- Our first post-reshuffle Cabinet League Table suggests that the pieces are still settling on the board – at least as far as our members’ panel is concerned.
- The general pattern seems to be that those who did well out of the shuffle have done well in the ratings, that there’s concern about the uncertain economic future and the growing state…that activists are willing to make Ministers down if necessary, but that they’re mostly suspending judgement.
- Liz Truss’s rating remains broadly stable, but she opens up a 15 point gap at the top. That’s because Rishi Sunak is down by about ten points from second to fifth. That’s not a big drop – but we read it as a reflection of that nervousness about living standards and squeezed incomes.
- Elsewhere, Ben Wallace is up marginally, but enough to put him second in the table for the first time. David Frost is third. Nadhim Zahawi bounces straight in at fifth, Nadine Dorries at seventh, and Anne-Marie Trevelyan at ninth. Elsewhere, there’s not much movement in terms of scores…
- …Though Michael Gove is up by 15 points and Dominic Raab by 17, perhaps reflecting a post-reshuffle willingness to wipe the slate relatively clean…
- …But though no-one is in negative ratings, Priti Patel is now very exposed at third from bottom in the table. Much of that will be boats; some Insulate Britain and public disorder; some, police failings.
- Grant Shapps brings up the rear, doubtless drawing fire because of frustration about restrictions on travel abroad.
- The Prime Minister’s pre-conference position really is very poor: the best explanation we have is that he is the lightning conductor for activists’ unease over economic prospects and strategic direction.
- We’ve now put all Ministers who attend Cabinet in the table, as well as Ben Elliot, the co-party Chairman. Oliver Dowden is some 30 points ahead of him.
Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the ‘For the Many’ podcast with Jacqui Smith.
“The net is closing in around Boris,” was the Whatsapp message from a Liberal Democrat friend of mine, following the announcement of the Electoral Commission (EC) inquiry into the Prime Minister’s flat refurbishment travails.
My first reaction was to think, “wishful thinking, mate”, but as Steven Swinford, The Times political editor, has pointed out, the remit of the EC is very broad indeed and it can issue an investigation notice requiring “any person” to provide information including emails, Whatsapp messages, text messages and documents. Eek.
Tom Newton Dunn reckons that given the EC investigation will centre on possible undeclared donations in the Tory party, this could put Amanda Milling and Ben Elliot, the co-chairmen, “in their crosshairs.” He says if wrongdoing is found their positions are “untenable.”
No wonder No10 were so silent on who the PM’s flat refurb. They must have known Electoral Commission investigation possible. Centres on donations not declared. That puts Tory chairs Amanda Milling and Ben Elliot in their crosshairs. If wrongdoing found, their positions untenable.
— Tom Newton Dunn (@tnewtondunn) April 28, 2021
I would beg to differ. I have been critical of Milling’s performance as party chairman in the past, but in this case I think her hands are clean. I am given to understand that she has very little to do with donors. That’s all down to Elliot. And the situation is very clear. If the Conservative Party paid the bill of £58,000 initially, and that sum wasn’t declared, then not only is Elliot in deep doo-doo, so is the Prime Minister.
But it’s not just the EC inquiry which could prove problematic, at the very least, for the Prime Minister; it’s also Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, and Lord Geidt, the new independent advisor on the Ministerial Code, who will also determine Johnson’s fate. If the EC finds against the Conservative Party and the PM and find that rules of declaration have been broken, and if it is found the Ministerial Code has also been broken, he will be in a very big pickle indeed.
Any other minister would be expected to resign. But the Prime Minister has escaped from other pickles in his adult life, and who would bet that he won’t come through this too. The question Conservative MPs are going to have to ask themselves is this. Should he?
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I am a client, in a very small way, of the company formerly known as Standard Life Aberdeen. This week it announced that henceforth it would be known as Abrdn. You couldn’t make it up. What is it supposed to mean? Aberdeen? In which case, spell it out in full. It could also be pronounced as ‘A burden’.
How on earth did this get through all the different management levels to be approved by the company’s board. If it had come to me I’d have laughed it out of court. It makes we wonder if they can be so crass and incompetent in renaming their company, how incompetent are they in investing my money.
