And everyone knew why: the then prime minister realised that if he went under the lights with the broadcast media’s Grand Inquisitor, he would be torn apart by Neil’s combination of forensic interviewing skills, terrier-like refusal to be deflected and encyclopaedic grasp of policy issues. Last year, Neil brought those qualities and his decades of journalistic experience to bear in a heavy-hitting new column for the Daily Mail. Week-in, week-out he turned his laser-like focus onto everything from the shenanigans at Westminster to the handling of the pandemic.
But three columns stand out as exemplars of his commitment to the urgent need to speak truth to power.
One was his article on Julian Assange. The bail-jumping Australian, who has been accused of sexual assault by not one but two women, is nobody’s idea of a Nelson Mandela de nos jours but Neil had the clarity of vision to appreciate that – in this case - the medium is not the message. The headline on his piece said it all: ‘Julian Assange is reckless, stupid and a narcissist - but he exposed the truth and should NOT rot in an American jail’. In an impassioned defence of the right of journalists to use classified information to expose wrongdoing, he tore into the Home Secretary Priti Patel for her craven and wrong-headed decision to approve Assange’s extradition to the US. It helps, of course, that Neil can call upon a bulging Rolodex of contacts at the highest levels to inform his analysis. And this was rarely more evident than in his masterly dissection of Tony Blair’s growing influence over Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party. He revealed that the former prime minister was working behind the scenes to set the policy agenda and engineer a situation whereby Labour and the LibDems, with the possible support of the Greens, would work on creating common policy positions in advance of the next election. By shining a spotlight on backroom deals that those involved would prefer stayed in the shadows, Neil once again did us all a service.
As a former US correspondent who retains an apartment in New York, he does not confine himself to UK politics. A friend’s advice to take off his watch if he was going to go for stroll in Central Park served as a jumping-off point for a memorable piece on America’s decline under the light-touch presidency of Joe Biden. ‘Urban America isn't just fraying at the edges,’ he wrote. ‘It is rotting at its core. And the man Americans expect to lead them in times of crisis is missing in action.’
Information, as they say, is power. By sharing his insights into the big issues of the day, Andrew Neil’s column gives his readers agency and makes a valuable contribution to preserving the health of our democracy.