Diary

Thursday Diary: Notes From Norfolk

4 Aug 2011 at 21:32

SATURDAY

I am so looking forward to this week. We’re staying with friends, Keith & Pepi Simpson, in Reepham. It’s meant to be a bit of a holiday but seeing as we’re househunting in Norfolk and I also have to spend a day in the EDP archives researching my new book on Norwich City FC’s history, it will be more like a busman’s holiday. It will be fantastic to see lots of old friends and revisit some old North Norfolk haunts. Rarely does a week go by without me yearning for the day when I can move back to Norfolk permanently. You can take the boy out of Norfolk, but you can’t take Norfolk out of the boy.

Talking of which, we spent much of yesterday afternoon looking for properties in local estate agents in Cromer and North Walsham. To my utter delight and surprise we found a cottage for sale in the village of Swanton Abbott, the very same village I lived in from 2003-2005. And this cottage is only 100 yards away from my old one. I’d dearly love to buy back my old cottage but the new owners have ruined it by adding an extension on the back. Vandalism. We’re going to look at the new one on Tuesday. I just hope it lives up to expectations. The only drawback is the massive size of the garden. You won’t be surprised to know what my fingers are not very green.

Saturday night was spent in the Ostrich pub in Castle Acre with Gillian Shephard, her husband Tom, Lord & Lady Hennessy and my colleague from Biteback Publishing, Sean Magee. We were celebrating the publication of Gillian’s book, KNAPTON (which you can read more about HERE.). The evening ended in a rather bizarre way with Peter Hennessy and I serenading the pub with our rather out of tune version of I’M FOREVER BLOWING BUBBLES’. You see, Hennessy is a fellow West Ham sufferer, I mean supporter.

SUNDAY

This afternoon we went to see our friends Bert and Sylvia in Overstrand, a small village a couple of miles along the coast from Cromer. They will always have a special place in my hearts as they were the ones who put me up for the first two months after I was selected as candidate in North Norfolk in 2003. They had a delightful house in Roughton (where I am told John Hurt now resides) and I loved living with them. Bert is suffering from bad health now, which is such a shame for such a wonderfully bombastic Texan. Sylvia is a real North Norfolk hero. She’s wonderfully vivacious, and has a very cheeky glint in her eye. John and I will always be in their debt for the wonderful support and friendship they gave us.

We then went to visit another old friend, Eve Collishaw, at her North Norfolk hideaway in Trimingham. She used to be both a Norfolk county councillor and a Norwich city councillor, but is now retired. She told us she’s selling up. The glint in Simmo’s eye had to be seen to be believed. It really is an amazing property. It’s a wooden structure, so totally unmortgageable, but its situation is astonishing, I reckon it has one of the best views in Norfolk. I wonder…

MONDAY

Well, we went to look at the Swanton Abbott house. Simmo loved it, I didn’t. The garden was huge, but the rooms were incredibly small. In any case, half an hour later we got a call from agent to tell us they had had four offers on it and it had no sold. And they say the housing market is static!

We really want to buy the place in Trimingham, but how can we finance it? We go back for another look. Eve wasn’t there but we have a mooch round the outbuildings and take some photos.

In the evening we went for a pub lunch at the Cross Keys in Smallburgh, near North Walsham, with James Carswell, my erstwhile campaign assistant inthe 2005 election. He’s now a county councillor and cabinet member for Culture, media and choirboys. At least, that’s what I think he said. Suffice to say we had a reet laff.

TUESDAY

We decided to go into Norwich to pick up a painting I had bought several weeks ago, having seen it in the EDP. It’s by a North Norfolk artist called Cornelia Fitzroy. In a way, I was dreading it. What if I didn’t like it ‘in the flesh’? I needn’t have worried. THe colours are less vivid than they were in the paper, but maybe that’s a good thing. On the way back to Reepham, we called in to see Deborah & Mike Slattery at their home on the outskirts of north Norwich. Deborah used to be a Conservative Party agent and she was my campaign manager in 2005. That evening we had dinner at the Kings Arms pub in the market square in Reepham with Keith Simpson. We sat outside as it was so hot. Anyone who knows the market square will know what a wonderful place it is. You can imagine you’re back in the 1940s or 1950s.

WEDNESDAY

I spent most of the day at the Eastern Daily Press researching my new book on Norwich City. I discovered some fabulous photos so it was time well spent. The book will appear next spring. We then paid a final visit to Eve to discuss the Trimingham house. It looks like she intends to put it in an auction, which will probably blow us out of the water. Oh well, it was a nice though while it lasted.

We decided to call in on my parents in Saffron Walden on the way home to Tunbridge Wells. My mum likes surprises. My father wasn’t hapy as his combine harvester had broken down. Again. And as soon as we arrived it poured with rain, along with some spectacular thunder and lightning.

We finally made it home around 11.30pm. To a very empty house, devoid of canine woofings. Not for much longer though.

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How Can You Be Pro Life & Be In Favour of the Death Penalty (Or Vice Versa)

4 Aug 2011 at 21:20

The death penalty is one of those rare issues I find it quite possibly to argue from either side. My conservative heart finds no problem in believing in ‘an eye for an eye’, but my more liberal head finds the barbarity of it repulsive. I do think it acts as a deterrent – just look at the murder figures in this country in the years either side of abolition. Unfortunately the category of ‘capital murder’ was abolished in the late 1960s so comparisons now are hard to make.