I’m not yet on the verge of withdrawing my custom from Abrdn, but I am this week withdrawing my custom from the bank I’ve been with for more than 40 years. Every communication I have now with Lloyds Bank is a trial. I almost feel physically sick before I ring them because I know I’m going to be passed from pillar to about seven different posts, and that’s before I fail their impossible security questions.
I’ve had enough. So I have opened an account with a smaller bank where I can actually talk to a real person who does their best to help. Yes, you still have to fill in a lot of forms to get the different accounts up and running, but I’m convinced it will be worth it in the end.
I did it with my energy supplier and it’s been a dream dealing with Octopus Energy rather than EDF. And that was a lot simpler than I feared it might be. We should constantly remind ourselves that we the customer are always the kings. Or queens. We don’t have to put up with shoddy service. The power lies in our hands.
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Quite what the DUP thinks it is going to achieve in toppling Arlene Foster is anyone’s guess. If she is forced out, and it looks like she will be, she will inevitably be replaced by a much more hardline politician. It might be that whoever this is takes a much more hardline stance with Sinn Fein, and it might be that Sinn Fein says it can’t work with the new leader. Then the whole house of cards comes tumbling down again.
I’m not predicting this will happen, but it must be a fear. Michelle O’Neill and Foster may not be bosom buddies, or be able to replicate the matiness of the so-called Chuckle Brothers, Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley, but they have formed a business like and effective partnership over the past year. What a shame it would be to throw all that away.
Paul Howell is MP for Sedgefield.
In December last year, “things can only get better” boomed out at CCHQ on election night as Sedgefield, the former Commons seat of Tony Blair, fell and the Conservative Party clinched its first sizable majority since the years of Margaret Thatcher.
As the MP for this totemic seat, I believe I know more than most how we demolished the “Red Wall”, and how we can cement its blue replacement. We are now the party of the North, and we must stay the party of the North. What we do next will be critical in that objective.
Covid-19 has had a devastating impact – on the North and on the whole country. We are rightly spending a considerable amount of our time and resources on the fight against the virus, on saving the economy and on the search for a vaccine.
With strong leadership and by working together, we will beat this virus. Then our efforts will turn to the recovery, and how we create a fair and balanced country that works for everyone, wherever they live. The levelling up agenda was a major factor in our election win last year: the vision for addressing the longstanding, structural inequalities that exist between North and South and creating a more balanced, prosperous UK.
Levelling up is a long-term ambition, a demonstration to the party’s commitment to the North. But it is also part of the immediate recovery from the pandemic.
Alongside around 30 of my Northern Conservative MP colleagues, I have joined the Northern Research Group (NRG) – a powerful collection of MPs across the North who will ensure that we deliver a Northern Powerhouse and achieve levelling up.
Together, we can be greater than the sum of our parts, and make the compelling, evidence-based case for investment in the North. Whether the matter to hand is delivering high speed rail, making sure the most disadvantaged children don’t fall behind in their schooling, or creating jobs for the next generation in sustainable industries such as hydrogen and advanced manufacturing, the NRG is integral to the future of the communities we serve,
We are already seeing the impact on the ground. Our members have been working closely with local business leaders to ensure they get what they need from government, and that their businesses and communities are protected. And we will make sure government have a clear and fair plan for how we exit the Covid restrictions, and that businesses get the support they need.
The NRG is a further sign of our commitment to the North. When it was first suggested that CCHQ should open a new headquarters in a part of it, some commentators derided the idea. “It will never happen.” “The story has just been briefed as a distraction.” “Don’t fall for it.” Funnily enough, I haven’t seen the string of apologies from these commentators when this was confirmed at our virtual Conservative Party conference.
What particularly pleased me when the plans for a CCHQ North were first mooted was that it was clear that it wasn’t simply envisaged as a basic call centre and print shop – essential though these functions are. Instead, there was talk of it being located close to the Norths’s brightest and best graduates and data scientists. As important is devolving real responsibility and control to party members in the North to enable them to properly defend and represent the constituencies that make up the new ‘Blue Wall’ and beyond.
