ConHome Diary: Interviewing the PM
24 Jul 2017 at 16:57
I imagine The Spectator’s Andrew Neil and Fraser Nelson must have been rather pleased at the ensuing publicity from their annual summer party last Thursday. I arrived rather late on and it was in full swing. Virtually the first two people I clapped eyes on were Robbie Gibb and James Landale. James insisted on a selfie of the three of us, seeing as we had all been tipped for the Downing Street Head of Comms job. Much hilarity all round. We’ve all read about the joshing between David Davis and Boris Johnson, and that’s all it was – joshing. Talk about being totally overwritten by journalists who try to read malice and intrigue into everything, but there you go.
However, a sign of how the cabinet mood has changed since the election was provided by two other cabinet ministers who were going round the Spectator garden telling anyone they encountered that Theresa May’s authority was shot. One of them even asked a journalist: “So, how long before we can topple her?” This was said with Theresa May standing three feet away. It was followed up by: “We can say anything we like now. She can’t do anything to us.” Astonishing, not to say rather grubby. Another cabinet minister, said to have leadership ambitions was criticising the PM to anyone would listen. I know that because I heard the same reports from three separate sources.
As you will read about below, on Wednesday I interviewed the Prime Minister. Given what she told her cabinet on Tuesday about unity and the importance of not leaking, I was severely tempted to warn her about who exactly was briefing against her. I’ll leave it to you to wonder whether I actually did.
There was nearly a by-election recently, when a Conservative MP and a researcher were nearly asphyxiated. They entered a lift in Portcullis House only to find out that the Labour MP who had just left the lift had clearly left a rather nasty aroma behind. They bailed out on the next floor and walked the next two floors up, rather worried in case the next occupants of the lift blamed it on them.
On Wednesday afternoon I trotted off to Number Ten to interview with Prime Minister. I interviewed her many times when she was Home Secretary but it was my first time with her as Prime Minister. If I am honest I was a little apprehensive because I have always found her very difficult to interview, despite the fact that the last time I interviewed her she ended the interview by calling me ‘darling’. Long story. You had to be there. Also, the previous interviews had all been quite short. Normally, I prefer not to over-prepare for an interview because it can lead to a stultifying conversation if you just stick to a list of pre-prepared questions. To my mind, an interview has to have a conversational element to it, otherwise it can degenerate into a presenter haranguing an interviewee who then puts up the shutters and resorts to meaningless slogans. Being conversational does not, contrary to popular opinion, mean that you do a ‘soft’ interview. Just because you don’t shout, doesn’t mean you’re not being tough, but I have long given up on the idea that some people will ever accept that.
Anyway, you can judge for yourself by listening to it HERE. I encountered a prime minister who didn’t seem at all brow-beaten, at all lacking in authority. I encountered a prime minister who seemed to have recovered her MoJo.
I asked the Prime Minister if she thought Chris Evans was worth 12 times her salary, and if Gary Lineker was worth ten Clare Baldings. While I think we are entitled to know what kind of salaries the BBC are paying their top executives and top talent, I don’t believe we need to know the exact salary that individuals are paid. Does it really add to the sum of human knowledge to know that Laura Kuenssberg is paid a third of what Jeremy Vine gets? Well, I suppose it means we know there is a huge gender pay gap at the BBC, but beyond that, it just appeals to the prurient and envious. On my radio show people then felt entitled to demand I reveal my own salary. I’m certainly not embarrassed about the money I earn, but the only people that have a right to know what I earn are my boss, my partner and the tax man. And I think that should apply to John Humphrys, Eddie Mair and anyone else whether they are in the public eye or not. They are not public servants in the way MPs and senior civil servants are. But there is nothing that the BBC likes doing more than self flagellating navel gazing. On Wednesday the first 12 minutes were taken up with this story and they were talking about what their own ten o’clock news presenters were paid. You couldn’t make it up. But the shark was really jumped when Jeremy Vine, on his Radio 2 show, interviewed his boss James Purnell and asked: “Why do you pay me so much?” To which the reply was: “Because you’re fantastic.” Pass the sick bucket. And for the avoidance of doubt, I am a fan of Jeremy Vine and his show. But three Laura Kuenssbergs? Come on.
Many people think I owe the prime minister an apology for the fact that not only did I not wear a tie for the interview, I wore blue suede shoes. £42 from M&S since you ask. I thought blue suede shoes were wholly appropriate given that she was essentially saying to her cabinet: Well you can knock me down, step in my face, slander my name all over the place, but don’t do it again. Or you’ll be sacked.
This time next week I will be visiting some friends in Spain. They have a beautiful house with a fantastic pool overlooking a lake. I just want 6 days of R & R. All I intend to do is swim, sunbathe and read. And eat. And write my ConHome Diary, because nothing must stand in the way of that.