Dude, I Need a New Laptop!

23 May 2013 at 23:19

Dude , I need a new laptop. And it’s all your fault. In case you think I’ve gone mad, Dude is my Jack Russell, and thanks to him I’m going to have to trot off to the Sony Centre and buy a new Vaio. And before you start, don’t even think of suggesting I get a Mac. Invention of the devil. A few months ago Dude knocked my laptop off the sofa, an event which resulted in the power lead never fitting properly. It keeps dropping out of the hole, if you’ll pardon the expression. Yesterday he surpassed himself by walking across the keyboard, his paws managing to dislodge the Function key in the process. Now I can’t fix it back into its rightful place. Naughty Dude. I think that’s a perfect justification for a new computer, don’t you? I’m sure Dude does.



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Iain Clashes with Stephen Green over Tom Daley's Sexuality

And it isn't pretty...

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It Shouldn't Happen to a Radio Presenter: No 9 - Handling Breaking News of a Potential Terror Incident

22 May 2013 at 20:48

I’m writing this forty five minutes after coming off air from possibly the most challenging four hours of radio I am ever likely to be faced with. So forgive me if this is at all rambling or disjointed.

Sometime after 3pm this afternoon our Classic FM newsreader came over to my producer Matt Harris and said there was an ongoing incident in Woolwich. It looked as if someone had been killed with a machete or samurai sword and that armed police had shot the two people behind the attack. Eavesdropping, it was clear to me that this was a story which would dominate my four hour Drivetime show. At that point it had never entered my head that it could be a terror incident. As details started to come in I tweeted out asking for witnesses to phone our newsroom – frankly it was more in hope than expectation, but at around a quarter to four I noticed Matt was deep in conversation with someone on the phone. As the clock edged toward 4pm I wondered what on earth he could be talking about seeing as we needed to head down to the studio. It soon became clear. “Do a short intro telling people what we know – then get into the call quickly. James was there. He can tell us everything.”

And indeed he did. I’ve done some emotional interviews in my time. As it went on I thought to myself: “He’s still in shock”. It was gripping listening and in some ways very upsetting. I suspect I wasn’t alone in trying to hold my emotions in check. And for once I succeeded. I won’t go through exactly what James told us, but you can listen for yourself. It really is worth listening to the whole thing.

It was clear to me that this was far worse than we had ever contemplated. Calm, I thought. Just keep calm. Stick to what we know and don’t say anything unnecessarily provocative. The thing I hate in breaking news is when presenters hype up a story and keep on giving out unverified information. I was lucky to have my LBC colleague John Cushing in the studio with me, along with security expert Will Geddes. We then took a couple more eyewitness calls, including this one from Lauren, who had been on a bus which arrived at the scene shortly after it had happened.

We were later joined by Robert Fox, the Evening Standard’s defence correspondent and talked on the phone to various police, armed forces and security experts. It soon became clear that the Met and the government were treating it as a terror incident so our coverage needed to change to reflect that, and I hope we transitioned into that in a manner which our listeners found informative.

I then decided to give our muslim listeners an opportunity to tell me their reaction to what had happened. If I were a muslim my heart would have sunk and I’d have been thinking ‘here we go again’. We have a lot of calls, most of which I couldn’t get to, but they all had the same message. Not in our name.

By this time, the Daily Mail were using our interview with James, and Sky News flashed up a giant LBC logo as they replayed part of it. I was being deluged with texts and tweets from other journalists asking or James’s number. I’m afraid I had to say that he was in no condition to do more interviews, especially as I had finished my interview by telling him I thought he could do with talking to someone who could counsel him properly. It was the responsible thing to do, I thought.

So, as I travel on the train back to Tonbridge the professional radio presenter in me was grateful to have been on air during such a major breaking news story, but there’s a small part of me that keeps thinking ‘could I have done that better? Did I strike the right tone? Was I asking the right questions?’ Judging by the reaction on Twitter I did, but I’m sure as my head hits the pillow tonight I will be thinking of that one thing I wanted to say but didn’t.

A quick thank you to the superb LBC team today – Matt, Laura, Chris, John, Tom and Rachel in particular. And that’s what it was. A team effort. Without a cross word! Not bad over four hours. I love live radio!



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LBC 97.3: Iain Dale's Sunday Debate: Leveson

Mark Lewis, Professor Stephen Barnet and Jim Fitzpatrick MP debate the imminent Leveson Report.

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ConservativeHome Diary Week 6: Who Are The Harlots of British Politics?

19 May 2013 at 10:25

Back in 2009 I published Nigel Farage’s autobiography. Not a single bookshop chain would stock it. Booksellers have always been of a leftish persuasion and they proved impossible to shift. In late 2011 we published an updated version, called Flying Free, which contained three added chapters, including the full story of his plan crash on election day. He had also regained the leadership of UKIP, but Waterstone’s still weren’t interested. Of all the books I have published, this book has sold the highest per centage on Amazon, largely because bookshops wouldn’t stock it. However, out of the blue last week Waterstone’s have placed a large order and you should now find the book in most of their stores. Even they can now see very clearly which way the wind is blowing. I emailed Nigel to tell him the good news and he replied by saying: “Thank you for the good news. You are now represented by a UKIP councillor.” Which indeed, I am. I will leave it to your imagination to guess which one of the three members of the Dale household helped bring that about.

