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Artillery Row

On British chumocracy

Playing Six Degrees of Petronella Wyatt

An article in the New York Magazine charting the rise of the “nepo baby” in Hollywood, claiming that it has been undergoing a “nepo baby boom”, has triggered a great deal of debate. For those unaware, the term refers to someone who has benefitted in their career from privileged parents and siblings. The response from the “nepo babies” has been varied. The model Lottie Moss, younger sister of Kate, protested at the suggestion that she owed her status to the luck of blood. Others, namely Lily Allen — daughter of Keith — laid prostrate before the feet of public opinion, begging for mercy for the sins of the (rich and famous) father. 

The nepo baby saga reminded me of the recent Hussey affair. I won’t bore readers with my thoughts on “where are you from”-gate, but my mind shot back to the incident because of an interesting defence of Lady Susan Hussey, which came from The Spectator journalist Petronella Wyatt. Wyatt tweeted:

I’ve known Lady (Susan) Hussey since I was 18. She is a decent woman and certainly not a racist. She often asked my mother where she was from because she had a Central European accent. I am sometimes mistaken for non-British because of my colouring. I’m never offended.

Wyatt proceeded to expand on this tweet with a piece for The Spectator in which absolved Hussey of any prejudice on account of her late husband, former BBC Chairman Lord (Marmaduke) Hussey, having a peculiar name and one leg. This was before disclosing how the “decent” Lady Hussey “ticked her off” for an article she wrote about the Italians for the sin of being “racist” and “unkind”. I raise this not only because I found this particular defence slightly more amusing than some of the other defences of the late Queen’s lady-in-waiting. The real reason why it was intriguing was that, like the nepo baby saga, it demonstrated the incestuousness at the British Establishment. 

Here we had a journalist at The Spectator, daughter of Lord Wyatt — a former Labour MP-turned-Thatcherite stormtrooper — riding to the aid of the beleaguered daughter of the 12th Earl Waldegrave on the grounds of personal association. This highlights the web of familial and fraternal relationships in which many members of the Establishment are enmeshed. This is not a bug but a feature of much of public life. To demonstrate this, it is worth playing a little game: Six Degrees of Petronella Wyatt. 

To begin, it is well known that Petronella Wyatt was in a relationship with Boris Johnson — former Prime Minister and Mayor of London. Such proximity to the former Prime Minister connects Wyatt to what can best be described as the liberal Tories answer to the Kardashians. With big names, big jobs, publicity seeking and appearances on reality TV (as well as Downing Street podiums), the members of the blonde-haired clan have placed their sticky fingers in many of the institutions of British public life. 

It may be unfair to include Gove given his humbler background

The former Prime Minister’s father, Stanley, was a Conservative MEP and a journalist who worked for the World Bank. At Oxford, he met — then married — Boris’ mother, Charlotte Fawcett, the daughter of the former president of the European Court of Human Rights Sir James Fawcett. Charlotte’s brother, Edmund, is a leading journalist who worked for The Economist. The former Prime Minister’s second wife and mother of most of his children, Marina Wheeler, is a leading KC whose father, Sir Charles Wheeler, was the longest serving foreign correspondent at the BBC. The former Prime Minister’s third wife is Carrie Johnson, who worked as a special adviser to John Whittingdale and Sajid Javid (both of whom served under Johnson). Her father, a journalist, co-founded The Independent and was the son of a Labour peer. 

Then there are the Johnson siblings, particularly Jo and Rachel. Whilst Boris worked at The Telegraph and The Spectator (which he edited), Jo was a journalist at the Financial Times. He then became Conservative MP for Orpington before running the Number 10 Policy Unit and holding ministerial office, whilst his brother was Mayor. After leaving his big brother’s Cabinet over Brexit, he was elevated to the name, state, degree, title and honour of Lord Johnson of Marylebone. He is married to Amelia Gentleman, a journalist at The Guardian, who is from a line of famous artists. Then there’s Rachel Johnson, a broadcaster and journalist, who also worked at Financial Times and Tatler. She now hosts a show on LBC. Johnson is married to a director of the National Trust and the grandson of the 8th Earl of Glasgow. 

Then there are the friends of the former Prime Minister who, like Wyatt, have occupied prominent places in public life. Boris was at Eton and Oxford, with Earl Spencer, with whom he remains good friends. Spencer is the uncle of Hussey’s godson, the Prince of Wales. Spencer’s late sister, Princess Diana, was also close friends with the Goldsmith family. The matriarch of the Goldsmiths is Lady Annabel Goldsmith, the daughter of the 8th Marquess of Londonderry and a relation of Sir Winston Churchill. She is the widow of Sir James Goldsmith, the Anglo-French billionaire founder of the Referendum Party. Both Sir James and Lady Goldsmith were the children of Conservative MPs. The Goldsmiths had three children: the journalist Jemima (former wife of former Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan), the environmental campaigner Ben (who married into the billionaire Rothschild family) and Conservative politician Lord (Zac) Goldsmith of Richmond Park. For the best part of nine years, Goldsmith was MP for Richmond Park and a close friend and ally of both Boris and Carrie Johnson. When Boris became Prime Minister, he appointed him to Cabinet and elevated him to the House of Lords. This was after Goldsmith lost his seat to the Liberal Democrats (for the second time). 

