Personal

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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What's in a Label?

6 Apr 2013 at 13:50

I’m sure the general reaction to what I am about to write will be ‘get over yourself’, or worse, but in the words of the Beautiful South, I’ll carry on regardless!

Have you noticed that many people in public life, no matter what they have gone on to do, will never escape what made them famous in the first place. I don’t know if it’s sheer laziness on the part of journalists and producers, but Jacqui Smith is always described as “former Labour Home Secretary”. I suspect if she went on to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, Sky News would still introduce her on the paper review as “former Labour Home Secretary”.

I gave up my then political blog in December 2010. I haven’t been a member of the Tory Party for two years, yet I am still constantly described by people as “Tory Blogger Iain Dale” even in stories related to my job at LBC. To be fair, Sky now caption me as LBC Radio Presenter’, but the BBC usually insist on using the term ‘Conservative Political Commentator’. I find this perplexing. Why do pundits on the right always have to have the word ‘Conservative’ attached to them, whereas left wing pundits like Kevin Maguire and Owen Jones don’t have the word ‘Labour’ used? Owen will protest that he is not ‘of’ the Labour Party – maybe not, but he and Kevin are doubtless fully paid up Labour members. I decided to quit Tory Party membership when I became a regular LBC presenter, and I think most people who listen to my show will know what I do not push a Tory agenda in any way shape or form.

I’ve given up making a big deal out of it because I know that I will have the phrase ‘Tory Blogger’ hung around my neck until the day I die. Mind you, I have certainly been called worse.

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Yet Again the Law is an Ass

6 Apr 2013 at 09:05

Apologies for quoting another story from the Mirror, but this really does take some swallowing.

Last year I was banned from driving for six months. I didn’t mention it at the time because I was rather ashamed of it. I had had four speeding convictions, three times for exceeding a 30mph limit by between 4 and 8 mph, and one for doing 85mph on the M1. That made 12 points, and we all know what points mean… I didn’t contest it. I deserved to be punished. It caused massive inconvenience because it was at the time my mother was dying but I had to live with it.

Today I read on the Mirror website that Newcastle United midfielder Hatem Ben Arfa was caught doing 110mph and driving without insurance. He got a 49 day driving ban.

Could someone explain to me why I got six months and he got 49 days?

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James Beattie Defends His Osborne Story

5 Apr 2013 at 23:43

Below you will see my little rant about the Daily Mirror’s Jason Beattie’s story about George Osborne and the disabled parking bay. I invited him on to my LBC Drivetime show today and to his credit he accepted. Here’s a six minute excerpt from the interview where he explains why he ran the story.

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Marta Andreassen Continue to Ingratiate herself With Kent Tories - But Can She be Selected?

5 Apr 2013 at 20:46

How heartwarming to see newly defected MEP Marta Andreassen on the stump with Kent Conservatives yesterday, as reported on Andrew Kennedy’s excellent blog. Anyone would think there was a European selection in the offing. Perish the thought.

Of course, to be a Euro candidate in 2014 you actually have to be on the electoral register in the United Kingdom. So far as I understand Ms Andreassen is a resident of Barcelona, which, last time I looked was quite a few hundred miles from the White Cliffs. She will of course want to reassure her South East constituents that she does indeed reside in this country and has been on the electoral role for the last four years. For if she can’t do that, how could the Tories possibly select her?

I have been trying to work out where Ms Andreassen appeared on the UK electoral register in 2009. I was told a scurrilous story, which I won’t repeat here until I can test its veracity with the then UKIP leader Lord Pearson. But if anyone has access to 192.com’s electoral register history they could possibly help me out. I ask only for reasons of openness and transparency of course. I like to be helpful.

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Another Non Story - This Time It's Chuka Umunna's Turn for 'The Treatment'

5 Apr 2013 at 14:22

On the back of the Osborne disabled parking story, I see we have another one today. Labour’s Chuka Umunna is being taken to task for comments he made about West End nightlife. This is what the Daily Mail said…

In public he’s a hard-working man of the people, a rising star from South London tipped to become Labour leader one day. In private, however, it seems Chuka Umunna – hailed by his admirers as Britain’s Barack Obama – is happy to be a man of the social elite, with a distinct taste for the high life. The former DJ, now Labour’s shadow business secretary, belongs to an exclusive online club for so-called ‘jetrosexuals’, where he asked for tips on the best nightspots to avoid the ‘trash and C-list wannabes’ of London’s West End. Fellow members of ASmallWorld, which has been described as MySpace for millionaires, reportedly include Tiger Woods and Naomi Campbell. On ASmallWorld, however, he was bemoaning the lack of ‘decent’ clubs in London’s West End, writing: ‘Is it just me or is there a serious lack of cool places to go in central London at the weekends. ‘Most of the West End haunts seem to be full of trash and C-list wannabes, while other places that should know better opt for the cheesy vibe.’ Praising a club he had recently visited in Kensington, he asked for suggestions for ‘a trash-free, decent night’.

Now, all this might be worth a little comment or two, but these were comments made by Chuka Umunna nearly eight years ago, back in 2006 – four years before he became an MP. Again, is this really a page lead story?