Unfortunately I missed the party of the week, held in David Davis’s office. I was too busy not winning a Sony Radio Award. The bash was imaginatively titled “the Return of the Prodigal Daughter Party”, and it was to welcome Nadine Dorries back into the fold. Quite unbelievably, people in Number 10 tried their best to ensure a non-attendance from the 2010 intake by making veiled threats like “remember there’s a reshuffle coming up” and the like. They even called a meeting of backbenchers in Number 10 to try to scupper the attendance. Perhaps they should take a leaf out of David Davis’s book and embrace sinners that repent. I well remember the day in October 2005 when Nadine, who had been one of David’s proposers in the first round, came down to his office to tell him face to face she was supporting Cameron in the second round. At least she had the courage to do it to his face, unlike one of her female contemporaries who decided to announce it on the World at One. I remember ringing her and saying it might have been nice to tell David himself before she went on the media. “Oh, really?” she said, it clearly never having crossed her mind. She quickly sent a handwritten note down. I threw it in the bin.

Talking of the “Prodical Daughter”, as she shall henceforth be known, it is very interesting to compare her fortunes over suggesting Tory MPs stand on a joint ticket at the next election, to that of the rising star Nicholas Boles. In his book Which Way’s Up he suggested that at the next election Tory MPs should, in some circumstances stand on a join Conservative/LibDem ticket. Nadine has now suggested that they should stand on a Conservative/UKIP ticket. Nick Boles was promoted, while the usual Tory sources treat Nadine with derision. It is perfectly easy to argue a political case against what Nadine is suggesting (something I have to say I don’t agree with any more than I agreed with Nick Boles), but what is not acceptable is this idea that anything Nadine says or suggests should be dismissed as something coming from a dippy woman.

Have you ever read a column in a newspaper and thought “Damn, I wish I had written that?” I had that moment on Wednesday morning when I read Iain Martin’s Telegraph column “Cameron and his party conspire to create a Euro shambles”. It encapsulated the very thoughts I was too inarticulate to put down on paper. I would truly love to know what the Prime Minister’s real view on Europe is, because after the last few days I am buggered if I know. I would have thought he would have learned from the Major years, but it appears not. John Major’s view was shaped by whatever was said by whoever spoke to him most recently. One moment he was the “most Eurosceptic member of the Cabinet”, the next he wanted to be at heart of Europe. Time to choose, Prime Minister. No one respects someone whose main aim on this issue seems to be to follow public opinion rather than lead it.

Quelle surprise that the BBC has appointed a Guardianista, Ian Katz, to be the new editor of Newsnight. Employing its former political correspondent clearly wasn’t enough for them. What Andrew Marr called the BBC’s ‘liberal mindset’ is clearly alive and well in Broadcasting House. It’s an odd appointment in many ways as Katz has absolutely no experience of working in television. He’s actually a very nice guy and in my experience isn’t particularly lefty and I wish him well. He certainly leaves a hole at The Guardian. Perhaps they might dare to promote a woman to replace him. That would be a first.

The LibDems have always been the harlots of British politics but their stance on a European referendum really has to come under closer scrutiny. They try to pretend that their policy of offering an In/Out referendum was always linked to some dramatic power push by Brussels. No it wasn’t. It was independent of any treaty change. The leaflet that Edward Leigh held up at PMQs was clear. No mention of treaty change. Clegg tried to wriggle out of it, but no reasonable person could interpret their words in any other way than I have. “Only a referendum on British membership of the EU will let the people decide out country’s future.” It continues “Labour don’t want the people to have their say.” No change there then. And this is the next sentence: “The Conservatives only support a limited referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Why won’t they give the people a say in a real referendum?” That’s about as clear as it can be. And it’s why Cameron should have used government time to put his Draft Referendum Bill to Parliament in government time. It would have flushed out the LibDems and also put Ed Miliband in a quandary. But once again the children in Downing Street have flunked it.



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LBC Parliament: With Hilary Devey, Peter Tatchell & Melanie Philips

The LBC Parliament is broadcast every Thursday from 7-8pm

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UK Politics

The Swivel Eyed Loon Cameroon Should Be Named & Shamed But Our Journos Are Frit Because of Leveson

18 May 2013 at 09:50

The Times and Telegraph regale us with front page stories of a Cameron ally who has called Conservative Party activists ‘swivel-eyed loons’. This is how James Kirkup in the Telegraph reported it.

Grassroots Conservative activists are “mad swivel-eyed loons” who are forcing Tory MPs to take extremist positions opposing gay marriage and Europe, one of David Cameron’s closest allies has said. The comments, from a member of the Prime Minister’s inner circle, come amid recent rifts between Mr Cameron and his party over Coalition policies. The remarks were made by a senior figure in the Conservative Party who has strong social connections to the Prime Minister. “There’s really no problem,” the Conservative figure said about the parliamentary turmoil. “The MPs just have to do it because the associations tell them to, and the associations are all mad swivel-eyed loons.”

