Each Friday I am writing a diary column for ConservativeHome. It’s posted there at 8.30, and will appear here around 2.30 the same day. I hope you enjoy it. Lovely graphic they’ve come up with, don’t you think? Makes me feel 30 again!
David Cameron seems to be embarking on a much-needed charm offensive with his backbenchers. On Wednesday, he made an appearance in the Stranger’s Dining Room and sat down with a dozen or so Conservative MPs. Keith Simpson entertained him by reading an extract from Gillian Shephard’s book The Real Iron Lady in which she recounts how Harold Macmillan loved to taunt Roy Jenkins about his so-called working class roots, saying: “us working class boys need to stick together, Roy”. Cameron seemed very cheery and relaxed, especially when he noticed Bill Cash couldn’t find a seat and had to plonk himself down at a nearby table.
The Cameron charm offensive continued later that night. After having spent the whole afternoon listening to the Thatcher tributes in the Commons and Lords, the Prime Minister did a rather unusual thing. He decided to repair to the Stranger’s Bar for a swift one. By all accounts it is the first time he has been seen in a Commons bar. By the time he got there, there were only a dozen people left supping. My spy says he downed a pint of Guinness, and spent most of the time being greased up to entertained by Tory MP Mark Pritchard. It was Pritchard who, during a leadership elections hustings at the 1922 Committee asked all the candidates about their drug-taking history, something leading Cameroons have never forgotten. Cameron was regaling Pritchard with stories from his CCO days when a visit from the Leaderene was greeted with total fear and terror. Bizarrely, they were also overheard talking about their favourite musicals. I have to say Mark Pritchard has never struck me as a Friend of Dorothy, but there you go! Oh, sorry, wrong musical. Apparently they were waxing lyrical about ‘Jersey Boys’. At least, I assume they were talking about the musical…
On Monday lunchtime, I was wandering through Charing Cross Station when I got a call from my LBC Producer, Matt. “There are rumours that Margaret Thatcher has died,” he said. “It’ll be another of those Twitter hoaxes,” I said. But instinct kicked in and I wondered if this time it might be for real. Three minutes later the news was officially confirmed. For a moment time stood still. I can be a little lachrymose on occasion. But journalistic professionalism kicked in and not a tear was shed, and I headed straight for LBC to prepare to go on air three hours later. As a broadcaster you want to be on air when these massive news stories break, but there was a part of me which wondered whether I could really do four hours and not become at all emotional.
Why on earth would I get emotional about the death of a politician, I can hear you asking? Well, Margaret Thatcher has been part of my life since I was 16 and first heard her speak. I’ve met her on quite a few occasions, each one of them memorable, and I have recounted several of them in an article on my blog. I’ve also written several books about her. Part of me is slightly uneasy about all the books which appear to be cashing in on someone’s death, but there can be no doubt that there is a tremendous appetite out there, particularly among young people, to find out more about Lady T’s life.
I was in the Daybreak Green Room on Tuesday morning and started talking to Robert Oxley from the Taypayer’s Alliance. He told me an interesting tale. He shares a flat with four other guys in their twenties. None of them have any interest in politics but they all sat down to watch Andrew Marr’s documentary about Margaret Thatcher on Monday night. So gripped were they, that they all decided to go to her funeral procession. She always did appeal to young people, in a way few politicians ever could.
The last time I spoke to Lady Thatcher was in January 2009 ,when I went to the Carlton Club for a drinks party hosted by Liam Fox. I was delighted to see Lady Thatcher arrive and looking absolutely fantastic. For a woman of eighty-three and supposedly in frail health, she looked stunning. I had a couple of minutes talking to her and told her it was 26 years to the day that I first met her at a reception for Conservative students at 10 Downing Street. “I think I remember that,’ she said. ‘It was so nice to see so many young people in the building. That didn’t happen very often.” We talked a little about newspapers and she said: “I never read them. I had Bernard to do it for me.” Everyone needs a Bernard…
As I left the Carlton Club, a thought struck me. If Lady T were in her heyday and had to take over as Prime Minister now, what would she do? If I had asked her, I know exactly what her reply would have been. ‘Restore sound money, dear,’ she would have said. And you know what? She’d have been dead right.