And in any case, so what if an aspiring Labour poltician bemoans the lack of decent clubs in the West End. It’s hardly controversial. I suppose the word ‘trash’ has all sorts of connotations, but again, is a seven year old comment really worth so much fuss? Unfortunately Chuka has been said ‘fair cop, guv’ and apologised ;for any offence caused’. What a pity he didn’t just say ‘yeah? So what? Sod off’.

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And This is What Political Journalism Has Been Reduced To...

4 Apr 2013 at 23:21

God I hate the Daily Mirror. Remember that post that I wrote a few weeks ago about falling out of love with politics? Well THIS story from the Daily Mirror is a perfect example of why no one in their right mind would want to be a politician. They are having a go at George Osborne because someone has sent them a picture of Osborne’s car parked in a disabled space. Perfect. Evil chancellor not only fleeces the disabled, but he steals their parking spaces too. Except…

1. It is a police car.
2. Osborne isn’t driving it
3. A police security officer is driving it
4. He parked it there after dropping Osborne off to buy a McDonald’s.

Now I wonder how many people who sit in a passenger seat get out of a car when it is parked and think to themselves: “Hang on, I must just check if the driver of the car has parked in a disabled space.” Exactly. No one.

Here is what the Mirror’s Political Editor Jason Beattie wrote…

He’s snatched millions of pounds in benefits from those in most need – and it seems that George Osborne could not care less about anyone else. He was branded selfish and arrogant last night after allowing his chauffeur to park his £50,000 Land Rover in a space reserved for the disabled. There were plenty of other places available just a few yards away as the Tory Chancellor was dropped off for a burger at an M4 service station. But Mr Osborne was obviously far too important to waste valuable seconds – and the bright-yellow markings on the restricted bay were brazenly ignored. Last night Richard Hawkes, chief executive of the disability charity Scope claimed the incident “shows how wildly out of touch the Chancellor is with disabled people in the UK”. He said: “They will see this as rubbing salt in their wounds. "Many are already struggling to make ends meet, yet the Chancellor’s response has been to cut vital financial support and squeeze local care budgets.”

Well Richard Hawkes should be ashamed of himself for those comments and if Jason Beattie is proud of this piece of so-called political journalism, I would be very surprised. Indeed I am surprised that he has put his name to such a pile of horseshit.

Ed Balls has been fulminating, conveniently forgetting that during the last election he was photographed on a mobile phone while driving. The normally sensible Owen Smith MP ranted: “Osborne’s arrogant use of a disabled bay was in Magor. Did he think he had feudal rights to them in Wales? See my thoughts in tomo’s Mirror.” Owen is someone I have a lot of time for. He’s better than that.

The Mail’s James Chapman tweets to the morally outraged David Blanchflower and Channel 4 News reader Krishnan Guru-Murty “presumably then you think police driver who reversed into space while Osborne buying McDonalds should be sacked?”

And David Allen Green puts it in perspective: “There really are people on my timeline more angry at Osborne for parking in disabled space than at Philpott for killing 6 children. Bizarre.”

One day a politician will just think, “Sod this for a game of soldiers, they can go **** themselves. I’m quitting.” And I seriously think if I had gone into politics, that politician would probably have been me.

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On North Korea & Trident

4 Apr 2013 at 23:13

We had a corking discussion on North Korea and also whether we should renew Trident on my LBC show tonight. But I was very concerned by the number of people who sincerely appear to believe that America is at the centre of all evil in today’s world. Sure, America isn’t perfect but according to some of my listeners it is the aggressor in the North Korean conflict and intends to invade the country at the first available opportunity. And it isn’t even a full moon! I really wonder where these people get their views from. I had a very tetchy interview with Chris Nineham from the Stop the War Coalition – more commonly known as the Provisional Wing of the Socialist Workers’ Party. He wasn’t at all interested in the bellicose statements emanating from North Korea. Naturally not. No, all he wanted to do was slag off the US. I think he got as good as he gave.

Later on we moved onto discussing whether we should spend £100 bn or so on upgrading Trident. During the cold war I was always an advocate of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. It has helped keep the peace for a good few decades, as the NATO Secretary General recognised today in a letter to Philip Hammond. However, I think we now need a year long national debate about Britain’s place in the world, our defence capabilities and whether we really want to commit to a long term international role akin to the one we have had all my adult life. Because if we do, we have to fund it properly. I am horrified by the cuts in our conventional armed forces. They can only be sensible if we are to reduce our international role. And if we do that maybe, just maybe we don’t need Trident. But make no mistake, if we dispense with it, and any sort of nuclear deterrent, we become a national of ever declining world influence and importance. If we want to be another Poland or Spain, that’s fine, but I’m not sure we do.

The North Korean situation makes me lean towards keeping our nuclear deterrent, along with the fact that we have no ideas who our potential enemies might be in twenty years’ time. But if we do, let’s stop bleating about the cost. Defending a nation costs good money. The Liberal Democrat position on this is so hypocritical as to be almost nauseating. Nick Clegg deliberately withdrew LibDem ministers from the FCO and MoD knowing the decision on Trident was approaching. And now he says that while they believe in a nuclear deterrent, they don’t want Trident. Conveniently they have no ready made alternative. So they straddle the fence both sides as usual. Sometimes they really do need to grow a spine.

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