Nothing like exaggerating to make a point, eh? Of course there are swivel eyed loons among the Tory Party membership. Just as there are in any party. It’s just a shame that the Liberal Democrats have more than their fair share. Just go to a LibDem conference and you will see what I mean.

The Times have four journalists – Sam Coates, Laura Pitel, Ruth Gledhill and Roland Watson – who have put their name to the story – a classic trick if a single journalist fears retribution. Quite why their religion correspondent is a contributor to this is anyone’s guess.

Tory activists are “mad, swivel-eyed loons”, according to one of David Cameron’s closest allies. The incendiary comment made at a private dinner this week is likely to plunge relations between the Prime Minister and his party to a new low. It offers a rare insight into the disregard and irritation felt by the Prime Minister’s inner circle towards Conservative Party members up and down the country. The senior figure, who has strong social connections to the Prime Minister and close links to the party machine, blamed grassroots members for the rebellion by MPs on Europe this week.

Neither newspaper sees fit to name this individual, thus again proving how insidious the lobby system is. Does anyone seriously imagine if Nadine Dorries had made these comments at a private dinner she wouldn’t have been named? One rule for her… Ah, but it was an off-the-record-comment, the journalists bleat. That’s how it works. What hogwash. Remember when Cameron told a private dinner with News International in 2005 that he saw himself as the ‘heir to Blair’? Did any journalist quiver before naming Cameron even though it was an off-the-record private dinner? No, of course they didn’t. So why not name this name now? Could it be anything to do with them or their editors being intimidated by Leveson? But as Isabel Oakeshott says on Twitter…

Re.identity of swivel eyed loon culprit, seems to me it’s a when, not an if, they will be unmasked. Too many senior journalists know

Quite a few people on Twitter are naming one particular Cameron groupie as the culprit on the basis that he is in the ’PM’s social circle’ and ‘close to the party machine’. However, we all know there are quite a few other people who also fit those criteria. So if it isn’t him he is being unfairly traduced.

One thing we can be sure is this. Whoever it is will be shitting bricks this morning that they will be named in the Sunday papers. And so they should be.



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LBC 97.3: Iain Dale talks to Margaret Thatcher about the Royal Wedding

Lady Thatcher talks about what she expects from the Royal Wedding.

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It Shouldn't Happen to a Radio Presenter: No 8 - Interviewing at Short Notice: Tia Sharp's Grandmother

16 May 2013 at 12:24

“Can you get here in 30 minutes. You’re doing an interview with Tia Sharp’s Grandmother and stepdad.” This phone call from my LBC producer came the day after Stuart Hazell, Tia’s Grandmother’s ex-partner had been sent to prison for 38 years for Tia’s brutal murder. They hadn’t done any other radio interview, so for us it was a big deal. I knew the basics of the case but I knew I hadn’t got the detailed knowledge that any interviewer likes to have before doing an interview like this. My basic rule in these circumstances is to think what the listener would be asking if they had the chance. So I jotted down a few ideas and one of our reporters who had been following the case briefed me. Before I knew it they walked into the studio and off we went.

It’s probably the most awkward interview I have ever conducted. By awkward, I mean that initially a lot of their answers consisted of one word. Yes, or no. I didn’t blame them for being suspicious, and I had to bear in mind that they weren’t used to being interviewed. But I ploughed on and asked some pretty tough questions. The key one was whether we really could believe that Christine, as Tia’s grandmother, really had no idea that Stuart Hazell wasn’t safe to leave with Tia. She adamantly denied that she could have known anything. I pressed her and brought up his drug dealing conviction and the fact he walked around their estate with a machete. I knew he smoked dope in front of Tia, so I brought that up too. Christine seemed to think that was perfectly normal behaviour. I replied that wouldn’t be the view of mot normal people.

It became clear that the lifestyle this family led was one which Tia’s grandmother felt was perfectly normal and appropriate. The disconnect between that and what society regards as normal is clearly immense.

They accused the police of treating them like dirt, and maintained that if they been posh, the police would have acted very differently. I found this a bizarre accusation and reminded them that many of the police officers who had worked hard to find Tia would have been from a similar background. It was indeed very wrong that it took three searches of Hazell’s attic before Tia’s body was found, but that was surely an example of crass incompetence rather than anything more sinister.

When we played out the interview on my drivetime show the overwhelming reaction was that they had not covered themselves in glory. They had shown precious little compassion or contrition. In fact. A lot of people felt they sounded downright weird. One or two people accused me of sensationalist journalism and trying to be like Jeremy Kyle. It’s nonsense, of course, because all I was doing was giving them a chance to put their side of the story. If you’d like to judge for yourself, listen to the interview, and let me know what you thought.