But the fact is, that occasionally, the wrong people are hung. Years later, it emerges that in fact the person who was hanged turned out to be innocent after all. But it’s too late. So I could never accept that the death penalty should be available to a judge for any murder, which is what many people seem to argue for. I can, however, see an argument for it being available for multiple murders, where the murderer’s DNA is used as proof that he or she is guilt on each occasion. I can also see an argument for the death penalty being used for terrorists or police murders.

But still I come back to the barbarity of it. And that’s why I couldn’t bring myself to vote for it.

I do find it slightly bizarre that as a general rule – and there are of course exceptions – that those who are most vociferous about the death penalty, tend to take the Right to Life side of the argument over abortion. And those who scream about the barbarity of the death penalty tend to be those who seem tto think little of terminating a 22 weeks old foetus.

Ironic, isn’t it? Either you believe in life or you don’t. It’s time people on either side of this argument looked at the consistency of their position.

This isn’t about left and right, as some people are trying to make it. I know plenty of people on the left who are pro life or in favour of the death penalty, just as there are plenty on the right who are pro choice or anti death penalty.

And I bet you do too.

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Knapton - 8 Miles From Cromer

31 Jul 2011 at 21:33

Last week my publishing company, Biteback, hosted a launch for Gillian Shephard’s new book KNAPTON, which is a social history of the village in North Norfolk in which she grew up. Our London offices have a fantastic view over the river to Parliament, which the coachload of North Norfolkers very much enjoyed. I was amused at how many of them knew me because of my fortnightly column in the Eastern Daily Press.

They had all read about the death of Gio, my Jack Russell, and were all keen to offer advice on how to get over it. One man at the launch was a face I instantly recognised from my youth. It was that of David Richardson who used to host the Anglia TV Sunday lunchtime farming programme. My Dad, who still farms in Essex, wouldn’t miss an episode and was a huge fan of the programme. How sad it is that such programmes are no longer made. Oh for the return of proper local television. Maybe one day it will happen – on the internet.

Anyway, back to Knapton. Yesterday lunchtime we held the Norfolk launch in Knapton Village Hall. It was the first speech I had made in North Norfolk since the one I made on election night in 2005, when I conceded defeat to Norman Lamb at Cromer High School. Well, I didn’t have much choice. He had beaten me by 10,000 vote. OK, 10,606, if you want to be pernickety. This time I carried it off without tears in my eyes!

Gillian’s book features anecdotes and memories of village life in Knapton stretching back many decades. It reminds me of the German TV series Heimat, which traced the history of a Knapton-like village from the first world war to the present day. It was very slow moving but wonderfully filmed. I wonder if we might see Knapton – The Movie. I wonder who would play a schoolgirl Gillian Shephard? A very naughty girl, I imagine.

We’ve been organising booksignings for Gillian all over the place, but have so far struck unlucky with Jarrolds in Cromer. “No, we don’t think it would work here,” said the shop events manager. “Knapton’s too far away from Cromer. No one would come,” he reckoned. Well, my North Norfolk geography may not be quite what it was, but I reckon it can’t be more than 8 miles. Sometimes there’s just no point in arguing. He might as well have said “computer says no”.

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Mr Dale's Diary: Six Places Higher Than Lord Sugar