As Conservatives, we know that power is best exercised at the lowest practical level – hence the importance of ‘Taking Back Control’, matching our commitment to devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with plans being drawn up to create more mayors across the North.
This applies to political parties, too. CCHQ North will only work if party members feel real ownership of their headquarters, and the responsibility for making it a success. We need a dedicated campaign team to direct local professional campaign managers in every target seat. We need Treasurers to build a fighting fund to support the revival of Conservative Associations in the seats we won in December. We need a mechanism for Northern MPs to be able to feed in their ideas and local knowledge, and to direct campaigning activity to ensure we are effective election winning machine. And we need a Northern Party Board.
Ben Elliot and Amanda Milling should be hugely congratulated for proving the sceptics wrong, and I look forward to hearing more about their plans for CCHQ Nort hnext week. But if we are going to build an organisation that is sustainable and potent, it’s essential for Northern Members of Parliament and councillors to be put in charge of what comes next.
To defend Sedgefield at the next general election, and to grow our representation in local government in the North of England, it is essential for the Conservative Party to have a strong Northern presence. And we should all play our part to ensure that CCHQ North is a real fighting force, and a worthy campaign HQ for the world’s most successful political party.
Amanda Milling’s “greatest love” is Formula 1 and she is making sure the Conservative machine is ready for next year’s election races: “I’ve got the bonnet open, we’re having a look at what needs a bit of oil, what maybe needs replacing.”
As Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party she announces “the biggest conference ever”, starting on Saturday, and has been “on the road constantly for the last three months”, visiting all 48 of the Red or, as they are now sometimes called, Blue Wall seats won off other parties at the general election.
Milling denies in this interview that Ben Elliot, her Co-Chairman, runs the show at CCHQ, just as Andrew Feldman did for David Cameron.
She does not deny that since the general election victory in December, CCHQ has got rid of some campaign managers: “It’s not unusual after a general election you don’t have as many campaign managers round the country.”
Her role, she explains, is not to represent the party on the airwaves, but to maintain close contact with activists: “So I haven’t been on either the Today programme or Newsnight, but obviously with Conference it’s a big opportunity to reach out to our activist base.”
The interview was conducted on Monday afternoon in her office at CCHQ, which is adorned by pictures of Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson.
ConHome: “What do you think the virtual party conference will be like, and what do you hope to achieve from it?”
Milling: “Well I’m thoroughly looking forward to the virtual conference which starts on Saturday. It’s going to be the biggest conference ever, given the number of registrations.
“Obviously I’m disappointed we’re not in Birmingham, but we are where we are. You do find yourself attracting people who would normally not come to conference, by virtue of being able to dial in from your home.”
ConHome: “It is very expensive, in time as well as money, to go to conference.”
Milling: “Yes, in terms of normal conference, if you think about actually going along to Birmingham or Manchester, the hotel, it can be quite a big commitment.
“But I’m delighted we’ve got this virtual conference this year to be able to pour more people in, and hopefully it’ll give them appetite to join us at future conferences both in the spring and in the autumn.”
ConHome: “Will they be able to answer back, or to applaud?”
Milling: “It’s going to be very interactive. A virtual conference does give us the opportunity to have that chat function. People can pose their questions.
“I think that’s quite an important part of this. Because otherwise I think there’s a bit of a danger that it’s permanently just ‘transmit’ – it’s much better to have that interaction – the ability to ask colleagues questions.
“And I’m very pleased that ConHome are having the fringe events too.”
ConHome: “We are, in massive number. Just so you can help us plan, how many set-piece speeches will there be?”
Milling: “We’ve got set-piece speeches from the Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary, Chancellor and Prime Minister, but other Cabinet ministers will be having their slots as well.”
ConHome: “Let me ask you about your function, and do this by looking back for a moment. We’ve had a number of dual chairs, we’ve had Saatchi and Fox, then we got to Feldman and Shapps, and Feldman chaired the Board, and Feldman really was David Cameron’s man, he was in effect the real Party Chairman.
“I’m going to put this to you absolutely straight. There’s a view that Ben Elliot chairs the Board, Ben Elliot is a long-time supporter of Boris, as you are, and Ben’s the real Party Chairman.