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LBC Book Club: Iain talks to Amanda Prowse

Novelist Amanda Prowse talks about her new book CLOVER'S CHILD and much else besides!

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Random Thoughts

A New Way of Measuring Economic Activity - Full Station Car Parks!

15 May 2013 at 09:38

In October 2008 I wrote a blogpost where I suggested that the number of spaces free at Tonbrige Station car park of a morning was a decent indicator of economic activity. In the five years up to then, the car park had been full, or nearly full by 8.15 in the morning. But after that, it never was. You could arrive at 10am and still be fairly sure of getting a space. And that’s how it’s been until the last few weeks. But recently I have noticed that it’s been more and more difficult to find a space. This morning disaster struck and there wasn’t a space to be had. It’s the first time that has happened for years. Scoff all you like, but that is surely a sign that economic activity is increasing, with more people needing to travel to London early in the morning.

So this morning I had had to park where I shouldn’t. Hopefully the local traffic warden has got the day off.



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Iain interviews Ken Clarke

Ken is in fine form

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Gongless at the Sonys

13 May 2013 at 23:58

I wish I could say I am a good loser. But I’m not. “Oh you’ve done so well to be nominated,” they kept saying. “You’ve only been doing radio for two years, it’s great to be shortlisted.” Well, yes. Up to a point, Lord Copper. It really was both a surprise and an honour to be shortlisted, to be in the top 5 of what I am told were more than 50 entries for Best SPeech Radio Programme at the Sonys.

But anyone who sits at an awards dinner and doesn’t want to win is lying. And I am no different. And I was gutted not to be in the top three, even if the glass awards were particularly hideous! I’m really not being a sore loser. At all. But I knew what I wanted to say if I had had the opportunity to get up on that platform and I was hugely disappointed not to have had the opportunity. I wrote it down last night just on the offchance I might get a chance to say it. I wasn’t going to read it out, but I wanted to write it down so it was clear in mind. You might think this a rather crass thing to do, seeing as I didn’t win. But here’s what I wanted to say.

I’d like to thank my fabulous producers, Laura Marshall, Carl McQueen and Matt Harris (all pictured) for their patience, guidance and inspiration. And to Joe Pike, Caroline Allen, Christian Mitchell, Rebekah Walker, Hollie Atherton, Tom Cheal, Tom Swarbrick, Dan Freedman and Raj Pattni, who have all, over the last year, showed what a brilliant, young team we have at LBC. Thanks to Richard Park, Ashley Tabor and Stephen Miron for giving me the chance to do what I do. I just wish I had been able to do it 10 years ago. It’s so much more fun than trying to become an MP. And failing.

I want to pay tribute to a man many of you in this room, who have worked at LBC over the last quarter of a century, will know and love. A month ago he celebrated 25 years with us. His name is Chris Lowrie. He lives and breathes LBC and has made me a better broadcaster than I ever thought I could be.

I’m indebted to James Rea for believing in me and encouraging me to be the best I can be. James has this rather David Brent-esque saying that our callers are our hit records. But it’s true. They are what speech radio is all about.

So to Bill on the M25 who I spent twenty minutes talking to, he having told me he was about to commit suicide live on air, I hope I said the right thing. To Anne in Enfield, who told me about her rape eleven years ago and that she hadn’t told her husband – who then phoned back the next night and told me she had now told her husband and she felt as if she could see the blue sky again, I’ll remember your call until the day I die.

And to all those callers who start their calls by saying ‘you don’t half sound like Rick Stein’, thanks for making me smile.

My mother died nearly a year ago. Mum, I hope I’ve made you proud.

And that’s what it was all about. Making my Mum proud of me. Silly old Hector.

Awards evenings are funny things. Tonight there were 31 awards doled out. Far too many. It was a conveyor belt. They could easily delete ten of them and no one would notice. The highlight of the evening was meeting Billy Ocean. I’ve got all his records – Red Light Spells Danger, When the Going Gets Tough, Love on Delivery. The whole lot. And what a lovely man.

I heard last week I had been nominated for Radio Presenter of the Year at the Arqiva Awards in July. I’m up against Frank Skinner and a double act from Real Radio, Dixie & Gayle. These awards are for commercial radio only, which is probably just as well, because at the Sonys the more the evening went on, the more it seemed you had to be a BBC programme to win!



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Britain Decides: LBC Election Night highlights

Iain Dale & Shelagh Fogarty present LBC's election night coverage.

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Memories of Margaret Thatcher: Esther Rantzen

13 May 2013 at 09:00

*This is an extract from my new book MEMORIES OF MARGARET THATCHER, which is published this week. A new extract will appear at 9am every day this week. The book contains 215 such essays by people from all walks of life who encountered the Iron Lady. You can order a signed copy of the book HERE

By Esther Rantzen

Mrs Thatcher and I are both products of the same Oxford college, Somerville. When she went there, and when I did, it was for women only, and we were taught by generations of pioneering women scholars. But I have never believed Mrs Thatcher should be judged, first woman Prime Minister though she was, as a woman. We at Somerville were encouraged to think rationally, using our minds, not our gender, and for me Mrs T thought like a scientist. She wanted to put forward policies that worked, that were successful. She felt the same about people, encouraging those who worked, and were successful. But there was one area in which it seemed to me that she thought and acted like a woman. And that was the absolute priority she placed on child protection.