24 Jul 2011 at 21:35

  • On Tuesday we hosted a launch for Gillian Shephard’s new book KNAPTON, which is a social history of the village in North Norfolk in which she grew up. Our offices have a fantastic view over the river to Parliament, which the coachload of North Norfolkers very much enjoyed. I was amused at how many of them knew me because of my fortnightly Eastern Daily Press column. They had all read about the death of Gio, my Jack Russell and were all keen to offer advice on how to get over it. Just for the record, we’re getting a mini Schnauzer in September as well as another Jack Russell puppy. We want to get them on the same day otherwise there might be some unfortunate long term consequences!
  • I’m so excited at the way Dale & Co has been received. Slightly to my surprise there hasn’t been much negative reaction at all. Traffic is already higher than for my old blog, so it’s been a good start. In the next 48 hours we’re reconfiguring the front page and adding a gizmo in place of the blurb and video box. The gizmo will allow you to scroll through the last twenty people who have written on the blog. So that should be an incentive to authors to contribute even more regularly than they are already doing! Also this week, we’re launching a daily diary column. Each day of the week one of my contributors will write a diary column and write about their previous seven days. I’ve encouraged them all to be as amusing and observational as possible. As well as gossipy.
  • I was in Portcullis House on Wednesday to have a gossip with my old friend Ian Collins from talkSPORT. It proved to be rather difficult. Hardly had we started our conspiratorial conversation when Simon Walters from the Mail on Sunday plonked himself down for a goss. And hardly had he gone when Denis MacShane replaced him. And by the time he had gone, it was almost time to move on to the next appointment! There’s a lesson there somewhere.
  • If you’ve never tuned into LBC before and heard my dulcet tones (every weekday from 7-10pm, by the way), tune in at 9am on Tuesday morning when Boris Johnson will be presenting the last hour of the Nick Ferrari show. Anything could happen. And probably will. I’ll be hosting an In Conversation with Boris on the Tuesday evening of the Tory conference, which will be broadcast on LBC as well. And don’t worry, I’ll also be doing an hour with Ken Livingstone at Labour and one with whoever the LibDems choose at theirs. Please, please let it be Lembit.
  • Last night we hosted a little gathering at our home near Tunbridge Wells. Simmo, my partner, celebrated his birthday yesterday, and mine was a week earlier. It wasn’t really meant to be a birthday party but I wryly noted how everyone brought presents and cards from His Simmoness, but for me? Not a sausage. A week is a long time in birthdays… We had done far too much food of course. Well, when I say ‘we’ I use the term rather loosely. I am not allowed in the kitchen, you see. I make a scene out of protesting, but of course, I am rather relieved. And so should our party guests have been.
  • I got a call from one of my staff at 6.30 this evening. As I picked up the phone I didn’t bother saying ‘hello’, I just said “well at 6.30 on a Sunday evening it can’t be good news”. It wasn’t. He had been attacked, beaten to a pulp and stabbed. I could hardly have been more shocked. I muttered inanities I think. ‘Take as much time off as you need’, and ‘if there’s anything we can do’ were just two of the clichés that escaped from my mouth. What a terrible thing to happen. Luckily he’s OK, but I suspect he was putting a brave face on it.
  • The week ends with The Guardian naming me as the 93rd most influential person in the British media. I can’t pretend I’m not a bit chuffed, especially when I see that I am six places ahead of Lord Sugar, who is number 99. But as the rest of the Top 100 are release during the course of the evening there are a few surprises. Is Alan Rusbridger, at 37 really more influential than the editors of the Times and Telegraph, whose circulations far outweigh that of The Guardian? And my friend Guido Fawkes is also placed above James Harding and Tony Gallagher. I’m pleased for Guido, but really…

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In Praise of Andrew Mitchell

22 Jul 2011 at 21:37

Last night I interviewed Andrew Mitchell on my LBC show about the growing crisis in Somalia. The response to the interview was immense. We got a shower of texts, emails and tweets saying what a good job he was doing. Even left of centre people reckon he’s performing well in a job which has traditionally been a political backwater and a bed of nails.

Often, when you do a phone in on aid or disaster relief you get a stream of calls from people wondering why we’re not spending the money in this country rather than on far away economic basket cases. That didn’t really happen last night because I think most people with humane bones in their bodies recognise the seriousness of the situation in the Horn of Africa.

It often seems to be the case that politicians almost get religion when they take on the International Development brief. Andrew Mitchell is no different. Sometimes he’s been accused of going native, while showering African countries with British taxpayers’ money. It’s an unfair and simplistic accusation. He has transformed Dfid in his year in the post. He’s made aid far more dependent on accountability and stopped aid to countries like China and Russia, and is in the process of doing the same to India. Instead it is being far better targeted and far less money is being wasted. He’s also doing a good job of explaining the benefits to Britain of being seen as a development superpower.

There was a time when Mitchell, shall we say, wasn’t the most popular of MPs among his colleagues. He was considered a bit of a greaser. By that I mean someone who was determined to rise up the greasy pole come what may. It was always a source of amusement to us all in the David Davis leadership campaign the amount of time Andrew spent with his opposite number in the Cameron campaign, George Osborne. To be fair, they had always got on well before the campaign but there were many jokes made to Andrew’s face about his new best friend. He took them in good part.

Many of us think that the experience of the Davis campaign switched something in Andrew’s brain. He became more of a normal human being, something many politicians would do well to note. He developed a side to his character that not many had seen before. And the international development brief, which most of us had thought he would hate, suited him very well. I’m told that in opposition Cameron tried to move and promote him but he insisted he wanted to stay in the job. And I suspect there might be a similar reaction when a reshuffle comes.

Some months ago there were rumours that Andrew Mitchell was angling for William Hague’s job. The rumours were the usual type of manufacturered Westminster gossip. Hague is one Mitchell’s closest friends in politics and there is no way Mitchell would have been stirring up trouble for his good friend. But having said that, if Hague were to move on, there is now little doubt that Mitchell would be a strong candidate to replace him.

Whatever happens next in his career, I suspect Andrew Mitchell will look back on his years as International Development Secretary as the happiest of his career.

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A Political Counterfactual: Prime Minister Portillo...

22 Jul 2011 at 21:35

I wrote this political counterfactual back in 2004, as the lead chapter in the Prime Minister Portillo & Other Things That Never Happened book. I thought I’d resurrect it here for your delight and delectation, and as a taster for the forthcoming Prime Minister Boris & Other Things That May Yet Happen, which will be published in September by Biteback. I’ve just completed a chapter for it, titled “What if David Davis Had Won?”. Is your breath baited?!

