Interview With the Bookseller Magazine

12 Apr 2013 at 18:53

Published in this week’s Bookseller Magazine, article by Tom Tivnan.

Having stood as the Conservative candidate in Norfolk North in 2005 and been on the Tory shortlist in another handful of constituencies, Iain Dale is no stranger to giving speeches.

But the Biteback Publishing founder was perhaps not prepared for the reaction to his tub-thumping keynote speech at the Independent Publishers Guild conference in March. Dale hit out at big booksellers in general and W H Smith in particular for what he said were unfair practices, including taking marketing fees from publishers and “doing nothing in return”.

After the speech, it took Dale about 20 minutes to leave the room as fellow publishers chatted with him, and he has since been inundated by positive emails from the trade.

“I was slightly taken aback,” Dale says from Biteback’s 10th floor office with its stunning views across the Thames of the Houses of Parliament. “I wasn’t saying anything that people in the industry don’t know about. But I guess the positive reaction was because I came out and said it on a public platform.”

One entity that has not gotten in touch with Dale is WHS. “I am completely ambivalent if I sell WHS a single other book,” Dale shrugs. “Any organisation that misleads its customers deserves to be exposed [Dale accused the chain of selling places in its bestseller charts]. I know for a fact that our books come back in the boxes unopened. If you have paid a so-called marketing fee, then you expect the other party to deliver their side of the bargain.”


Dale originally entered the trade in 1997 when he founded Westminster-based political book store Politico’s. He started a publishing arm a year later but left the trade in 2004 largely to concentrate on politics—in addition to standing for Norfolk North, he ran David Davis’ 2005 Tory leadership bid (“neither of which were my finest hours”). He sold Politico’s online bookshop to Harriman House, the publishing business to Methuen, and closed the physical bookshop mostly due to Westminster’s enormous business rates.

He never intended to return to publishing, but started Biteback in 2009 because he thought that big publishers were avoiding non-celebrity political books. He is a “sucker for any political memoir, biography or diary”, and the Biteback list reflects this: new titles include Gillian Shephard’s now timely The Real Iron Lady; 5 Days in May, former Labour minister Andrew Adonis’ insider view at the collapsed Lib Dem/Labour talks after the last election; and long-time Tory MP and minister Brian Mawhinney’s memoir Just a Belfast Boy. Yet, there is scope for out of the ordinary political books. The Speaker of the House John Bercow, for example, will be writing two titles on the greatest tennis players of all time (Bercow was once Britain’s number one ranked junior tennis player).

Biteback expanded in 2011 by launching The Robson Press, Jeremy Robson’s celeb bio, humour and general non-fiction list. “In the end we couldn’t expand this business if it was just politics,” says Dale. “Jeremy is brilliant at publishing general books and this gives us the opportunity to publish whatever we want.”

A big venture this year was the Biteback Paddy Power Political Book Awards. The eight separate prizes were launched with a stellar cast of judges from the media and all sides of the political spectrum, such as Ann Widdecombe, Alastair Campbell and Sky’s chief political reporter Adam Boulton. The ceremony itself was a rare beast in an event’s first year: it made a profit.

The awards were not borne out of a wish to pat politics publishers on the back, but out of the necessity for publishers to diversify. “We had a meeting last year and thought, if in the doomsday scenario of high street collapse, how do we survive? New revenue streams like this are part of it.

“All publishers have to look to forming better relationships with individual customers, and by that I mean people not bookshops. We are going to have to reach out to people, to retail more. That’s not telling booksellers that we want to cut you out of the equation, but if they can’t sell the books, then we have to sell them, in part.”



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LBC Book Club: Iain talks to Amanda Prowse

Amanda Prowse talks about her new novel A LITTLE LOVE

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ConservativeHome Diary Week 1: Cameron & Pritchard & Friends of Dorothy

12 Apr 2013 at 14:45

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 Thanks for getting this far.



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Mark Regev Interview

Iain interviews the Israeli Ambassador to London

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UK Politics

Happy 100th Birthday to the New Statesman

11 Apr 2013 at 16:56

This week marks the centenary of the New Statesman. You might be surprised to know that I have a subscription to the magazine. It usually features some very strong writing, even if I disagree with most of it. They asked me to contribute a piece to a feature they are running in this weeks issue which debates the proposition “The Left won the twentieth century”. Needless to say it’s not something I have any truck with. I was only allowed 300 words, so here is what I sent them. Hopefully it will appear unedited!