I came up with the idea for ChildLine in 1986, (0800 1111, free, confidential, open 24/7) and there were plenty of people at the time who were horrified by the concept that abused children could be encouraged to ask for help themselves, on their own initiative. But Mrs Thatcher understood immediately that an anonymous helpline is the only way abused or neglected children could be helped. Child abuse, especially child sexual abuse, is a secret crime. It usually goes undetected by any helping agency. ChildLine offers abused children their one safe way to seek help, and protection.

Given the controversy around the idea, it was a thrill for the ChildLine team when very soon after our launch she hosted a reception at Number Ten for us. (There is a picture of her with some of the stars who came, Frank Bruno, David Frost, Susan Hampshire). But even more crucial than the celebrities we were able to invite were the philanthropists and the government ministers to whom we were able to describe our work. I stood in the receiving line next to the Prime Minister, pinching myself because I couldn’t believe I was in such distinguished company, as the rich, famous and powerful shook our hands. There was a momentary lull in the line of guests, and Mrs Thatcher turned to me.
“Miss Rantzen,”she said, “What are the long-term effects of child abuse?”

It was a big question, and I answered carefully. “Well, Prime Minister,” I replied, “If everything we learn as children about love, and trust, and loyalty, we learn first of all from our parents, and if instead we learn from them shame, and fear, and betrayal, it’s not surprising that abuse victims often end up with broken marriages, or in addiction units, or psychiatric hospitals, or prison.” By the time I had finished Mrs Thatcher’s famous blue eyes had glazed, and I thought, “Dammit, I’ve bored her. I’ve spent a life-time boring my family, and decades boring the viewers, now I’ve bored the Prime Minister.”

Then the guests began arriving again, and we continued shaking hands. Then Mrs Thatcher brought out on the embroidered footstool she always stood on so as to be seen and heard by everyone, and started her speech. She talked about the NSPCC (of which she was a constant supporter) and Christmas time (which was approaching) as a time to think about children, and then she said “You know, if everything we learn as children about love, and trust and loyalty we learn first of all from our parents, and if instead we learn from them shame, and fear, and betrayal…..” and she went on, word perfect, exactly as I had inadvertently briefed her. I stood next to her, with two thoughts in my head. Firstly, gratitude that I had not intended that to be my speech, because I was speaking second. And then, awe, at how brilliantly she had taken a brief, recognized information she could use, and used it, perfectly.

I spoke next, nervously reading every word, describing the suffering of the children who were ringing ChildLine. The third speaker was a survivor, who was fund-raising for us. She took my place on the footstool and looked around the grand stateroom, filled with distinguished guests. “My father,” she began, “was a Mason and a policeman, and I tell you that because I want you to understand how respected he was in our community. But nobody knew what he did to us children, once the front door had closed behind him.” And then the memories and the occasion overwhelmed her, and she broke down in tears.

She got down, and disappeared into the crowd, and I took her place on the footstool and explained that it was too late to do anything to protect yesterday’s children, like her. However, she had told me that she was determined to do everything she could to save today’s and tomorrow’s children, like her own daughters, and that was why she was raising money for ChildLine. Then I got off the footstool, and went to look for her. Someone said, “She’s in the Prime Minister’s private study.”

So I followed her, and found myself in a room with comfortable sofas, our fund-raiser sitting on one of them, and the Prime Minister bustling around filling a glass of water for her, and finding a towel for her to dry her eyes. As I arrived, Mrs Thatcher was saying “Now, my dear, you can stay here as long as you want. And cry if you want to, it’s better to let your feeling out, don’t try and bottle them up. That will only make you feel worse”. I watched, hugely impressed. Was this really the “Iron Lady”? This was an empathetic woman, instinctively saying and doing the simple, right, comforting and supportive things. I said, “Don’t worry, Prime Minister, I’ll stay here, you go back to the reception,” and when she was sure we didn’t need any more help from her, she went back to the party.

But that wasn’t quite the end of the story. On my way home with my husband, Desmond, we stopped to buy an evening paper, and there on the front page in a huge headline was the report, “Prime Minister comforts sobbing victim of abuse in Number Ten. At a ChildLine reception today…..” So her team had spotted what I had seen, the Iron Lady showing a compassionate heart, had decided to use it, and ChildLine was also given helpful publicity for our work.

So I treasured the memory of the consummate politician, who could take a brief, show instinctive compassion, with a highly professional team to support her, and use the whole event to support the work of an important new charity.

Later she came to visit our offices, and said, “You call ChildLine a helpline, I call it a life line.” And quietly, pausing in one of our corridors, she pulled out of her iconic handbag a personal cheque from her, a generous donation to ChildLine.

