ConHome Diary: Interviewing John Howard & Why the Government is Wrong on the Article 50 Court Case
4 Nov 2016 at 13:08
For several years now, I have been trying to entice former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard onto my radio show. This week Dan Hannan kindly invited me to a dinner at the National Gallery where Mr Howard was being awarded this year’s Edmund Burke award. It really was a gathering of Britain’s right of centre clans. I first met John Howard twenty-five years ago when I went to Australia with my colleague from The Waterfront Partnership (a transport lobbying company we had both founded following the abolition of the Dock Labour Scheme) Nick Finney to advise the Australian Liberal Party on their own waterfront labour reform. John Howard was at that time Shadow Industrial Relations Minister. I remember being slightly underwhelmed by the meeting, and would never have predicted he would end up as one of the country’s longest serving prime ministers. In some ways he was Australia’s John Major, and I mean that as a compliment. He was a no frills politician who got on with the job with a great measure of success. I had 20 minutes with him in the studio, which for a Drivetime newsy show is quite a long time. I asked him about Brexit and he immediately declared that he would have voted Leave, had he had a vote. He also believed Britain will make a great success of Brexit, something you don’t often hear from any foreign politician. It was an honour to meet him.
On Tuesday I hosted the first live broadcast debate between the four contenders for the UKIP leadership. If I am honest I was a bit gutted when Raheem Kassam pulled out of the contest the day before. I thought without him to liven things up it might turn into a bit of a borefest. Boy was I wrong. If you listened to/saw it, you will know why. The new kid on the block in the contest was a complete unknown quantity. John Rees-Evans, or Jonathan as he used to be called, turned out to be quite something. So unknown is he that the other three – Paul Nuttall, Suzanne Evans and Peter Whittle – had never met him before. One suspects that after an hour with him, they wished it had stayed that way. Nuttall and Evans clearly couldn’t believe what they were hearing from him. As the host of the debate, nor could I. In the end I decided I had to challenge him on the nonsense he was spouting, which led to some people accusing me of treating him differently to the others. Well yes I did, and in retrospect I don’t regret it for one minute. How this man was ever allowed to stand for the leadership, Christ alone knows. He’s living proof that if you have enough money, you can subvert the debate for your own narcissistic means. I didn’t even have to bring up his claim that his horse had been raped by a gay donkey to ridicule him. He ridiculed himself by virtually every word he uttered.
I’m a bit of a homebird. Once I finish my radio show I like to go straight home. This week, however, I’ve been out every night. Wednesday night saw the Spectator Parliamentary Awards take place at the Rosewood Hotel (no, me neither) in High Holborn. I have to say it was the most entertaining one of these I have been to. It’s always a bit of an honour to be invited to it, to be honest. The Guest of Honour was George Osborne, who made the funniest speech I have heard this year – full of self-deprecation and jokes at the expense of a whole host of his former Cabinet colleagues. If only he had appeared this human while he was chancellor. The first few awards all went to Labour politicians. I really felt for Rachel Reeves when she picked up the Speech of the Year award for her tribute to the late Jo Cox. It must have been a very hard acceptance speech to make, given that she’d have given anything not to have had to make the original speech which the prize rewarded. I had thought David Davis would win Comeback of the Year, but instead it went to former Spectator Editor Boris Johnson, who made a rather shambolic speech, the highlight of which was when he said ‘Brexit will be a titanic success’. Oh dear. The Prime Minister held her head n her hands. But it was she who stole the whole show, not just by wearing a hard hat and high vis jacket to accept the Politician of the Year award. Her speech was hilarious. She ripped into Sir Craig Oliver, who was sitting a few feet away from the podium. “We all read from Craig Oliver’s book how on hearing the result he went into Whitehall and was physically sick. We all know that feeling Craig. We all had it when we heard about your Knighthood.” Ouch. But she wasn’t finished. Responding to Boris Johnson’s joke about Michael Heseltine killing his dog, she pointed out that the dog was not strangled but put down – by a master who no longer needed it…” Wow. The woman has some balls. And a sense of humour, which I suspect we’re going to experience a lot more. Sometimes you only find out about a politician’s real character when they reach the top job. I’m seeing sides to Theresa May which, despite following her career quite closely, and knowing her (albeit not well) for many years, I never knew existed. And I have to say, I very much like what I am seeing.
Next week is going to be a busy one. In the 27 hours from 4pm on Tuesday I’ll be on the radio for 13 of them. I’ll be broadcasting my normal show from 4-7pm on both days, but in between I’ll be co-hosting LBC’s US election night coverage with Shelagh Fogarty from 10pm through until 5am, when Nick Ferrari will take over. It promises to be quite a night. I’m beginning to believe that Donald Trump might actually win. It really is a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea. A Trump presidency will be fantastic from a journalistic point of view. Hours of phone-in fun to be had. But oh my God. Pity the poor bloody United States of America if it actually happens.
I think the government is making a mistake to appeal the Article 50 court ruling. Theresa May should call the bluff of those who seek to frustrate the Brexit process by immediately tabling a one line Bill to Parliament to trigger Article 50 by next March, and put it to a vote immediately. I suspect there would be fewer than 50 MPs would dare to defy the will of the people, but even if there were, at least they would be flushed out into the open. I doubt very much whether the House of Lords would be in a mood to create a 1910 style constitutional crisis, mainly because it would be signing its own death warrant. The Government should not be afraid of this process or in any way appear to be defensive.