If you had posed the statement “The Left won the twentieth century” in the 1970s, then most would have unquestionably agreed. The state was in charge of all the major industries from telecommunications to coal. Trade union leaders were regular visitors at Downing Street, and in the words of the Labour Chancellor at the time, Denis Healey, he was “squeezing the rich until the pips squeaked”. The Soviet Union was at the height of its power and influence throughout the world and the spread of Communism seemed unstoppable.

Then in the space of two years two leaders were elected who were united in the same belief – that not only the strangling influence of socialism in their own countries was wrong, but that the spread of Communism had to be tackled. Their names were Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and they would go on to change the story of the twentieth century.

Huge, state owned industries were privatised. Trade unions were vanquished, the enterprise economy was encouraged, income tax rates were slashed. On an international scale the reputational malaise suffered by Britain and America was reversed. The Falklands demonstrated to the Soviets that the West might not be the soft touch they had counted on. At last, the Americans stood up to the Communist threat in Latin America and Africa.

Thatcher stood shoulder to shoulder with Reagan and espoused the virtues of a free society, and their voices were heard loud and clear in the capitals of Eastern Europe. Thatcher spotted Gorbachev’s potential as a reformer before anyone one else and ensured that Reagan encouraged his policies of Glasnost and Perestroika. The defeat and fall of Communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall were in no small part down to these three, with more than a walk on part played by Pope John Paul II.

In the late 1990s Margaret Thatcher was asked what her greatest achievement was, she replied “New Labour”. That says all you need to know about who won the twentieth century. Even under ‘Red Ed’ Labour is no longer really a party of what we traditionally mean by ‘the Left’.



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LBC Book Club: Best of 2012 (Part 1)

Part 1 of 2. With Jack Straw, Lady Pamela Hicks, Peter Hennessy and President Mary Robinson.

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A Lovely Sony-tastic Surprise

11 Apr 2013 at 08:08

Being recognised by your peers is something I suppose we all appreciate, so when I was told today that I had been nominated for a Sony Radio Award, you can imagine how I greeted the news. I’ve been shortlisted for the Speech Radio Programme of the Year award for my LBC show. My LBC colleague Nick Ferrari is also shortlisted for the News & Current Affairs Show of the Year. The winners will be announced on 8 May at a ceremony in the West End hosted by the Radio Academy.

The other shorlisted programmes in my category are

JVS Show on BBC Three Counties
Alan Robson’s Nightowls – Metro Radio
The Listening Project – BBC Radio Documentaries with BBC English Regions & BBC Nations for BBC Radio 4
Witness – BBC News for BBC World Service

My broadcasting hero Stephen Nolan won this award last year and he sent me a lovely congratulatory text. It would be an honour to take it from him, but to be shortlisted is indeed an honour itself. It’s also good to be up against another broadcasting legend, Fi Glover, the voice behind the Listening Project. I used to co-present Sunday Service on 5 Live with her, and she is one of the most talented people on British radio. I don’t know Alan Robson but I’m told he is a radio hero in the north east. JVS, judging by Twitter, is almost as much of a self publicist and media tart as me. I enjoyed listening to him sit in for Mr Nolan last weekend. I don’t know the Witness programme, but I am sure it is superb!

Of course, as a presenter I know more than anyone how important my production team is. Over the last twelve months or so it’s been a pleasure to work with such a brilliant set of people. And in case I don’t win (!) I’m going to name them now – producers Laura Marshall, Matt Harris, Carl McQueen, Joe Pike, Caroline Allen, Christian Mitchell, Rebekah Walker, Raj Pattni and Hollie Atherton. Our reporting team are superb – Tom Cheal (political editor), Dan Freedman, Declan Harvey (now with Newsbeat) and Tom Swarbrick. I have learned so much from my fellow presenters on the station, especially my predecessors on the evening show, Petrie Hosken, and on Drive, the inimitable James Whale.

I will forever be grateful to Richard Park, Jonathan Richards, John Cushing and Chris Lowrie for giving me the chance to host a daily show on LBC. Chris Lowrie continues to keep me on the straight and narrow and isn’t afraid to tell me how I could improve. Louise Birt was an inspiration for the Sunday Show and we had many laughs together, James Rea, LBC’s Managing Editor is a very patient man and I am sure that from time to time I drive him to distraction, but my thanks also go to him for encouraging me to be the best I can be.