I am privileged to have been invited to the funeral on Wednesday. I’m not a religious person, but I shall say a silent prayer on behalf of all those Norfolk Conservatives who worshipped the ground she walked on. Ernie Horth, who was inspired to work for Norwich North Conservatives on behalf of the then MP, Patrick Thompson ,is one man I shall think of in St Paul’s. Former Tory agents Audrey Barker, Phyllis Reeve and Deborah Slattery will be remembering all their work to turn Norwich Blue in 1983 and 1987. I will think of my good friend Tim Quint, and remember the countless hours tramping the streets of Mile Cross in the 1983 election and uncovering hundreds of Tory voters, much to our delight. I think of Patrick Thompson who won Norwich North in 1983 and held it until 1997, and of John Powley who booted out John Barrett in Norwich South in 1983. The 1980s was a great decade to be a Tory in Norwich. And in Britain!
You’ve got to admire Independent candidates in elections. Most of them have to do everything themselves, with no campaign back-up at all. So when my doorbell rang at the weekend and our local Independent Kent County Council candidate asked for my vote, I thought I’d be nice to him. “I don’t want any more houses built in the village,” he proclaimed. “That’s a shame,” I replied. “I do, and preferably on that field over there,” I said. The field I just happen to own. Nothing like a bit of self-interest. Anyway, I thought I recognised him and sure enough, it turns out he used to be the ward committee of the local Tories. “I don’t like Greg Clark’s position on housing and that Nick Boles is a menace,” he said. Anyway, I sent him on his way thinking he was quite brave for standing at all. That is, until I had it pointed out to me later by a local Tory bigwig that he had tried to get selected as a Tory candidate in several wards and each time came bottom of the poll. Only after he had failed did he resign from the party and decide to stand as an indy. My admiration for him rather disappeared at that point.
Local Conservative Associations do wonders in raising money to keep their parties going. My own in Tunbridge Wells does a sterling job. Indeed, this week I could have attended a lunch with none other than Danny La Rue’s dressmaker, and her friend – a 75 year old drag queen. Strangely, I found a ‘subsequent’ engagement, although I gather the event was unusually well-attended. I wonder if the colonels of Tunbridge Wells were ‘disgusted’ or titillated.
This week marks the centenary of the New Statesman magazine. I suspect I am one of the few readers of this site who has a subscription to it, but it is sometimes rather a good read. The insane rantings of John Pilger are always good for a laugh, while David Blanchflower’s economic prognoses give all Conservatives a clear guide to what not to do to rescue the economy. And Laurie Penny is a must read, but only if you constantly wonder what it must be like to be obsessed with going on demonstrations. Anyway, in their centenary issue they have a debate feature titled “The Left Won the Twentieth Century”. Aside from the fact that it is grammatically impossible to ‘win’ a century, the whole proposition is preposterous. It might not have been were one experiencing Life on Mars in 1974, but looking at the century as a whole, surely it is the right that triumphed in the end? I contributed to this feature and made the point that in the end Socialism and Communism suffered a total defeat in the last quarter of the century. Can anyone really argue against that? After all, Tony Blair was, according to Margaret Thatcher, her greatest legacy. That says it all.
So the Liberal Democrat, I’m sorry, Independent, Police & Crime Commissioner for Kent, Ann Barnes, thinks she bears no responsibility for the shambolic appointment of her Youth Commissioner, Paris Brown. The way she hung this 17 year old out to dry was something to behold. I did a slightly testy interview with her on LBC on Tuesday and she swore blind that none of it was her fault. She also swore blind she hadn’t promised to pay all Paris Brown’s £15,000 salary out of her own. Funny that, as everyone else swears she did. £15k for a third of a week’s work. That really is nice work if you can get it. For a 17 year old to be on the annual equivalent of £45,000 is going some. I’m sure Kent council tax payers think it has been value for money so far. Not.
Each week in this column I’m going to recommend a website I think you all might be interested in. This week, it’s the blog of Andrew Kennedy. He’s Tory Party agent for the three constituencies of Tonbridge & Malling, Tunbridge Wells and Chatham & Aylesford. You might think that it would be rather dry, but it’s the very opposite. In a hugely entertaining manner, he describes the work, trials and tribulations of an agent, and the bizarre characters he deals with. I’m sure CCHQ would love him to shut it down, but he shines a light on a very important aspect of party campaigning. It’s also quite personal. This week he has been talking about how he deals with aspirant parliamentary candidates who are trying to ingratiate themselves with him, and also the duck which has a nest next to his narrow boat. The blog is called Voting & Boating and you can find it HERE.
That’s it for this week. I have written far more than I had intended and most future columns will be rather shorter than this. If you have anything vaguely amusing you think I might include in a future column, stick it on an email to email@example.com. Thanks for getting this far.