Another friend — or foe — of Boris Johnson is David Cameron. It is common knowledge that the former Prime Ministers were at Eton and the Bullingdon Club together. What is not as well known is that prior to Boris’ relationship with Wyatt, David Cameron went on several dates with her whilst he was working as special adviser to her family friend, the then Chancellor Norman Lamont. 

Cameron is also a well-connected figure in his own right. The grandson of a baronet, he attended prep school with the Earl of Wessex, the youngest son of the late Queen (another Hussey connection). Cameron’s cousin, Sir Ferdinand Mount, headed the Policy Unit under one of his predecessors as Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. It should be noted that whilst Mount served in the Policy Unit, he worked with Lord (Peter) Carrington who was serving as Foreign Secretary. Carrington’s young neighbour and family friend was a boy called Nick Clegg, who he went on to recommend for a job at the European Commission. Clegg — now of Meta fame — went onto become an MEP, MP, Leader of the Liberal Democrats and served under Cameron as his Deputy Prime Minister during the Coalition. 

Then there are Cameron’s in-laws. Cameron is married to Samantha Cameron, the daughter of the baronet Sir Reginald Sheffield and the Viscountess Astor. Her sister, Emily Sheffield, was the deputy editor of Vogue and went onto edit The Evening Standard. Their stepfather, Conservative hereditary peer, Viscount Astor, had an extramarital relationship with Rachel Whetstone, then adviser to Michael Howard when he was Leader of the Conservative Party. Whetstone, who now runs public relations for Netflix, is the granddaughter of Sir Anthony Fisher, the founder of the Institute of Economic Affairs. Her husband is Steve Hilton, who worked as David Cameron’s Director of Strategy both in Opposition and then in the first two years of the Coalition. Both Hilton and Whetstone were godparents to Cameron’s eldest son who sadly passed away in 2009.

Another person who served under Michael Howard, and is also a godfather to one of David and Samantha Cameron’s children, is George Osborne. Osborne, the heir to the Osborne baronetcy, is most well-known for being Chancellor of the Exchequer under his close friend, David. He is also the predecessor of Emily Sheffield as Editor of The Evening Standard, with Sheffield working under him when he edited the paper. Osborne, like Cameron and Boris, was also in the Bullingdon Club with a Johnson (Jo, not Boris). What is even more remarkable, however, is that the Osbornes are family friends of the Wyatts. George Osborne knew Petronella Wyatt as a child, years before either of them became acquainted with both Boris or Cameron. 

Osborne was married to Frances Howell — daughter of Tory Cabinet minister Lord Howell of Guildford. His current partner, Thea Rogers, was his special adviser and previously dated former Labour Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell.

Then there is Michael Gove. It may be unfair to include Gove given his humbler background, but he has been one of the most powerful of the Notting Hill set. Like Tony Benn and Keith Joseph, Gove remains one of the most influential men to reach the top of British politics without holding a Great Office of State. That he is still in frontline politics years after many of his contemporaries have departed the scene shows the extent of his reach. 

According to Wyatt, Gove tried his hand at chirpsing her (as younger nepo babies call it) when they were twentysomething journalists, with invitations to dinner and theatre. He also knew Boris from his days at Oxford where he campaigned for his friend-turned-rival to become president of the Oxford Union. Gove’s former wife, the Daily Mail journalist Sarah Vine, is godmother to David Cameron’s daughter. His former partner, Baroness (Simone) Finn, went on to become deputy chief of staff (and briefly chief of staff) to Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. After Michael Portillo’s failure to become Tory leader in 2001, it was Gove who founded the modernising Tory think tank, Policy Exchange with his two best friends — Lord (Ed) Vaizey of Didcot, son of Lord (John) Vaizey, and Tory defector Nick Boles. All three of them became Conservative MPs and served as ministers in the Cameron government. Before becoming an MP, Boles was chief of staff to Boris Johnson when he was Mayor of London. His father, Sir Jack Boles, was a director general of the National Trust for eight years. His stepmother, Lady Anne Boles, is the daughter of the 12th Earl Waldegrave and the sister of Lord (William) Waldegrave and, ah yes, Lady Susan Hussey. 

Can people honestly say this is a meritocracy?