I’m sorry if this post reads like am acceptance speech for an award I haven’t actually won, but I’m writing it now as I don’t expect to win and want to acknowledge all those who have played their part in getting me shortlisted for this award. Thank you.



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Martin from Horsham Lays Into the PM

Martin has an epic rant about the way the Tories fought the election. Hilarious stuff

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It Shouldn't Happen to a Radio Presenter: No 6 - Reluctant Guests

9 Apr 2013 at 21:48

I’m afraid I indulged in a bit of Twitter bullying this evening. There’s nothing I hate more than some idiot know-it-all PR idiot being rude to one the team who produce my Drivetime show. In our first hour tonight we covered the resignation of the Kent Youth Police & Crime Commissioner Paris Brown. “Let’s get Ann Barnes, the actual PCC Commissioner on,” I said as I made my way down to the studio at five to four. “Tell her we’ll take her any time up to 8,” I suggested to my producer Laura.

Half an hour later Laura came down in a break and said “You’ll never believe it, but the press officer put the phone down on me.” Apparently speaking to London’s biggest commercial radio network wasn’t much of a priority for Mr Howard Cox. People often don’t realise that if you speak to LBC you also stand a good chance of appearing in the news bulletins of the Capital, Gold, Heart, Classic FM and XFM networks – 19 million possible listeners. In any case, LBC can be heard in half of Kent.

“We’ll see about that,” I said to Laura. “Watch this…” And so began a Twitter campaign over an hour designed to shame Mrs Barnes into coming on. At one point her press people tried a new tack and told us she was too tired. Having got up at 5,45 today that wasn’t an argument I was likely to entertain. Anyway, at 6pm, they finally relented, and they pleaded with us to stop tweeting. Shaming by Twitter had worked.

So at 6.50 (15 minutes later than they said) Ann Barnes graced our airwaves. It was a slightly testy encounter as you will hear if you click HERE. It lasts around seven minutes.

I didn’t make any reference to the difficulties we had had in the interview, but Mrs Barnes may reflect on the fact that her press advisers did her no good today.



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LBC97.3 Iain Talks to Dr David Starkey

"We've always been a nation of pissheads," David Starkey tells Iain.

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UK Politics

The Indefatigability of George Galloway

9 Apr 2013 at 09:03

By and large I avoided Twitter yesterday, but when I broadcast I always have it on in front of me as it’s a great resource for ‘breaking news’ stories. I decided to block anyone who appeared in my timeline who was gratuitously insulting Margaret Thatcher. I have no objection to people criticising her, it’s the vile personal abuse I cannot abide. And actually there wasn’t that much yesterday – not that I saw anyway.

But let me reserve a special mention for the semi-tragic comedic figure that is known as George Galloway. This is what he tweeted on hearing of her death.

Tramp the dirt down

And to think he leads a party which is called RESPECT. He has apparently also accused her of befriending murderous dictators. Oh the irony. Look in the mirror George, as we salute your indefatigability.




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Video: Iain & Sally Bercow review the papers

Sky News, August 21 2010

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UK Politics

Another Margaret Thatcher Memory

9 Apr 2013 at 07:55

Back in 2009 I wrote this piece for the New Statesman, which was a collection of recollections about where people were the moment they heard Margaret Thatcher had resigned as Prime Minister.

The night before Margaret Thatcher’s resignation, I remember having had rows with two Tory MPs who owed their seats to Margaret Thatcher, yet intended to switch their votes away from her in the second ballot. I went home to my dingy flat in Walthamstow feeling angry and let down – almost tearful. Watching the news, my left wing flatmate came home and started crowing about what trouble Mrs T was in. I’m not prone to physical violence, but I was tempted to hit him. By the time Newsnight finished I had realized she was finished.

The next morning, I was at my desk in Grosvenor Gardens (I had just set up a lobbying company) when I heard the news on the radio. The world stood still for a moment. I wasn’t surprised that she had stepped down, but it was still a shock. Only a few days before my three year old niece, Emma, had asked: “Uncle Iain, is it possible for a man to be Prime Minister?” We were about to find out.
I don’t mind admit I could barely talk and that my eyes were moist. It really was the end of an era. A candle went out that day. The woman who had inspired my interest in politics, saved the country from trade union control and done so much to win the cold war, had gone. Forever. Politics for me would never be quite the same.

Yesterday, I was walking through Charing Cross Station when I got a call from my LBC producer, Matt, telling me the news of her death. Time stood still for a second.

