. Radio 4’s Today programme had a cancer special to explain that even the royal family could be affected. Then there was huge excitement at the king being photographed in a car. The first sighting since the diagnosis, ran the excited strapline. Give the man a break. Most of us know someone who has had cancer. We are not idiots. We all hope the king makes a full recovery. But this media feeding frenzy is doing no one any favours. We talk pompously of the dignity of the crown. This is anything but dignified. We need a grown up relationship with the royal family. Not the childish one that we have.
It seems to have become the rule that the more vocal a political party or organisation is about its commitment to free speech, the less likely it is to admit people who may write or say something critical about them. It wasn’t always like this. When I became the Guardian’s sketchwriter 10 years ago, I was welcome everywhere. You just replied to an op note from No 10 and you were on board. Same with Theresa May. I may have made her life hard by christening her The Maybot, but her press team never held that against me. For all his many faults which I never stopped pointing out, Boris Johnson also tolerated me. I guess he reckoned there would be more than enough people writing about how wonderful he was for it not to matter.
Not so with Rishi Sunak. The man who now has nothing left but to fight pointless culture wars cannot tolerate any criticism himself. I was banned from his (failed) leadership launch in 2022 and since then, despite frequent requests, have been allowed into only one event in the last 14 months. A similar thing is going on with the far-right Tory breakaway groups that have proliferated in opposition to Sunak. Though not, it has to be said, with the Reform party. It was a huge battle to get into today’s Popular Conservatism launch in Westminster. At first, I was told there was no room and it was only late on that the organisers relented. Perhaps they worked out it would be more damaging for them if they didn’t. Even when I turned up, the two young men controlling entry tried to turn me away. They couldn’t believe I was being allowed in and had to check with their boss to make sure I really was on the list. Anyway, I suppose I should be grateful. Any event with Liz Truss, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Lee Anderson as the star attractions is never going to let a satirist down.
The warnings from senior figures in the armed forces have been getting ever louder over the past two weeks. Only this week, Richard Dannatt, a former defence chief, said that the UK no longer has the capability to fight a major conflict. Which rather suggests that if we were to come under attack, then we’d be relying on our Nato allies to do most of the dirty work. The army is now down to about 75,000 full-time soldiers, the navy has just two aircraft carriers, one of which always seems to be out of service, and the air force has about 32,000 active personnel as successive governments have reduced funding and focused spending on technological warfare. All of which has led some commentators in the Telegraph and the Mail to insist that the government has to rethink its priorities and bring back national service.
There’s just one problem with this: the young people aren’t at all keen on the idea of conscription. Partly because they don’t want to die and partly because they don’t trust our politicians. So maybe it’s time to revisit the idea of a Home Guard. Johnson recently wrote about how he would have loved to serve his country. Just too bad he didn’t think about that when he was of an age to fight. There have been plenty of conflicts in which he could have got involved if only he hadn’t been too busy trying to have sex with someone other than his wife of the time. What a fantastic soldier he would have been! The second world war would have ended far earlier if the British army had had more men like him. But wouldn’t it be fun if the army called Johnson’s bluff. Put him through basic training. Three miles hard yomping. Try and make it in under a day, Private Johnson. Then send him somewhere cold for the rest of the winter. Estonia maybe. Anywhere away from the rest of us. Come to think of it, we could do the same for Matt Hancock. He must be halfway to enlistment already having appeared in Celebrity SAS. Time for fantasists everywhere to do their bit.
A sports journalist recently suggested that Andy Murray should call time on his tennis career. Murray had lost in the first round of the Australian Open and then in the first round of a minor tournament he wouldn’t have even entered some years back. Both to players who couldn’t have lived with him in his prime. This week he lost again in the first round of a satellite tournament in Marseille. It’s been a struggle for Murray ever since he had surgery on his hip back in 2017 after claiming the top spot in the world tennis rankings. He’s put himself though year after year of punishing training regimes; but though the mind is strong, the body is weak. It turns out that having a metal hip is a bit of a problem for an elite athlete. So the journalist spoke for many of Murray’s fans who have watched him fight an increasingly unequal battle against injury and age – he’ll be 37 in May. No more raging against the dying of the light. Call it quits and let’s just remember the good times. The three Grand Slam titles. The two Olympic golds. The Davis Cup.
Only the writer most definitely wasn’t speaking for Murray himself. He responded on X by saying it wasn’t for anyone else to tell a top professional tennis player what’s what. Yes, he had been going through a tough time but he still believed he had more tennis in him. More titles. Though he may have been a little less polite than that. Here I am totally Team Andy. He has earned the right to leave the sport entirely at a time of his own choosing. If that means more first round losses then that’s the way it is. To say that Murray is tarnishing his reputation by going on longer than others might is to miss the point. Because it’s precisely that mentality – that refusal to give up – that made his reputation in the first place. It’s his love of the sport and bloody-mindedness that defines him. He wouldn’t have become world number one without it. So we are lucky to have Murray. I am old enough to remember all the false dawns of the next British male tennis hope since the 1960s. Roger Taylor, Mark Cox, John Lloyd, Greg Rusedski, Tim Henman. Murray was the real deal. The Greats get to decide their own fate.
We’ve gained an insight into Sunak’s soul this week. And what we’ve found there ain’t pretty. First we caught him being bounced into a £1,000 bet with one of journalism’s prime narcissists who tries to conceal his thin-skinned lack of self-worth behind a macho, big wallet veneer. No one thinks for a minute that Sunak is a betting man, but when push came to shove he was unable to stand up to Piers Morgan. He didn’t have the integrity to say “I don’t think it’s clever or honourable to make bets on the lives of refugees” which would have killed the conversation and shown the leadership required of a prime minister.
Sunak showed similar weakness during PMQs when he made a trans joke that he and health secretary, Victoria Atkins, found hysterically funny. It would have been inappropriate in parliament at the best of times and all the more so when he had been told Esther Ghey was in the gallery watching. Even if you find that kind of gag amusing, most people might have realised this was neither the time or place to offend a grieving parent. Sunak was invited to apologise, but again he proved he does not have the strength of character to admit he had been insensitive. Later that day, Brianna’s father, Peter Spooner, said he had found the prime minister’s remarks “dehumanising” and he too asked for an apology. Sunak merely doubled down, saying it was all Keir Starmer’s fault – come again? – and that maybe Esther and Peter should chill out a bit. They could whistle for their apology. This was a new low. When the UK prime minister picks a fight with the parents of a murdered teenaged girl, then the game is up.