One may conclude incestuousness just afflicts the Tories. Wrong. The truth is that it applies just as much to metropolitan liberal and pro-Remain bien pensants as it does to the dauphins of the hunting, fishing and shooting lot. Take the journalist Hugo Dixon. Dixon is a close friend of Boris Johnson’s since childhood and a friend of the family. Whilst he was at the Financial Times, he recruited Boris’ brother Jo from banking to the FT. Like Jo, he was a prominent campaigner for the anti-Brexit People’s Vote (Christmas chez Johnson must have been a bit awkward). Despite being at the heart of the liberal elite, however, he is great grandson of Sir Winston Churchill and the grandson of former Cabinet minister Lord Duncan Sandys. His aunt is the former Conservative MP, Laura Sandys, who chaired the European Movement. His cousin, Lord (Nicholas) Soames, son of Lord (Christopher) Soames and grandson of Sir Winston Churchill, is a close friend and former equerry to King Charles III. 

Dixon is a close friend of arch-Remainer Roland Rudd. Rudd is brother of former Home Secretary Amber Rudd, and his children’s godfather is Lord (Peter) Mandelson, grandson of Herbert Morrison. He is also godfather to one of Alastair Campbell’s children and the late Tessa Jowell’s son (who is married to Deliciously Ella Woodward, daughter of former Labour Cabinet minister Shaun Woodward).

Take ITV Political Editor Robert Peston, formerly of the BBC. Peston is the son of Labour peer Lord (Maurice) Peston. His partner, Charlotte Edwardes, is a journalist at The Sunday Times who worked at The Spectator with Mary Wakefield, wife of Dominic Cummings. Cummings’ former boss is, of course, Boris Johnson, who was Editor of The Spectator whilst both Wakefield and Edwardes (and Wyatt!) worked there. Edwardes alleges the former Prime Minister touched her leg at a party which was also attended by Wakefield.

For a last example, take Harriet Harman. Harman is the product of political aristocracy. Her late husband, Jack Dromey, was a leading trade unionist who joined her in the Commons in 2010. Her first cousins twice removed include former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and former Foreign Secretary Austen Chamberlain, with Joe Chamberlain being a great great uncle. Her uncle was Labour minister and penal reformer, Frank Pakenham, Earl of Longford. The Earl of Longford’s sister, Lady Julia Mount, is the great aunt of former Prime Minister David Cameron. One of Harman’s first cousins is Lady Rachel Billington, a friend of the late Charlotte Wahl Johnson and the godmother of former Prime Minister — and former partner of Petronella Wyatt — Boris Johnson. Amusingly, Harman was heading the inquiry into whether her cousin’s godson misled Parliament. 

There is always the risk with such an exercise that it becomes akin to the “Jeroboam begat Meggidesach begat Gabidion” bits of the Bible which even the Pope must gloss over. One could further expand it to include many more members of the Great and Good in the game that is Six Degrees of Petronella Wyatt. The Benns, the Kinnock-Thorning-Schmidts, the Rees-Moggs, the Hoyles, the Sunak-Stratton-Forsyth gang, the Falconers, the Reeves-Cryers, the Hoggs, the Lawsons, the Milibands, the Balls-Coopers, the Jay and Garnett family, the Bottomleys, the Hewitts, the Straws, the Mills, the Sainsburys and the Goulds have all gone without a mention. Indeed, around 53 sitting MPs have close relatives who have served (or currently serve) as Members of Parliament. 

There is also a risk of exaggeration. Many of the people listed are qualified for their jobs and competent to boot. Despite the bed-hopping and bromances, friendships and family ties, it is not as if the dynasties and friendship circles of our elite always cohered. Rivalries and bad blood between once close friends, and even brothers, emerge. Some have even been critical of those they have been close to. Petronella Wyatt has criticised aspects of Boris Johnson’s premiership. Rachel Johnson and Jo Johnson publicly broke from their brother on Brexit. 

Also, is it not normal for countries to develop tight-knit elites? Shouldn’t we expect people with similar interests and backgrounds to gravitate towards each other? If very few are obsessively interested in politics enough to work in it — or indeed the media — then we should expect them to walk down similar paths of life. Surely it is unjust to judge people purely on account of a background which they did not choose? 

All of this is true. Yet it is reasonable to ask how it is that a country of approximately seventy million manages to conjure up an elite, who wield power and shape discourse, where so many of its members happen to be a dinner party or two away from Petronella Wyatt. Many top positions, both in media and politics, are occupied by people in the same close coteries, some of which go back to childhood and family life. Can people honestly say this is a meritocracy, simply down to ability? I think not.

What about the impact on democracy? Is it good for Britain to have an elite so incestuous that they are, almost by necessity, removed from the society which they serve? So incestuousness that they may not ask awkward questions of friends? According to polling, it appears to be a concern of the public. More than sixty per cent of us believe that Britain has a ruling class who will always rule the country no matter what happens. It appears that most of us have concluded that it is just one big club, and we will never be in it. Six Degrees of Petronella Wyatt might be one clear example of why we are right. 

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