“You do know you’re in trouble, Michael, don’t you?” whispered the particularly conspiratorial voice of Peter Mandelson as they left the BBC election night studios. “Well it’s certainly not going to be the majority I’m used to,” responded the outgoing Defence Secretary. As he got into his waiting car outside the TV Centre studios the last thing he wanted was to hear the excited babble of his loyal assistants as they argued with each other over the scale of the coming onslaught in the country. After all, it wasn’t exactly his fault, was it? For the first time Michael Portillo began to feel a sense of impending doom. Surely he couldn’t lose. Could he? After all, Enfield would usually return a donkey if it sported a blue rosette. His campaign team had berated him for not spending more time campaigning in the constituency, but just how could he manage that when he was expected up and down the country 24 hours a day? He wasn’t superman after all, no matter what his more zealous supporters thought.

It was already clear that Labour had won – and won big. Just how big was big, though? What kind of rump of a Conservative Parliamentary Party would be left? And would they be leadable? He was sure John Major would immediately step down, so now his moment had come. The crown had so nearly been his just two years earlier. Everything was in place, yet he, Michael Xavier Portillo, had hesitated. He who wields the sword rarely inherits the crown was the thought that had guided his decision. If Redwood wanted to risk it so be it, but he wasn’t being tainted as Major’s assassin. Sure, he’d talked to Redwood, and urged him to stand down in his favour if there was a second round, but Redwood was having none of it. Thank God he hadn’t got any further.

But Redwood was history. Portillo is the future. Or that’s the thought that was spinning in his mind as he got out of the car at Enfield Town Hall. He was immediately surrounded by the waiting media and a not inconsiderable throng of Labour Party supporters. “Mr Portillo, are you going to stand for the leadership?” shouted a blonde journalist he didn’t recognise from Sky News. “Fuck off Portillo” spat a callow youth. “Michael, have you considered the possibility of losing your seat?” shouted the man from ITN. Portillo ignored all of this and marched calmly into the town hall. He didn’t have long to wait before his agent spotted him. “Not looking good, Michael,” he whispered. “Twigg’s ahead in the bundles, but there’s two wards to go – both usually Ok for us.” So this is what it had come to. Thirteen years of service yet the voters might be giving him the bum’s rush. The bastards.

For the first time he considered what he would do if he lost. Not a pleasant thought. It wasn’t exactly as if he was qualified to do anything, having spent most of his working life as a researcher or as an MP. He thought he’d be bound to be taken on by one of the big City firms, but it wasn’t exactly a scintillating prospect for someone who in other circumstances wanted to stand for the leadership of the Conservative Party. He thought of the ignominies experienced by his friend Francis Maude when he lost his seat in 1992. He’d even had to take money from some God-awful lobbying company. Still, better to cross that bridge if and when it came to it, he thought.

Suddenly there was a commotion on the floor. Angry voices were hurling insults at each other. He thought he saw a punch being thrown but he couldn’t make out whose fist it was. But it was clear that the result was imminent. He steeled himself. The Labour candidate Stephen Twigg looked as nervous as he was feeling himself. Twigg had fought a good campaign. He looked the part – dashing, tall, well spoken. Should have been a Tory, thought Portillo, before he was rushed back to reality by the voice of the returning officer.

“I, being the returning officer for the constituency of Enfield Southgate do hereby give the result of the parliamentary election. Browne, Jeremy, Liberal Democrat, four thousand nine hundred and sixty six…”

The returning office was enjoying the moment and enunciating every syllable at inordinate length. For Christ’s sake get on with it, thought Portillo, as the returning officer made a valiant effort to make the next two candidates’ results last as long as he possibly could. And then he stiffened. “Portillo, Michael Denzil Xavier, Conservative, twenty thousand five hundred and seventy…”

Bloody Hell. The Liberals have halved their vote. I’m 8,000 down.

The returning officer took a deep breath. He puffed his chest out as far as he could – and it was quite a long way. “Twigg, Stephen, Labour, nineteen thousand one hundred and thirty seven. I hereby declare that Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo be duly elected."

The characteristic Portillo smirk was back. The press had still got him to kick around for a bit longer.

The following 24 hours disappeared like a blur into Portillo’s memory. He had been truly shocked at the narrowness of his result, but he had clearly been luckier than most. Tory MPs had been losing like ninepins in a bowling alley. 191 seats. YeGods. Even Kinnock had got more seats than that. Rifkind, Olga Maitland, Seb Coe, Marcus Fox, David Mellor, all gone. Who’d want to lead this rump of a Party? Truth was, many would. He knew that. But one thing was for sure, John Major was a gonner.

Three weeks later

Funnily enough the leadership contest hadn’t been particularly bruising. Apart from Ann Widdecombe’s successful assault on Michael Howard, the whole contest had happened with barely a whimper. The truth was that the press were so obsessed by Tony Blair and his bright, shiny new administration that they paid the Tories little attention. Portillo had predicted that many would stand, for the leadership, if only to put a marker down for the future. Indeed, some acted with what Portillo considered to be unseemly haste. Ken Clarke couldn’t wait to throw his Fedora into the ring and announced his candidature only a few hours after the last results were in. Michael Heseltine finally had to rip up his famous envelope when heart problems ruled him out. Serves him right, thought the many people who would never forgive him for the events of November 1990.

Stephen Dorrell raised many a belly laugh when he announced a short-lived candidacy. His lamentable performance in the Major Cabinet certainly did for him in the eyes of his colleagues. William Hague and John Redwood were thought to be big threats. Some thought Peter Lilley would stand but he soon declared for Portillo and ended up running his campaign, fuelling the scurrilous rumours which had been circulating in low life magazines for years about the truth behind his friendship with Portillo.