Towards the end of her life, Lady Thatcher attended a Women of the Year Lunch. She had been advised not to make any more public speeches, but typically she had ignored the advice, and spoke eloquently about history, and her feelings about her country. Afterwards I went up to her and said, “Lady Thatcher, I want to thank you for the wonderful support you gave ChildLine in our earliest days. We could not possibly have launched so successfully without your help.” She looked at me, and once again I have a memory of those bright blue eyes, focussed on me. “Nothing,” she said slowly, “Is more important that protecting children from abuse. Nothing.”

And I knew that came from the Iron Lady’s heart.



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LBC Book Club: Iain Dale talks to Simon Callow & Jane Ridley

Simon Callow discusses his biography of Charles Dickens and Jane Ridley talks about her biography of Edward VII.

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Memories of Margaret Thatcher: Petronella Wyatt

12 May 2013 at 09:00

This is an extract from my new book MEMORIES OF MARGARET THATCHER, which is published this week. A new extract will appear at 9am every day this week. The book contains 215 such essays by people from all walks of life who encountered the Iron Lady. You can order a signed copy of the book HERE

By Petronella Wyatt

I first met Margaret Thatcher when I was nine and she was on the point of winning her first election victory. My father, Woodrow Wyatt, a former Labour politician who had become disenchanted with his old party, had come to view her as Britain’s only hope of recovery. They had met at a lunch a few years before and formed a firm friendship. When he announced one Saturday that she would be paying us a visit, he spoke with reverence. “Mrs Thatcher,” he declared, “will be our saviour.”

What was one to expect? An icy, imperial goddess? A sly termagant? Or a respectable middle-class lady quietly pouring out the tea? At five o’clock I presented myself in my father’s study. Margaret Thatcher had her face turned towards the wall. How she confounded my expectations and yet, in a strange and remarkable way, fulfilled them. Her face, which in those days was lightly made-up, had the stamp of command and also the mark of the ordinary.

Her features were regular and her suit, which was yellow, gave them a golden glow. Her gaze was both sharp and soft. “Soah, you-ah ah Petronahlla.” At least that is an approximation of what she sounded like. (She had begun, in secret, to take vocal lessons from Harold Macmillan; the result being that she sounded a little like a Home Counties Scarlett O’Hara.) “Cahm here, dear.” A plump apple-white finger alighted on a badge I been given at school, which bore the words “British Smile Day”.

“That’s right,” she said. “Keep smahling.” I was 14 when I met her again. The woman I had sipped tea with was now the first female incumbent of 10 Downing Street. “The Prime Minister is coming for a drink,” said my father. “Could you made her a whisky and soda?’ Trembling, I handed her a glass. Then my father did a terrible thing. “I’m going upstairs to fetch a book. Please entertain Mrs Thatcher while I’m gone.”

I stood petrified. Perhaps because of her office, she seemed less suburban and more supreme. She has the seductive smile of Ingrid Bergman, but there was a visible majesty of a sort that would terrify her enemies. Eventually she spoke and her divine stamp took on a surprising benevolence. “You’re not smiling any more, dear,” she said, all the affectation wiped from her now cello-contralto voice.

Her powers of recall were astonishing. I simpered. “Which of your school work do you like best?” she enquired. “History, Prime Minister.” I searched my brain for great Conservatives and blurted out the name of the reforming Victorian prime minister Robert Peel. There was a terrifying silence. Finally she said in a tone of pure horror. “Robert Peel! Too many U-turns.”

Sometimes I thought my father entertained a fondness for Thatcher that balanced precariously on the edge of love. My suspicions were aroused when his thoughts turned from economic figures to her own. He compared her legs to those of Cyd Charisse and her eyes to Elizabeth Taylor’s. I noticed my mother becoming increasingly annoyed as he finished one peroration with “Margaret is what Napoleon said about Josephine. She is all woman.”

It was true that Thatcher had a surprising susceptibility to men. Not to all men, but, like Elizabeth I, to those with a sort of gaudy glamour and an insinuating flirtatiousness: Jeffrey Archer, Richard Branson, whom she adored, and Cecil Parkinson.

She was an amalgam of strength and vulnerability. She could be jealous of other women, and took praise like attar of roses; she sucked it into her skin. Once, when I impudently complimented her on her knowledge of history, she thanked me almost shyly. “Those Tory grandees think I’m ignorant, but I have read the great Dean Swift.”
My mother admired Thatcher but was cautious of embracing her with my father’s wholehearted bonté. She had discovered, by listening at the door, that her husband spoke to the Prime Minister every morning before breakfast. When she and Denis next came for dinner, my mother was baleful. The discussion turned to the economy and my mother decided to vouchsafe an opinion. “You know, Woodrow, I think that…” At once she was interrupted by the Prime Minister. “Be quiet, dear,” she said. “Your turn will come.”

As a dinner guest she displayed a sense of humour of which the public knew nothing. My father adhered to the Edwardian habit of asking the women to leave the room after pudding, so that the men could enjoy cigars and “serious conversation”. “But you can’t send me out of the room,” she protested, “I’m the Prime Minister!” She also enjoyed a risqué joke. I remember mentioning the notorious, orgiastic activities of the 18th-century Hellfire Club. “ Shut up,” hissed my father. “No, don’t!” rejoined Thatcher.

