It’s true what they say about Oxbridge. I spent three years at Cambridge doing little more than fade into the panelling, but I still knew (or at least bumped into) some stars in the making – a Tory MP here, a Guardian columnist there. Not to mention the thesps. A friend of a friend acted with Tilda Swinton! I went to a drama workshop and was personally loosened up by Simon McBurney! I met Richard Hytner (brother of the more famous Nicholas) and told him I’d been at school with, er, Richard Hytner!
But none of those people are in government. Nigel is.
To explain about Nigel, I’ll need to tell you about Brian. Nigel and I both did English, although he was a year or two above me. Brian was our Director of Studies, and Nigel admired him enormously. Most of us did. Brian was intellectual in the highest degree: he had written a book on the semiotics of cinema, which proposed a way of reconciling Marx and Freud on the first page. He was a stern and uncompromising teacher; if you fell short of his standards he would immediately let you know, with an agonisingly long silence or a withering put-down (or in some cases both). If you asked him a question he’d often gabble dismissively through the obvious answer, then slow down to trace the interesting complexities which lay beneath the surface, before finally grinding to a halt at the end of the sentence, padding the pause with ‘er’s and making a circular ‘etcetera, etcetera’ hand gesture. Despite the cinema and the Marx and the Freud and the semiotics, Brian was tremendously interested in English literature, and wanted us to share his interest; there was always more he wanted us to know about. He was an extraordinary teacher.
So, Nigel wasn’t alone in admiring Brian, but he took it a bit further than the rest of us. Brian dressed in jeans and combat jacket – which, at that time and in that place, stood out. Nigel dressed in exactly the same way. Brian’s handwriting was, frankly, awful – his signature was a capital letter and a horizontal swipe of the pen. Nigel signed his name in exactly the same way. We all imitated Brian’s accent occasionally; Nigel talked exactly like Brian, all the time. He even did the ‘er’s and the circular hand gesture. What wasn’t quite so clear was whether he was actually into the Marx and the Freud and the cinema and so on. There was a definite question mark over the cinema. Once, at a showing of a video artwork organised by Brian, I was surprised to hear Brian’s own voice from the back of the room, asking a distinctly critical question. When the artist had politely but firmly shredded his arguments, I glanced round to see how he was taking this rebuff. It was, of course, Nigel. As I turned round I caught sight of Brian, sitting over to my left. He was smiling.
After college I lost sight of Nigel. At one point I heard through a mutual friend that he’d gone to work for That’s Life!. It seemed like a bit of a comedown from the world of Cambridge English, but it was a job in the Media (which was more than I’d managed), and at the BBC to boot. So, good luck to him, really. I couldn’t help wondering if he was still going through the world as Brian II, and if not whether he was modelling himself on anyone else. (Not Esther, surely?)
Then I heard that Nigel, former That’s Life! researcher, former devoted acolyte of a radical Cambridge don, had gone to work for the Conservative Party; his media experience would be put to good use in his role as the party’s Director of Communications. At this point, those of us who remembered him started muttering about Mephisto. We had no idea.
Then I heard that Nigel, former Conservative Party Director of Communications, former That’s Life! researcher, former devoted acolyte of a radical Cambridge don, had been found a safe seat in Parliament and was now the Conservative MP for a constituency in Oxfordshire. It was a country seat in more ways than one: he had married a millionaire along the way, and now lived on a large estate.
Then I heard that Nigel, former Conservative MP, former Conservative Party Director of Communications, former That’s Life! researcher, former devoted acolyte of a radical Cambridge don, had broken with the Conservatives and joined New Labour. They welcomed him with open arms and found him another safe seat for the next election: a very different constituency, this one near Liverpool. He bought a house in the constituency, but it was said that he didn’t spend much time there, preferring his townhouse in London and his country estate. He gave one disastrous interview in which he attempted to make light of the number of servants he employed (“only five”, I think it was). According to They Work For You, he voted ‘very strongly’ in favour of foundation hospitals, student top-up fees, anti-terrorism laws, introducing ID cards and the Iraq war. On the other hand, he was ‘very strongly’ in favour of the fox hunting ban and equal gay rights, neither of which positions can have done him many favours down in Oxfordshire. At the 2005 election he was said to have Tony Blair’s ear; his insider knowledge of the Conservative Party’s presentation strategies must have been very useful.
After the election, Nigel was rewarded with a minor government post: he’s now a junior minister for Northern Ireland. His name isn’t Nigel, though. (Brian’s name isn’t Brian, come to that.) Nigel’s name is Shaun.
Shaun Woodward, government minister. Shaun Woodward, Labour MP for St Helens South, husband of a millionaire, former Conservative MP, former Conservative Party Director of Communications, former That’s Life! researcher, former devoted acolyte of a radical Cambridge don.