But the contest itself had been a virtual walkover for Portillo. Michael Howard, Hague and Redwood all withdrew after the first round, leaving Clarke and Portillo to slug it out. Michael knew he would win. And so did everyone else. The Portillo era had begun.

His first task was to form a Shadow Cabinet. No easy task with only 190 colleagues to choose from. Ken Clarke had made it clear that if he wasn’t leader he didn’t want to do anything else. Portillo didn’t blame him for that. His rivals for the leadership all accepted posts, rather to his surprise. Pundits had expected Peter Lilley to be appointed Shadow Chancellor but instead he became Deputy Leader and Director of Policy Development.

Portillo made it clear that he wished to emulate the Thatcher Opposition in developing radical, exciting new policies, which could appeal to a new generation of voters who had never considered voting Tory. Michael Howard agreed to shadow the Foreign Office, while William Hague became Shadow Home Secretary. In a difficult interview with John Redwood, Portillo offered him the Shadow Chancellorship, but Redwood made clear he would only accept if he – and he alone – had control over economic policy. “He thinks he’s Gordon Brown,” thought Portillo. This was high stakes gambling for both men. There had been a deep rift between them following the 1995 leadership election when Redwood failed to unseat John Major. But both men knew that in these dark days for the party, they needed each other. And so it was that Redwood finally accepted the offer of the Shadow Chancellorship – and with no preconditions. Portillo had him by the balls – and he knew it.

The most popular appointment both in the press and among party workers was Gillian Shephard as Party Chairman. She made it clear from the start that she looked to modernise the party structure and change the way parliamentary candidates were selected. Her summer tour of the constituencies did much to heal the wounds of the election defeat. The party workers loved her.

Other eyecatching promotions included the pugnacious Alan Duncan to International Development and former Foreign Office Minister David Davis as Chief Whip. A few eyebrows were raised at the deeply ironic appointment of the Chingford MP and Maastricht rebel Iain Duncan Smith as a junior whip.

The first six months of his leadership were quiet. As Tony Blair’s administration found its feet so did the Opposition. Portillo’s performances at Prime Minister’s Questions were considered moderately impressive, with him winning more times than he lost. His budget response had been described by Peter Riddell in The Times as “masterful in the detailed analysis and impressive in political rhetoric”.

His attacks on the Prime Ministers integrity over the Bernie Ecclestone affair did much to knock the glossy shine off New Labour and dented people’s trust in Tony Blair in particular. Portillo’s off the cuff reaction of “absolute bollocks” to Blair’s “I’m a pretty straight kinda guy” semi apology for Ecclestone might not have amused the blue rinses of Tunbridge Wells, but it demonstrated that here was an Opposition leader who knew what Opposition was all about. Taste and decency were side issues. People wanted to know that you were up for the battle, and anyone who wasn’t would be disposed of.

A few months later he proved he meant what he said. In a speech to Yorkshire Conservatives the new rising star of the Party William Hague maintained that the Conservatives must be judicious in their opposition as the “country no longer wanted to hear from them for a good while”. He said the Party should apologise for what it got wrong during the Major years. “We should concede and move on”, he said. Portillo conceded that it should indeed be William Hague who should move on and summarily sacked him. The newspapers had a field day, depicting Portillo as Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator. His 1995 conference speech had been littered with references to the SAS. This time, he dared to sack Hague and he won. He replaced him with Francis Maude.

In many ways this set the tone for the next two years. Portillo had demonstrated a toughness that few had realised was there. Any other member of his team who strayed out of line knew they would be for the chop.

The newly strengthened Conservative Research Department headed up by Peter Lilley and Danny Finkelstein was coming up with radical policies which even a sceptical media was admitting were eye-catching. Selling off housing association properties and introducing proportional representation for local government elections were proving popular on a local level, while plans to give teachers greater powers to discipline pupils put the teaching unions in a huge quandary.

Andrew Cooper and Michael Simmonds, the Party’s directors of campaigning were having considerable success with targeted direct mail campaigns in the Party’s top 100 marginal seats and the party had even begun recruiting hundreds of new members.

But it was in the CCO Press Office that the party was having problems. Portillo decided fairly early on that he needed a high profile press spokesman who could compete with Alastair Campbell on an equal footing. He broke with tradition and employed a firm of headhunters to identify the right person. After several months of discussion the former editor of the Sunday Express, Amanda Platell was appointed. Portillo liked a bit of glamour and Platell provided that in spades. She made an immediate impact, not just with the press, but with Portillo himself. She gradually began changing his appearance, persuading him to flatten a little, the trademark Portillo quiff. “It makes you look camp”, she said with typical Australian bluntness. If she hadn’t know better she would have sworn Portillo’s cheeks reddened.

Platell’s main contribution in her first six months was to persuade Lilley and Cooper that a campaign on honesty in politics should be launched. She felt that the perception of Tony Blair’s government being honest and straight was a lie which should be exposed. As part of the campaign Conservative MPs were urged to be open about their private lives. Shadow International Development Secretary Alan Duncan shocked many by coming out as a homosexual, something which those in the Westminster Village had known for years. His party leader praised him for his “courage, openness and honesty”. Some in his constituency were less forgiving. But an attempt to deselect him, which, due to some neat footwork by Amanda Platell, never made the papers, failed miserably after a ‘knocking heads together’ visit to Rutland & Melton by the thuggish chief whip David Davis.