In time, however, my mother warmed to what her detractors fail to comprehend: Margaret Thatcher’s essential humanity. Her natural instincts were unselfish and compassionate. She was genuinely distressed by the misfortune of others. Her eyes would soften with tears at tales of privation. She worriedly intervened when anyone she knew was ill. When I mentioned to her, during the height of the Westland crisis, that my mother was undergoing an eye operation, she was aghast. “But why didn’t you tell me at once?” The following day, my mother’s hospital room was inundated with flowers and exotic hampers of fruit.

To me, she showed immense kindness and took an unwarranted interest in my activities. She encouraged me when I sat my A-levels. She was with me when I decided to leave Oxford University, taking my part against my father. “Don’t be a snob, Woodrow. Those Oxford dons are unspeakable. She knows what she’s doing.”

I often thought she was anxious for me to find a husband. It was not that she disliked feminism. Rather, she believed a stable home life was a prerequisite for a successful career. “Everyone needs to be cherished,” she told me. “Without Denis I would never have reached the starting blocks.”

It was touchingly evident how much they loved each other; nor did they require photographs to be released to the newspapers to prove it. Thatcher had an old-fashioned view of publicity from which present politicians could benefit. Never was her family to be used to further her political career. “If you can’t manage a political crisis,” she once said, “it is morally wrong to involve civilians.”

As I grew up, she became a fixed point in my life. It was impossible to imagine any premier but her. But it was not to be. Power failed to corrupt Thatcher, but eventually she became isolated and complacent. The Romans kept their leaders on their toes by employing someone to run behind a man during a triumph, whispering: “You are only a mortal.” Slowly and anxiously I watched as Thatcher’s once infallible antennae began to fail her.

Disaffected members of the Tory party threw out barbs and squibs. Thatcher seemed exhausted by her travails. The results of the first ballot came in. Michael Heseltine had deprived her of an overall victory. At 6.30 the following morning, my father received a telephone call from No 10. It was his beloved Margaret. She spoke slowly and painfully, “I have decided to resign. I wanted to tell you before I made the announcement.”

It was the only time I saw my father cry. I, too, began to weep as he railed against “Tory traitors — the Labour Party would never have behaved like this to any of its leaders”. I felt as if I had lost my Earth Mother, the symbol of my youth.

When my father died in 1997, her letter was the longest and most comforting I received. Then Denis followed and she seemed to diminish physically. She spoke to me of her terrible loneliness. “ Look after your mother. It’s a terrible thing, to be alone.” She was becoming ill and losing her train of thought. It was anguish to watch. I saw her less and less, though occasionally she would overcome her frailty to attend parties given by friends, and for a few fleeting moments, her brilliance would emerge.

One of Lady Thatcher’s least publicised qualities, which raised her above any other politician I have known, was the complete absence of schadenfreude or triumphalism. In 1992, I was fortunate enough to be asked by Alistair McAlpine, Lady Thatcher’s former Treasurer and close friend, to spend election night with the recently deposed premier and her family at his London home. Denis and Mark Thatcher were understandably bitter. When Tory wet Chris Patten, whose vitriol towards her had known no bounds, lost his seat, they leapt to their feet and whooped like Watusi chieftains. I shall never forget the majesty on her features as she reprimanded them: ‘Sit down at once! The misfortune of others is never a cause for celebration.’

I can hear her now, sensible and eminently kind. She was the best and wisest person I have ever known. Countless tributes will be made and countless books will call her one of the greatest figures in British history. But now I am remembering the woman who made a shy girl feel important, and the touch of her cool hand. Margaret Thatcher is dead, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.


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Memories of Margaret Thatcher: Carol Thatcher

11 May 2013 at 09:00

This is an extract from my new book MEMORIES OF MARGARET THATCHER, which is published this week. A new extract will appear at 9am every day this week. The book contains 215 such essays by people from all walks of life who encountered the Iron Lady. You can order a signed copy of the book HERE

By Carol Thatcher

For a workaholic, No 10 was the perfect home: a staircase of just 17 steps led from the private flat to the prime minister’s study on the first floor. It had to be the shortest commute in London. The flat quickly dispelled the popular image of grand living. It was converted out of attic rooms during Neville Chamberlain’s time. When it was portrayed in a Bond film, we all looked enviously because it was much more glamorous than the real thing.

I recall domestic arrangements being very do-it-yourself. Often, guests who came up to the flat for an early-evening gin and tonic would find one or other of my parents co-ordinating glasses, with one of us racing down the stairs to the catering kitchen to fill up the ice bucket from the machine there because no one had thought to refill the ice trays in our own freezer. My father wasn’t keen on ice in drinks, though. “Dilutes it,” he used to claim.