  • The photo above was taken at a dinner I organised in April 2002 at The Savoy to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Politico’s Bookstore. It was quite an evening, and took place three weeks after she suffered a series of minor strokes. She wasn’t allowed to make a speech, and I was told on no account was I to let her get to a microphone. The photo to the left shows I failed. A second after this was taken, I had my arm around her waist, pulling her away. Her speech consisted of these few words.

Thank you for that tremendous reception. It’s the kind of reception only an ex Prime Minister can get!

Even many lefties were on their feet cheering her. Liam Fox described it as “one of those great political evenings you remember for years.” I certainly did. I sat next to her for ninety minutes. Sadly, I didn’t keep a contemporaneous note of what we talked about. I do remember during a speech by Bernard Ingham, when he was telling a particularly colourful anecdote, she leaned over and whispered in my ear…

That man has a very good imagination!



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BBC Radio Berkshire: Andrew Peach interviews Iain about Bracknell

October 2009

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Memories of Margaret Thatcher

8 Apr 2013 at 14:46

Margaret Thatcher is the reason I became actively involved in politics. She inspired me, as a sixteen year old, to join the Conservative Party and do my bit to help revive Britain. One of the tasks of today’s political leaders is to provide a lead, to inspire, to motivate. Margaret Thatcher was able to do that in a way few politicians in this country have been able to emulate. My first tentative footstep into the political arena was to set up a Conservative organization in 1982 at the very left-wing University of East Anglia. Only a few months later followed my first encounter with Margaret Thatcher when she invited the chairmen of the various University Conservative Associations to a reception at Number Ten.

For a country boy like me, it was unbelievable to have been invited and it was something I had been looking forward to for months. Just to climb those stairs, with the portraits of all past Prime Ministers on the walls was worth the trip on its own. And there at the top of the stairs was the Prime Minister. She had obviously perfected the art of welcoming people to receptions and as she shook you by the hand and wished you a good evening, she moved you on into the room without you even knowing she was doing it. Most of the Cabinet were there – I remember discussing with Cecil Parkinson the number of free running shoes he had been sent after a recent profile had announced to the world that he was a keen runner. He offered me a pair but it turned out his feet were much smaller than mine! We were constantly plied with wine and I made a mental note to stop at two glasses. But after the second glass was emptied I felt rather self-conscious without a glass in my hand so grabbed another. Just as the Prime Minister walked by I took a sip. All I remember is my stomach heaving and me thinking that I was about to throw up at the Prime Minister’s feet, thus ending a glorious political career which had hardly got off the ground. Luckily I managed to control my stomach and all was well. It turned out that it was whisky in the glass, rather than white wine.

Later in the evening, as I was talking to my local MP, Alan Haselhurst, the division bell sounded. Although there were at least 40 MPs there, none made a move to leave to go and vote over the road in the House of Commons. Mrs Thatcher started to look rather irritated and was obviously none too impressed. In the end she walked to the middle of the room, took off one of her shoes and banged it on the floor. There was instance silence. The Prime Minister then spoke. ‘Would all Conservative MPs kindly leave the building immediately,’ she instructed. ‘And the rest of us will stay and enjoy ourselves!’ Naturally we all laughed uproariously, enjoying the sight of the MPs trooping out of the room in a somewhat sheepish manner.

After I graduated I went to work at the House of Commons as a researcher for a Norfolk Member of Parliament. He was not a particularly well known MP and never courted publicity. He had a marginal seat and devoted himself to his constituency rather than join the rent-a-quote mob. It served him well as he held his seat for the next two elections. If ever there was an MP less likely to be involved in sleaze it was him. But one day, a careless error by me left him open to charges of dirty dealing. We ran a businessmen’s club in the constituency, called The Westminster Circle. It served two purposes – one to keep the MP in touch with local businesses, and secondly to raise a little money for the very poor constituency association. For £100 a year business people joined and were given a dinner in the House of Commons, usually addressed by a Cabinet Minister, and another dinner in the constituency, addressed by a more junior Minister. These clubs were common in all parties up and down the country. But in a publicity leaflet designed to attract new members I had used the phrase ‘with direct access to government ministers’. By this I had meant that they would be able to meet and speak to a government minister at the dinner. In those pre ‘cash for questions’ days we were all rather innocent. But it proved to be my undoing – and very nearly my employer’s.