Gradually Portillo began to make the press take notice of the party’s new style, approach and policies. Portillo admitted to himself that Hague had had a point when he said that no one wanted to hear from the party for a while, but rather than be defeatist, Portillo and his advisers decided they had to take the bull by the horns and make them take notice. Central Office made complaint after complaint about the time allocated to Labour and LibDem politicians and any example of media bias was ruthlessly exploited. A charm offensive with political editors and newspaper magnates helped the party make some headway and by the time the 1999 local elections and European elections came around even the most sceptical of political journalists was having to admit that maybe, just maybe, the Tories had turned the corner.

Since 1997 Portillo had instigated a full scale review of the Party’s approach towards Europe. He knew that the splits over Europe that had characterised the Major Government could not be allowed to continue. Major’s policy of ‘wait and see’ on the Euro had curiously been adopted by the Labour government, yet for the Conservatives it was no longer an option. Portillo’s aim was to develop a policy which was clearcut on the Euro and yet could not be interpreted as being small minded, xenophobic or little Englander. He therefore rang up his old mentor Lord Parkinson to ask him to chair a Commission on the Future of Europe. Their conclusions impressed Portillo and were to form the basis of party policy for the years ahead. The Euro was ruled out on principle on constitutional grounds, but the Party would press for enlargement of the EU and call a halt to the encroaching powers of the European Union. But the main change would be the language used in arguing the Party’s case over the European issue.

In local government things were beginning to turn around too. An aggressive campaign by the Party on Council tax rates had reaped local dividends and the Party’s councillors felt a degree of optimism they had not experienced since the late 1970s.

And the 1999 local election results justified that feeling. Portillo was cock a hoop. Despite a ludicrously low turnout the Conservatives had won a convincing victory. They were on their way back. And he, Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo, was convinced that it was only a matter of time before he and Carolyn would enter Number Ten.

And over the next two years everything Portillo did, said or thought, was geared towards that aim. He wasn’t a showman for nothing and the 2000 party conference was vital in providing the Party with a send off towards what everyone thought would be an election in the Spring of 2001.

The press had been warned to expect something special in the Leader’s speech. And for once no one leaked. The week had gone well. A raft of new policies had been announced, including on the spot fines for the possession of cannabis. Francis Maude had been worried this might be interpreted as decriminalisation so the policy was successfully spun by Amanda Platell as “zero tolerance on drugs”. John Redwood announced the proposed abolition of inheritance tax and a reversal of Gordon Brown’s dramatic increases in stamp duty on house purchases. He also promised to reverse Brown’s raid on pension funds which, he said, threatened a pensions crisis “the like of which we have never seen”.

But it was the leader’s speech everyone was waiting for. The first twenty minutes of the speech were laced with humour and cracks at Blair and his government but somehow no one was listening. They were all waiting for whatever dramatic announcement Portillo had to make. Platell had spun it as being a “deeply personal moment”. Speculation was rife – indeed it was threatening to get out of control. Finally the moment came.

Portillo paused for what seemed like an age. He continued:-

“My friends, for too long the Conservative Party has given the appearance of being split – divided. Over the last three years I have made it my business to lead from the front but also to listen to all parts of the party on all sorts of issues. I firmly believe the Party is now more united than it has been for years. United with a purpose. United in our march towards victory at the next election. I want to lead a party of all the talents. Full of people whose only aim is to do good. Good for our country, good for our people and good for our party. If we are to achieve our aim of despatching this sleazy, miserable Labour government to the dustbin of history I want the most powerful team at my disposal. That’s why I am delighted to announce today that Ken Clarke has agreed to rejoin the Shadow Cabinet. Ken Clarke, come on down!”

Music blasted out. Balloons fell from the ceiling, and Ken Clarke appeared at the back of the cavernous Bournemouth Conference Centre Hall, trotted down the stairs, gurgling with delight and waving to the assembled masses, most of whom were standing and clapping.

The symbolic message this sent out to the watching voters was clear and hardly needed to be articulated by the professional political pundits. "Masterstroke"and “A Conservative Coup” were just two of the headlines in the next day’s papers.

Everyone, it seemed, was happy. There was no doubt about it, Portillo was seen as a lucky politician. He had been perceived as a little too smug and pleased with himself, but his leadership of the Party had changed all that. He looked the part. He looked like a Prime Minister in waiting, which was exactly how he saw himself.

Meanwhile, the Blair Government lurched from crisis to crisis, some self inflicted, some outside their control.

And then came the foot and mouth crisis. Even their most ardent supporters felt it was handled badly from beginning to end. At one stage it even threatened to ensure that Tony Blair would have to delay calling an election. But the advice he received from the Ministry of Agriculture was that “no new cases are now expected”. Unfortunately, an incompetent official had failed to include the returns from both Wales and Cumbria in his prognosis. Two days after the beginning of the campaign dozens of new cases of foot and mouth appeared in the Brecon Beacons and Cumbria. A few days later more cases appeared in Northumberland and Somerset. The crisis was real and the Government was in total chaos.

