Chris Patten, the son of a jazzman, and a Catholic, is not a traditional Establishment figure. But one of the powers of our Establishment is its ability to allow in certain outsiders, provided they then follow the rules of the game.
Baron Patten of Barnes, CH PC, former Tory MP and Cabinet minister, former Governor of Hong Kong, former European Commissioner, current Chancellor of Oxford University, and current chairman of the BBC Trust, is one such figure.
I remember Labour MP Eric Heffer telling me that one of the reasons he intended to serve as long as he could in Parliament was because ‘there is nothing more ex than an ex MP.’ Not if you are Chris Patten, who has gone from Establishment post to Establishment post with ease, and fairly gentle scrutiny considering the importance of all the positions he has held.
Yet even before the current fiasco, his role was being called into question. I doubt David Mellor will mind if I divulge that when I bumped into him at the height of the Jimmy Savile furore, he was asking ‘what on earth has happened to the competence of Chris Patten,’ his former colleague in government?
Patten is staring out from the front pages today, with the same look we saw on the night he lost his Parliamentary seat and, even more so, the day the UK handed over Hong Kong to the Chinese. As I recorded in my diary ‘he rather overdid the emotion bit,’ and what with crying daughters, jibes about the democratic credentials of the Chinese, and a deep sense of Patten’s personal loss hanging over the whole affair, ‘TB looked rather embarrassed.’ It felt at times as though the Pattens were burying a beloved old dog, not playing an official role in presiding over a long planned diplomatic event.
Last night he stood alongside BBC Director General George Entwistle and said it was ‘one of the saddest evenings of my public life’ to see his appointee fall on his sword. Yet it was his appointee, and assuming he is still in place to oversee the succession, he will have to do a better job this time.
George Entwistle is a very nice man, and had his career as DG started off in different circumstances he might have grown to become a good DG at a time that is what the BBC needs. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that the same weaknesses some commentators and insiders saw in him when he was appointed lay behind the appointment in the first place: it would not be the first time the board of an important organisation appointed as chief exec someone they felt was unlikely to threaten or overshadow them.
In any event, Lord Patten’s role surely has to come under proper examination now, not just in relation to the appointment process, but also in relation to the uncomfortable position that makes him both cheerleader and regulator. It is unsustainable.
On a personal level, it is nice to see that my own battles with the BBC now appear to have been relegated, and that the current crisis has the label ‘the worst in BBC history’ attached to it, rather than the fallout from the Hutton Inquiry. You may remember that one led to the loss of both DG and chairman. It still might happen, though something about Baron Patten’s Establishment survival skills lead me to think it won’t; and if he does eventually go, I suspect there will be another Establishment position waiting around the corner for him.