“And that with no local elections this year it’s been very hard to see what you’re up to, or some people would say, brutally, why you’re there.”
Milling: “It’s very much a Co-Chairman role, and very much teamwork, with both of us working together. Inevitably we take on different roles and responsibilities.
“Your point about campaigning. Whilst we did have the pause, the postponement of elections earlier in the year, we still have to work towards those elections next May.
“During the summer since we had the easing of lockdown one of the things that’s been really important is setting out guidance for our activists in terms of how they can campaign in a Covid-secure way ahead of those elections next year.”
ConHome: “Tell us about your year. What have you been doing with no local elections? How did you fill in and prepare for next year’s?”
Milling: “Let’s be honest, when I was appointed Co-Chairman back in February I was there ready to get out campaigning and get out also to those seats which are the Blue Wall seats.
“They are Blue Wall seats not Red Wall seats now. Lockdown made that somewhat more difficult. But during lockdown I did a lot of work engaging with the membership via our various new virtual platforms, Zoom and Teams.
“in fact the day was filled morning to evening engaging with our activists. Actually you can get to see more activists in many ways using technology because you’re cutting out the travel time.
“But then after the lockdown was eased I started on what my original mission had been which is to get out and visit these Blue Wall seats.
“And at the weekend I did my last visit which meant I’d visited every single seat that we gained in December. I’ve been on the road constantly for the last three months.”
ConHome: “You actually visited physically?”
Milling: “Physically every single one.”
ConHome: “Could you remind me how many that is?”
Milling: “It is 48.”
ConHome: “And how many times in the year have you been put up on the Today programme or Newsnight?”
Milling: “So I haven’t been on either the Today programme or Newsnight, but obviously with Conference it’s a big opportunity to reach out to our activist base, our members, and talk about my vision for the party.”
ConHome: “Will the local elections definitely go ahead next year?”
Milling: “Yes, there is a lot of work going on in the Cabinet Office to make sure that those local elections go ahead.”
ConHome: “This is a bumper crop of local elections. What have we got? We’ve got London…”
Milling: “We’ve got the county council elections, PCC elections, mayoral elections from 2020 and also 2021, we’ve got elections in Wales and elections in Scotland. So you’re right, this is an absolutely bumper year.”
ConHome: “And everywhere you’ve got a third of the council being elected.”
Milling: “And you’ve got some by-elections. This is why this conference is a really great opportunity to galvanise the troops, enthuse the troops in terms of campaigning.
“I think back to about June time, I would go round the House of Commons, I would literally have colleagues going ‘When can we go out campaigning?’ I was actually hearing that from the grassroots as well.
“And it’s been great to see people getting back on the campaign trail, having rested their legs over lockdown.”
ConHome: “Do you think these elections will be seen as a referendum on the Government?”
Milling: “These elections are our opportunity to really demonstrate Conservatives delivering at a local level. These are local elections, but on a very large scale, given that they are two years’ worth.”
ConHome: “How has it come about that the opposition to the way the fight against Covid was conducted is actually now being led by the Chairman of the 1922 Committee?”
Milling: “Throughout this, we as a Government had to respond to an unprecedented situation with measures to protect jobs, businesses and also lives.”
ConHome: “But how come you seem to have lost the confidence, up to a point, if I read his piece in The Telegraph on Saturday rightly, of the Chairman of the ’22?”
Milling: “So what this debate is about at the moment is the time spent in Parliament discussing it. Today [Monday], as an example, we are having a debate on Coronavirus and the various measures, and a staggering 80 people are in that debate. And there will be further debates and votes going forward.”
ConHome: “But some of them are hopping up and down because today they say we’ve had another set of regulations sprung on us without any notice, saying you can’t dance in a pub and you can’t sing in a pub.”
Milling: “What the Government’s having to do is respond to what is a very fast-moving situation, but at the same time giving colleagues the opportunity to debate that, as is being demonstrated this evening.”
ConHome: “Do you feel there’s been a movement among the colleagues towards a more Swedish-type solution?”
