New Left is up to its old tricks

WHEN Cristina Odone suddenly quit this week as the New Statesman’s deputy editor, left-wing infighting appeared to have claimed yet another high-profile scalp. She stormed out, reports said, after "a series of rows" with the editor, Peter Wilby - the latest row over last week’s cover, which brutally depicted Tony Blair as Stalin.

So when Odone indicates that she wishes to spill the beans, it is odd that she chooses proprietor Geoffrey Robinson’s empty office - just across from Wilby’s - as the place to reveal her secrets. Even more surprising are her jovial greetings to Wilby as she passes, and his warm reply that theirs had been "the best working relationship of my life".

This "civil war" at the Staggers, Odone insists, is entirely the Blairites’ invention - yet another attempt to undermine Wilby’s authority so he can be replaced by a party loyalist. And that is precisely why she wants to reveal how "viciously" and "wickedly" the Blairites - from Peter Mandelson to Jackie Ashley and Johann Hari - have acted during her six and a half years in the job.

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"These people - who I call the ‘neo-Left’ - are cancerous crusts on the real old-fashioned socialists like Peter [Wilby]," she says with typical directness. "From the moment I arrived here, there were plots to alienate me and Peter, plots to disgrace me in front of Peter, or very real neo-Left plots to take over the magazine."

The real trigger for her departure, she says, was a television offer that she could not refuse - a chance to write and present a Channel 4 series on religion, commissioned for 2005. "It’s about people who fall out of faith, which is something I care about," she says. There are family considerations, too: Odone lives in Chelsea with her husband, Edward Lucas, an Economist journalist, and 15-month-old Isabel: "I want to spend more time with my daughter. The hours here are punishing, and I’d like more time off." Besides, Times and Observer pieces pay more than "dismal" Statesman rates.

Yes, she and Wilby disagreed about the Stalin image, but they have often had "huge rows" about covers. "That’s how Peter and I have always worked," she says. "There have been very few serious disagreements: the ‘Kosher Conspiracy’ cover was one; there was our leader that went too far after 11 September - but this definitely wasn’t. I’ve lost a lot of Jewish and American friends through the New Statesman, so if I could afford to take a principled stand and walk away from my salary, I would have done so over one of those occasions - not over ‘Blair is Stalin’."

Stories of splits, she insists, emanate from Blair’s coterie. "The neo-Left can’t stand the New Statesman because it is owned and edited by people who are quite old-fashioned Left," she says. "So they unleash a poison that has been very personal. I’ve been very close to people on the Right - the Catholic Herald [which she edited] was more right than left, and I’d worked for the Daily Telegraph. However nasty the Right gets, the Left gets much more wicked."

Its "vicious tribalism", she says, could be terribly destructive: "I found myself reading that staff had a voodoo doll of me, and were sticking pins in it because they hated me. I’ve even been wished stomach cancer." That, she claims, came from Jackie Ashley, the magazine’s former political editor.

Odone, 43, identifies a number of journalists who contrived to give her "a very rocky ride".

"I remember Julia Langdon writing that Beatrice and Sidney Webb [the magazine’s founders] would have turned in their graves had they seen so many Tories at the New Statesman lunches I organised," she says. "The neo-Left can’t stand anybody who doesn’t believe what they believe." She also alleges that two prominent columnists on left-wing dailies separately offered her former intern up to 1,000 to dish the dirt.

As for John Kampfner, the magazine’s current political editor who reportedly covets the top job, she has "read the stories" in newspaper diaries in which he mocks her and Wilby. "What can I say?" Odone replies. "He told me he was mortified by the last piece."

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Yet, for all her claims of political conspiracy, could it be that her enemies simply don’t like Odone: "this Prada-handbag-carrying, fur-coat-wearing, naughty, mischievous thing," as she describes herself? "I’m sure they really don’t like me," she replies. "However, I haven’t changed as a character. And when I lapped the waters of the Right, doing the same Cristina number and being just as loud, I never encountered this. Yes, I’m abrasive and can get very bad-tempered. But I was accepted."

The tribal nastiness, she claims, starts at the very top. What, the Prime Minister himself is sitting there thinking about ways to destabilise a 24,000-circulation magazine? "I know it for a fact," Odone replies. "I’ve heard that, if not from the horse’s mouth, then from the horse’s sidekick. That’s why Peter Mandelson approached Geoffrey, soon after I joined, to buy it."

But surely Blair has bigger things on his mind these days?

"I think he cares about it more," she claims. "Six years ago, we had just started to become a pain in the backside for Blair. We’re now a real whistle-blower and rabble-rouser. He’s never forgiven us for printing the leaked advice from the Attorney General over the war’s legality. He knows that Robin Cook and Clare Short turn to us to get their rocks off. We’re seen as very influential by Number 10."

This sounds a little selfserving, particularly when Odone dismisses the Spectator - selling 64,000 - as "a completely patchy drawing-room accessory, obviously edited with one eye on other things, and it shows". The New Statesman, she points out, is now comfortably in profit, with rising circulation - and that, she believes, should secure Wilby’s position for now.

As for Odone’s successor, she wants a "feisty woman" to continue her "feminisation" mission. Names which are being mentioned this week include Deborah Orr, Decca Aitkenhead - and John Kampfner. But Odone, for one, seems genuinely relieved to be escaping the bear pit.

"It’s this venomous territorialism you get on the Left," she says, shaking her head disbelievingly. "I’ve certainly fallen out of love with New Labour. So, isn’t it so ironic," she adds with a grin, "that I’m supposedly walking out because a cover is giving Tony Blair rough treatment?"