Early one Tuesday afternoon he found out that at that day’s Prime Minister’s Question Time, the Liberal leader, David Steel, would raise this subject with the Prime Minister. He immediately went to see her in her office behind the Speaker’s Chair. He must have been quaking in his boots but he later told me she had been brilliant. She sat him down, offered him a coffee and heard him out. She did not disguise her dislike for Steel and thought it typical of him to operate in this manner. She told him she would let Steel have both barrels, and of course she did! He returned to the Office after PM’s Question Time and related the events of the day to me. I had been completely oblivious, which was just as well as I would no doubt have been having a premonition of what a P45 looks like.

A few months later I was having lunch with a couple of Tory MPs in the Members’ Cafeteria. We had just finished our lunch when in walked Mrs T and her entourage. She grabbed a tray and chose a light lunch of Welsh Rarebit. Unfortunately, as we had finished, I did not have cause to hang around too much longer so left the room, cursing that we had decided to have an early lunch. A few minutes later I realised I had left some papers and magazines on the table in the cafeteria and returned to retrieve them. As luck would have it, the Thatcher group had sat themselves at the table we had been sitting at and Mrs T had her elbow plonked on my papers. I decided to summon up the courage and interrupt them to ask for my papers. Just as I had started I looked down at the pile of papers and to my horror saw that my copy of the new issue of Private Eye was on the top of them and the front cover had a particularly nasty photo of Denis Thatcher. Mrs Thatcher cottoned on to what I wanted, removed her elbow and gazed down at the offending magazine. My heart stopped. ‘Oh, Private Eye, Denis loves it,’ she gushed. To my eternal shame, I just picked it up, along with the rest of the papers, made my excuses and left. What a wimp.

In 1995 I took an American friend, Daniel Forrester, to the T E Utley Young Journalist of the Year awards at the Reform Club. Lady Thatcher had been invited to present the awards. She treated us to a half hour impromptu speech on political issues of the moment, which seemed to go by in about five minutes – quite an achievement as her entire audience had to remain standing throughout. After she had finished Daniel whispered to me: ‘I have to meet her, what should I do?’ Knowing of her penchant for strapping 6 feet tall dark haired American men I encouraged him to go and introduce himself. He suddenly got cold feet so eventually I dragged him over to where she was talking to several of the award winners. In typically American style he launched into a sycophantic introduction which immediately attracted her attention. ‘Mrs Thatcher,’ he began. I kicked him. ‘Er, Lady Thatcher,’ he hurriedly corrected himself, ‘May I say how much our country misses your leadership….’ and he continued in that vain for a few seconds. While he was speaking, the diminutive figure of the Iron Lady (for she is much smaller in height than most people imagine) stared up at him, her eyes never leaving his. When he had finally finished having his say, Lady Thatcher hardly paused for breath. ‘Your President, President Clinton.’ She paused, heightening the drama for our American friend. ‘He is a great communicator.’ Up came the forefinger, almost prodding Daniel’s chest. Then in a particularly contemptuous tone, came the pièce de résistance. ‘The trouble is, he has absolutely nothing to communicate.’ With that she was away. It was almost a flounce. Daniel eventually came down from whichever cloud he had been on – probably nine – and said, ‘I’ll remember that for the rest of my life’ – and as a well-known critic of Bill Clinton, has been dining out on it ever since.

Another encounter came at a retirement party for ITN’s much missed political editor Michael Brunson. My friend Alan Duncan, the Tory MP for Rutland, started a conversation with her and she suddenly asked where Denis had disappeared off to as they had to leave for a dinner. Being of diminutive stature, and me being over six feet tall he asked me to scan the room. Both of them looked at me expectantly. To my horror I spied Denis on the other side of the room talking to Michael Heseltine. I summoned up all the courage at my disposal and explained where he was. Lady Thatcher’s eyes became even bluer than normal and she exclaimed:‘Denis and I are having dinner with Cap Weinberger tonight. I think he’s rather more important than THAT man, don’t you?! If Denis isn’t over here within one minute I shall go over and stare at them.’ Luckily for Michael Heseltine, she didn’t have to.
Early in 2005 I invited Lady Thatcher to come to a fundraising party to raise money for my campaign as Conservative candidate in North Norfolk. To my delight she accepted and on a cold March evening turned up on time to work a room of fifty friends and political acquaintances. And boy did she work! She was particularly pleased to meet the teenagers present, including one with a particularly eye catching piece of metal face jewelry. My task for the evening was to guide Lady T around the room so she could meet everyone. It was a thankless task. The Iron Lady decided where she was going and no amount of me tugging at her elbow was going to persuade her otherwise!