Milling: “Colleagues are as I say debating this today and the Government are responding to the science and the research to ultimately save lives, and that’s the most important thing.”
ConHome: “If this Brady amendment is debated on Wednesday, by then we would expect the Government to have made some move to accommodate it?”
Milling: “We will be having the vote on the Rule of Six next week.”
ConHome: “Though not amendable.”
Milling: “The days of me being in the Whips Office in terms of what’s amendable are over, you seem to forget.”
ConHome: “What do you do in your spare time? Though by the sound of it you don’t have all that much of it just at the moment.”
Milling: “Well my greatest love, and I do try to carve out the time for this, is watching Formula 1.”
Milling: “So I am a petrolhead.”
ConHome: “From what age were you a petrolhead?”
Milling: “From childhood. I was brought up around cars.”
ConHome: “Who are the greatest racing drivers in your lifetime? Lewis Hamilton’s a bit dull, isn’t he? I mean obviously very good at it.”
Milling: “He’s very, very good at it. He had a bit of a tough day in the office yesterday. Eddie Irvine I always thought was quite an interesting character, because he really took the challenge to Schumacher at the time if I recall rightly.
“So I love Formula 1. So you can imagine my Sunday evenings are most definitely carved out for watching the highlights.
“It’s nice downtime. It would be nicer to actually go to one, but obviously at the moment that’s more difficult. Going to Silverstone is a great, great experience.”
ConHome: “You were brought up around cars?”
Milling: “My father had some vintage cars. There’s a photo if I recall correctly of me at about two in a kind of jump suit with a spanner in hand, although I’m not sure I’d be very good at servicing cars.
“Although on the matter of servicing cars, in terms of this particular role at the moment, I’ve got the bonnet open, we’re having a look at what needs a bit of oil, what maybe needs replacing.
“You haven’t maybe been able to do these things over the last few years, because we’ve just been so focussed on elections.”
ConHome: “So you’re tuning the engine.”
Milling: “We’re tuning the engine. Curiously, lockdown enabled us to do that to a greater extent.”
ConHome: “What sort of things?”
Milling: “One of the things is the candidates’ process, so an end-to-end review of that, from identifying talent to assessing talent and then supporting and nurturing talent.
“We did the Welsh review. We’ve recently appointed a team member to be the campaign manager for Northern Ireland.”
ConHome: “In the past there’s been a lot of criticism of losing highly knowledgeable campaign managers after a general election, and then the machine not in fact being in proper working order, for example in 2017.”
Milling: “So what we’ve been doing over the last few months, particularly ahead of next year’s elections, is making sure that our team are in the right places.
“But also over time our main focus is on getting the organisation fit for not just next year but 2024.”
ConHome: “The organisation was very scanty in many of the 48 seats which were won in December. What are you doing to build up some troops, some boots on the ground, for next time?”
Milling: “There’s a big piece of work we’ve been undertaking looking at these Blue Wall seats. Lee Rowley, who’s the Deputy Chairman, has been sitting down with all these colleagues to really get under the skin of what have they got, what have they not got, what their priorities are, what we need to do to build a membership and activists in these different areas.
“We’re going to be having a working group to make that more action-focussed.”
ConHome: “You just said you’ll be getting the campaign managers to the right places. Is that fewer people to the right places?”
Milling: “It’s not unusual after a general election you don’t have as many campaign managers around the country. But I think the main point for me as well is making sure that those campaign managers that we’ve got are focussed in the right places, particularly ahead of next year, which you know is a challenge, given the number of elections that we’ve got.”
ConHome: “When you went round the Red Wall or Blue Wall seats, how many of them don’t have a Conservative councillor?”
Milling: “It’s a big of a mixed bag. I think the key here is about building on having a Conservative MP. From being out on the ground, when I’ve met with businesses and residents, they’re really chuffed to have a Conservative MP who’s really there acting on their behalf, a voice in Parliament for them.”
ConHome: “How many of them actually have activists, never mind local councillors? How many of them have had to put together a team outside the traditional association structure?”
Milling: “My seat back in 2015 was a marginal seat and you have to build it up over time to have that broader activist base.”