Michael Portillo came into his own, calling for a State of National Emergency to be declared. He proposed sending in troops and announced an imaginative compensation scheme for the affected farmers. Tony Blair continue to fiddle, while the sheep continued to burn. Blair’s sole contribution was to suggest calling off the election. “In your dreams, Mr Blair,” said Portillo, as he continued to make good political capital out of a farming nightmare.

All other issues paled into insignificance, and on polling day the country exacted its revenge.

But a majority of more than 170 was not going to be easy to overcome, no matter how bad the government’s performance over foot and mouth had been. But seat after seat fell. At 12.03am Bob Dunn won back Dartford, 64th on the Tories’ target list. Malcolm Rifkind narrowly won back Edinburgh Pentlands and became one of five Tory MPs north of the border. But it wasn’t until 1.30am that it became clear that a Tory victory was a distinct possibility. The weathervane seat of Basildon fell and from then on the faces at Millbank became gloomier and gloomier.

At 4.30am Michael Portillo became Prime Minister. He had a majority of three seats, making serving a full term an almost impossible task. The pundits likened it to Harold Wilson’s narrow wins in 1964 and February 1974. A further election within a year looked a dead cert.

How had it happened? The pundits had been confounded but most of them agreed that Labour voters had stayed at home in their droves, while the Conservatives had managed to get their vote out. The turnout was pitiful – the lowest ever – but the Conservatives’ once powerful electoral machine had proved it had some life in it yet.

Having kissed hands at Buckingham Palace Prime Minister Portillo returned to the cheering throngs in Downing Street. They weren’t quite the seething crowds who had welcomed the Blair’s in 1997, but he enjoyed the moment nonetheless.

As he prepared to make his statement of intent on the doorstep of Number Ten – his Francis of Assisi moment – Amanda Platell peered out of one of the upstairs windows. She wondered what the future would hold in store for them all. At that very moment one of her junior staff came rushing into the room, almost breathless. “Amanda, I think you ought to take this call,” he said. “Who is it,” asked Platell? Mazeer Mahmood from the News of the World, came the reply. Platell experienced one of those moments when your stomach seems to hollow itself out. “What the fuck does he want?” muttered Platell, almost to herself. “Amanda, you really don’t want to know,” said the flunky. She took the phone.

“Hi Maz, Amanda here,” said Platell in her most sweet and innocent tone.

“Amanda, we’ve had six researchers who for the last six months have been looking at your leader’s private life going back to his time at Cambridge. And they’ve come up with some rather interesting conclusions. We’re running them on Sunday.”

And the rest, as they say, was history.

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EXCLUSIVE: Michael Crick to Leave Newsnight

19 Jul 2011 at 21:38

Word reaches me (not via hacked voicemails) that Newsnight political editor Michael Crick is on his way to Channel 4 News. Since Cathy Newman became a news anchor, there has been a vacancy in the political department there, although it is hard to see why a Newsnight political editor would take a cut in status. I am assuming Gary Gibbon isn’t going anywhere… [UPDATE: He isn’t]

This is the second high profile political loss for the BBC. Laura Kuenssberg is off to ITN to take over as Business Editor. And Matt Frei also joins Channel 4 News from the BBC in the Autumn.

For Michael Crick, this is a return to his spiritual home, as he worked for Channel Four News in the 1980s. Michael has just told me: “After 19 very happy years on Newsnight, it was clearly time to move on. I’m looking forward to wonderful new challenges and returning to my roots at ITN, and at Channel 4 News, of which I was a founder member.”

UPDATE 11.29: Here’s the Channel 4 News Press Release.

Channel 4 News has announced that Newsnight’s Political Editor Michael Crick will join the programme. He will become Political Correspondent, taking the role vacated by Cathy Newman – who is set to become a regular presenter alongside Jon Snow and Krishnan Guru Murthy. The move represents something of a homecoming for Crick, who was a founding member of the Channel 4 News team when the programme launched in 1982. Then, he was Washington Correspondent. He joined the BBC in 1990, working first on Panorama, and then joining Newsnight in 1992. Crick has won two RTS awards – one for his coverage of the 1988 US election, and one for a special Panorama programme on the life of Jeffrey Archer. He has written several books – including biographies of Alex Ferguson, Jeffrey Archer and Michael Howard. Richard Nixon famously said that whilst visiting the Oxford Union in 1978, his toughest question came from Crick, then a student. Crick will work alongside Channel 4 News’ award-winning Political Editor Gary Gibbon. This year, Gibbon was named the RTS’ Specialist journalist of the Year. Of the appointment, Editor Jim Gray said: “It’s thrilling to have an established, experienced name like Michael join our team. He has a remarkable track record of finding things out that people don’t want unearthed. He is a formidable investigative journalist. With him in this role, and Gary continuing to lead our coverage as Political Editor, we have the perfect political team in place.” Dorothy Byrne, Head of News and Current Affairs at Channel 4 says: “Michael has a talent for asking the awkward question, for spotting duplicity or ambiguity and cutting through it – and we can’t wait for him to bring this to Channel 4 News.” Of the move, Michael Crick says: “Channel 4 News has a reputation for an indepth, analytical and cheeky approach to politics, and I look forward to delivering exactly that. Whilst I am sad to leave Newsnight after 19 happy years, I have always admired Gary Gibbon’s journalism and it’s fantastic to be returning to my ITN roots to join him and the rest of the Channel 4 News team.” Notes to Editors: • The announcement is the latest in a series of high profile appointments by Channel 4 News. • The BBC’s Washington Correspondent Matt Frei is set to join in September – still covering the Washington brief, but also taking on some presenting duties. • Newsnight’s Correspondent Jackie Long has joined as Social Affairs Editor. • And Morland Sanders, currently a correspondent for ITV’s Tonight and Radio 4 is set to join as North of England Correspondent. • The programme has also announced it is looking for its first ever weather presenter