And then, in November 2005 I launched my book, Margaret Thatcher: A Tribute in Words & Pictures, at a function in the City of London, kindly hosted by the Corporation of London. Lady Thatcher agreed to attend and made a point of speaking to everyone in the room while she was there. Especially poignant for me, was the sight of her having a protracted chat with my two nieces, Isabella and Ophelia Hunter, who were then aged ten and six. It was a very touching moment as they posed for pictures. It brought back a memory from 1988, when my cousin Nicola’s daughter Emma – then an infant – asked her mother: ‘Mummy, can a man be Prime Minister?’ She soon found out that the answer was no. …

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 absolutely stunning. I had a couple of minutes talking to her and told her it was twenty-six 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.

Like others I’m devastated by her death. I spoke to Keith Simpson MP earlier. He described her death as the end of an era. He was right.

What memories! What a woman! What a Prime Minister!



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Good Luck to Tim Montgomerie of The Times!

6 Apr 2013 at 21:44

This weekend marks the end of an era.Tim Montgomerie leaves ConservativeHome and starts a new job as Comment Editor of The Times.

Tim launched ConHome (as we now refer to it endearingly) back in 2005. Almost from Day One it acquired a degree of influence over the inner workings and machinations of the Conservative Party. It was instrumental in ensuring that party members retained a vote in the leadership election. Over the years Tim has developed the site into something that has become a must read for elected politicians, party members, opponents and journalists. Cabinet ministers know that they need to treat ConHome with the same level of seriousness that they do a national newspaper. Tim has become the ‘go-to’ pundit for the broadcast media, sometimes much to the irritation of the party hierarchy.

ConservativeHome blazed a trail for the group blog. It took the other parties some years to catch up, and some would argue they never have. The likes of LabourList, Left Foot Forward and LibDem Voice have never been able to attract more than a fraction of ConHome’s readership or influence. To an extent this has been because none of them have had a front man with the media saviness of Tim Montgomerie. It’s not an exaggeration to say that he has been able to play the media like a violin. He knows what causes controversy and he knows what kind of surveys will garner media headlines. In short he has built up the site to become something that simply cannot be ignored. So important did it become that a few years ago Michael Ashcroft decided to buy it. Some thought that would signal its inevitable decline, but they underestimated both Ashcroft and Montgomerie. Ashcroft knew full well that any sign of editorial influence could fatally damage the site and Montgomerie was never someone who would give up that editorial independence. There have been countless occasions when I have read a Tim Montgomerie editorial and thought ‘hmmm, I bet Michael disagrees with that’. And that’’s exactly how the relationship should be between proprietor and editor. And I don’t see this changing now that Paul Goodman is taking over.

So as Tim leaves I want to pay tribute to him for what he has achieved. he really has left a lasting legacy and he will not be an easy act to follow. I really hope he enjoys his new role at The Times and that he won’t miss the smell of the greasepaint too much!

I have written the odd thing for ConHome over the years but Paul Goodman has asked me to become a regular columnist. I have no formal affiliation with the Conservative Party any longer and have made clear that I don’t want to write a partisanly Tory column. So instead Paul has agreed that I will write a political diary column, which will appear on the site each Friday morning. I think they’re going to call it Iain Dale’s Friday Diary. It is intended to be a little satirical and humorous and will look at all aspects of politics.


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Call Me Old Fashioned...

6 Apr 2013 at 17:45

Buying a property is never a straightforward business. Something always seems to go wrong. A link in the chain breaks, there’s a planning issue or the mortgage company won’t come up with the goods. We’re in the middle of buying a house in Lamas, in north Norfolk, and last Sunday we went to see it again, partly to remind ourselves what it looked like seeing as it’s more than two months since our offer was accepted.

Luckily, we still loved it and can’t wait to move in. The chain seems to have formed itself and we are hopeful we can complete in May at the very latest. But my partner John seems determined that we should be able to furnish the house as soon as we get it. His bidding for sofas and tables on eBay is getting more frenetic as each week passes. We now have a dining room table and a sofa is also on the way. Goodness knows what else. He’s the sort of person who thinks nothing of buying a car on eBay. Perhaps I am a less trusting person, but I like to see and touch what I am going to buy before I actual part with my money. Call me old fashioned. OK, I’m old fashioned.


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