ConHome: “Previous Chairmen have actually declared the membership figures. I don’t think you’ve got any plans to do that, have you?”
Milling: “No. I’m not going to be declaring the membership figures.”
ConHome: “Why not?”
Milling: “There’s a number of things on this. Number one which is actually membership’s just part of the Conservative family in many ways. It’s also about activists as well.
“At the end of the day, the most important thing is actually people putting their cross by the Conservatives at an election.
“But what I would say is that membership is up from this time last year.”
ConHome: “Is there any other organisation – the National Trust or whatever – name me another that doesn’t declare their membership.”
Milling: “Look, I’m not going to declare the membership numbers. But as I say, it is up from last year.”
Amanda Milling and Ben Elliott have written to Party members as follows:
“Following discussions with our partners we have decided that the Conservative Party will host a Virtual Conference and move most of our conference in October online.
We are excited to be working with our partners and suppliers to produce the Virtual Conference and will provide further details shortly, with the full agenda going live in early September.
The Virtual Conference will provide a fantastic opportunity for members to share ideas and hear from voices across the Party.
Party Conference is a highlight of the political calendar and we know many people will be disappointed if they can’t attend Conference in person.
Whilst we hope we will be able to host some aspects in the physical format, we would only do so if allowed by government guidelines and following the strictest safety guidelines.
Members who have already purchased passes to attend the Conference will receive an email with instructions in due course.”
It isn’t clear as we write what the virtual gateway to the virtual venue will be, what the Party will charge its members for entering, or as above what the programme will be.
As readers will see, CCHQ isn’t ruling out elements of a physical conference in some form. More on ConservativeHome tomorrow.
Ben Elliot is a more significant figure than his title, Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party, might suggest. Just as Andrew Feldman was David Cameron’s man in CCHQ, so Elliot controls the party organisation for Johnson.
The Conservative Party Board is chaired by Elliot, not by his Co-Chairman, Amanda Milling. The new Chief Executive, Darren Mott, a long-term servant of the party, reports to Elliot, not Milling, and Elliot is regularly in Number Ten, conferring with Johnson.
Elliot’s success as a fundraiser for the party is generally recognised. He not only raised the money for last December’s election, but ensured there was a surplus to carry the party through the leaner period after the election – a particularly welcome precaution once the pandemic struck.
The question troubling some Tories is whether, while charming the donors, he is sufficiently careful to avoid unfortunate juxtapositions.
He would not have arranged the seating plan for the now notorious dinner last November at which Robert Jenrick found himself sitting next to Richard Desmond. Nor can he be held to answer for Jenrick’s subsequent conduct, which included sending a friendly text message to Desmond and then ruling in his favour on a major planning application.
The seating plan would have been in the hands of the Treasurer’s Department, which appears to have tried to inform Jenrick’s special advisers about it by way of departmental emails which could not be opened because the general election campaign was already under way.
But because Elliot is in overall charge of CCHQ, he still incurs criticism when things go wrong. The buck stops with him.
“He clearly hasn’t understood the politics,” a senior Tory backbencher complained. “It smells wrong.”
“I’ve never met him,” a second senior Tory backbencher said. “He’s invisible. Maybe that’s a good thing.”
“There are mutterings that he’s a disaster waiting to happen,” an activist who knows the party well comments.
But none of those three knows Elliot. Zac Goldsmith – now as Lord Goldsmith Minister of State for the Pacific, International Environment, Climate and Forests, and Animal Welfare (is there a longer title in the Government?) – has known Elliot “pretty much all my life”, has the highest opinion of him, and calls him “without doubt the most effective person I know in terms of getting things done – he is the go-to person, he has an amazing ability to get people onside, to get people together”.
Goldsmith says it is Elliot’s job “to make sure the party can operate”, by raising the necessary funds: “How politicians behave around party donors is for politicians to figure out.”
This is right: the responsibility for behaving with complete propriety rests with the politicians. On the other hand, they ought not to be placed in situations which might lead to unnecessary embarrassment.
And the donors themselves can be tricky. “Donors put up stuff on Instagram – you despair,” one Conservative remarks. “Desmond is a particularly difficult man,” another observes.