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How Very Dare I Talk About Cameron's Future!

18 Jul 2011 at 21:40

Oh dear. Apparently I should join the Liberal Democrats. That was one of the responses to my piece last night on David Cameron’s future, or possible lack of it. Alternatively, others decided I was in the vanguard of a David Davis led leadership coup and speaking for the hard right of the Conservative Party. And there was much more besides – some of it tongue in cheek, some vicious. Wel, if you put your head over the parapet, expect for it to be shot at or even knocked off from time to time.

But people can’t have it both ways. I can’t be accused one day of being a Cameron loyalist and then the next day of total disloyalty by raising the vague possibility of this scandal lapping at the shores of Number Ten. People should make up their minds. To be admonished by ConservativeHome for an act of disloyalty was a particularly ironic treat. Certain mirrors should be looked into, I feel.

I’m no longer active in Conservative politics. I’ve no agenda. I’m not seeking to be a Tory candidate again. I don’t seek preferment or patronage from anyone in the Conservative Party. When I was seeking to be an MP I always understood why some people could never accept that I was giving my honest held opinions – even though 99% of the time I was. On rare occasions there were times when I had to slightly caveat some opinions, but that’s politics. I no longer have to do that at any time. And I won’t.

So if I write: “It is no longer an impossibility to imagine this scandal bringing down the Prime Minister or even the government” just accept that this is my honest view. It’s not me trying to sow seeds of dissent. It is not me flying a kite for David Davis (who I haven’t even spoken to about recent events). It is purely my opinion. And as a blogger and commentator, I should feel free to give it. Otherwise, what’s the point?

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Sir Paul Stephenson: A Bizarre Resignation

17 Jul 2011 at 21:42

Well that was one of the more bizarre resignations I have ever seen. Sir Paul Stephenson basically said that he had done nothing wrong, his integrity was intact and well, that’s about it. So why on earth would he resign? Just because of some rather weak allegations about his use of Champneys? Come off it. He can’t stand the heat so he’s getting out of the kitchen.

The thing is, Sir Paul Stephenson has a good record on crime fighting. Crime figures are down in London and that has happened under his leadership. Sure, the last few weeks have been intensely uncomfortable for everyone at the Metropolitan Police. It is a force under fire, but it is a force which needs clear leadership. Sir Paul has now left the Met rudderless. A new Commissioner will take some time to appoint, and it is unfortunate to say the least that the Met won’t have anyone who can properly put its case over the next few weeks. That is bound to affect morale in the force.

One consequence of his resignation will be to put John Yates under the microscope once again. Is his position any longer tenable? I think in all walks of life the media demands resignations all too easily nowadays, and I don’t want to see anyone’s career ended. I actually think Yates is a fine officer, who took his eye off the ball over phone hacking. But I predict the wolves will very shortly be at his door once again.

So, who should replace Sir Paul? Sir Hugh Orde and Bernard Hogan-Howe will be two leading contenders. It seems to me that the Home Secretary and Mayor may well think it a good idea to bring in someone from outside the Met and with no connection it, and give them a simple order – to clean house.

All this makes you wonder, who’s next?

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Could Cameron Be Next?

17 Jul 2011 at 21:41

About ten days ago a caller on my LBC radio show reckoned that the hacking scandal was turning into a British Watergate. I dismissed this thought as the ravings of a lunatic. I’m not so sure I was right to do that now.

I can’t believe I am even writing this, but it is no longer an impossibility to imagine this scandal bringing down the Prime Minister or even the government. OK, some of you reading this may think that last sentence is a deranged ranting, and you may be right. Indeed, I hope you are. But Sir Paul Stephenson launched a thinly veiled attack on David Cameron in his resignation statement and the Prime Minister is already on the ropes about the propriety of his relationship with Andy Coulson.

The irony, of course, is that virtually everything we are talking about in this scandal happened under the last government, and yet it is this one which is getting it in the neck largely because of David Cameron’s decision to appoint Andy Coulson. Oh how he must now wish he had appointed Guto Harri, as was his original intention.

It is difficult to predict what Cameron’s next move might be. Having regained the initiative last Wednesday, he is now back in a very bad place. Does he have the wherewithall to recover from this? Well, I’ve said before that he is the political of a weeble. He may wobble, but he doesn’t fall down. He has always bounced back in the past and I expect him to do so again.

But for the first time since 2005, some people are thinking about life after Cameron. And that’s not good. Not good at all.

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