My mother regarded food simply as fuel and had no claims to being a foodie. The late playwright Ronnie Millar, who used to come in for speech-writing sessions often on a Sunday evening used to raise his eyebrows and mutter: “Lasagne again.”

My mother had total tunnel vision when it came to work. As kids, my brother and I were watching a pop music show on TV while she was doing constituency paperwork in the same room. I asked if she wanted me to turn the volume down. No, she replied, she hadn’t realised it was on.

When I was at boarding school she was meticulous about turning up to school functions but always had a file of paperwork to sign or read when there was a lull in proceedings.
I think she was the most practical, efficient and organised person I have known. I once read that she was described as “fanatically tidy” while I was “fanatically messy”. I couldn’t argue.

On the evening of Friday 2 April 1982, my father was downing a gin and mixer in the drawing room of the flat at No. 10, when a message was delivered by a member of the Prime Minister’s staff. Argentina had invaded the Falklands. Now, Denis prided himself on his geography, but this caught him out. ‘I remember looking at The Times Atlas of the World to find out where the bloody hell they were – and I wasn’t the only one.’ Denis was already in fighting mood. ‘As an ex-soldier I thought: how the hell are we going to get a force 8,000 miles away? I looked at the distances and it was a logistical nightmare – but I had no doubt that we had to do something.’

An emergency session of the House of Commons was called and the Prime Minister’s own survival was in doubt. I had never seen my mother on her feet in the House of Commons as Prime Minister and it occurred to me that, if things were as bad as they appeared, this might be my last opportunity. I slung on some clothes, caught the Underground to Westminster and joined the queue for the public gallery.

My mother later described the mood of the House as ‘the most difficult I ever had to face’. She began solemnly, but then her voice took on a harder edge. ‘It is the government’s objective to see that the Islands are freed from occupation and returned to British administration at the earliest possible moment.’

There were several interjections, including one by Edward Rowlands, Labour MP for Merthyr Tydfil, who blanched at the PM’s reference to Southern Thule, which was occupied in 1976 when a Labour government was in power. He said it consisted of ‘a piece of rock in the most southerly part of the Dependencies which is completely uninhabited and which smells of large accumulations of penguin and other bird droppings’.

As I left the public gallery, my mind was filled with farcical images of bird shit and scrap-metal dealers. It made the cries of shame seem rather over the top.

Back at No. 10, I gently opened the door of the sitting room, not quite knowing what to expect. I genuinely feared that my parents might be moving out of No. 10 within days. A few months earlier, my mother had gone round the flat with little sticky dots marking anything that was ours as opposed to HM Government’s. The idea was that, if we had to move in a hurry, the removal men would find their job easier.

‘Hello,’ I said cautiously. She was sitting on a gold-coloured velvet sofa. There was no sign of doubt; this was Britain’s first female Prime Minister auditioning for the part of war leader. ‘Are you OK?’

‘Fine,’ she said, stuffing her hands into the pockets of her dress. ‘We’re down but not for long. I’ve just been downstairs and told Peter [Carrington] and John [Nott] that we’re going to fight back.’

By the following morning, her resolve had hardened even further. Having been to the local church near Chequers, she marched purposefully across the Great Hall and announced: ‘I’m going back to London. I know we can win. I know we can get them back if only I had six strong men and true. And I don’t know if I’ve got them.’
During the first few days of the crisis, my father saw very little of Margaret. She didn’t need reassurance – at least, not from her husband, who shared her views entirely. If it had been down to Denis, he would have dispensed with the diplomatic foreplay and evicted the ‘Argies’ at the first opportunity. ‘From the word go, I said: “Get them off!” I never had any doubts that we were going to win but it was such an enormous operation.’

I was working for the Daily Telegraph at the time and would drop into No. 10 occasionally to pick up mail and hopefully see my mother. She was rarely home, but one weekend I found her sitting on the floor in the drawing room surrounded by peace plans – one brought back by Francis Pym, the new Foreign Secretary, another from Al Haig; there was even a proposal from Chile. They all had a conciliatory tone, suggesting things like ‘interim administrations’ and ‘mutual withdrawals’. The Prime Minister wasn’t prepared to ‘bargain away the freedom’ of the Falklanders and insisted: ‘I’m not agreeing with anything until they get off.’

And get off they did. On a Monday night two months later, I was driving down Ebury Street when I heard my mother’s voice on the car radio. ‘There are reports of white flags flying over Port Stanley,’ she said, and I took my hands off the wheel and cheered. Slamming on the brakes and parking, I listened to the rest of the speech, feeling absolutely elated.
My main emotion was relief for my mother. Although I had seen very little of her, images of her leaving No. 10 dressed in black, on her way to give bad news to the House, showed the strain she was under.

Denis wasn’t in the gallery for that statement. Instead, he waited in the Prime Minister’s room and they went back to Downing Street together, saying goodnight to the policemen on the door of No. 10. ‘We went inside, and as we walked past the famous bulldog-pose portrait of Winston Churchill by Salisbury, hanging in the anteroom to the Cabinet room, I swear the great man bowed and said “Well done, girl”.



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