Elliot himself possesses such a tremendous, gung-ho ability to carry off awkward social situations that he may underestimate the difficulties these could pose for less self-assured figures.
His insouciant manner suggests to those around him a refusal to contemplate the danger of scandal.
The élan with which his grandfather, Major Bruce Shand, commanded a squadron of armoured cars in the Western Desert during the Second World War, is displayed by Elliot in the less heroic roles offered by peacetime.
One of Shand’s daughters is now Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, while the other, Annabel, married Simon Elliot, a landowner in Dorset.
Ben Elliot, born in 1975, is almost invariably described, in articles about him, as Camilla’s nephew rather than Annabel’s son.
He does not appear to repine at this branding. After a conventional education at Eton and at Bristol University, where he read politics and economics, he set out to make his way as an entrepreneur.
When he was 24, he and two partners set up a firm called Quintessentially, a “lifestyle management” service for people with more money than sense. It from time to time attracts adverse comment in the press, but Elliot has also shown a flair for promoting it by giving interviews about his own lifestyle.
Here is a piece from The Daily Telegraph in 2011 about his perfect weekend:
“In my heart and soul I am a West Country man and ideally my weekends are spent there. I was born and bred in Dorset and I missed it massively when I was setting up Quintessentially, my lifestyle company, in New York during my twenties and early thirties. On my bedroom wall I had a photograph of Hod Hill, the Iron Age fort behind my parents’ home near Blandford Forum. But these days I also spend weekends in Northleach in Gloucestershire, where my wife Mary-Clare’s family live and where we own a home. I was nervous about emigrating north to Gloucestershire but you’ve got to compromise sometimes…
“We met at an Eric Clapton concert in Madison Square Gardens in New York about three and a half years ago. Her father, Steve Winwood, is a songwriter and musician who formed Blind Faith with Eric Clapton in 1969, and he was also performing in the concert. The Winwoods are half British and half American; they have a second home in Nashville, Tennessee, where Mary-Clare and I spent some time last summer.”
At the end of the interview he was asked, “What are you most ashamed about?” and replied with characteristic boldness: “I don’t have much shame. I don’t really regret anything.”
He also said: “I’d love to represent a West Country seat in the House of Commons.” It would be surprising if he did not still harbour a desire to become an MP, conceivably for The Cotswolds, the seat where Northleach lies.
Politics has been an interest from his earliest years. Goldsmith can remember Elliot at the age of nine or ten at Hawtreys, their preparatory school, getting people to sign petitions.
Recent years have seen an accumulation of offices: in 2015 he was appointed to the development board of the Royal Albert Hall, in 2016 he was deeply involved on the fundraising side of Goldsmith’s unsuccessful campaign for Mayor of London and became a trustee of the Victoria & Albert Museum, in 2017 he joined the board of the Centre for Policy Studies, and in December 2018 Michael Gove made him the Government’s Food Surplus and Waste Champion.
Publicity for the last role offered scope, in an interview with The Times, for one of the self-deprecating anecdotes of which Elliot is a master, used as the intro to the piece by its author, Damian Whitworth:
“Ben Elliot arrives for our breakfast meeting having already been into battle. ‘I had a row with my youngest son today because he wouldn’t eat all his porridge. It’s bloody difficult. Negotiating with him on anything is a nightmare.’
“When Britain’s new food waste tsar was growing up he was not allowed to leave the table until he had finished everything on his plate. His father once made him sit, picking away at the last scrap of lunch, until 5 p.m. Modern parenting trends are less hardcore. Caught between an intransigent 21st-century four-year-old and the horror of throwing food away, what did he do? ‘I ended up eating most of it.'”
Here is a rhetoric which creates a feeling of complicity between Elliot and anyone who has ever had trouble getting a child to eat.
But behind the genuine charm lies something else. Someone who has worked for Elliot said he has two modes, charming and angry.
One day he will walk in smiling, the next day like a storm cloud. He is no mere boulevardier, a tall, relaxed, handsome man who networks for his own amusement, content to look good in his grandfather’s old suits as he moves among fashionable and well-connected people.
He is a serious person who for most the time conceals his seriousness, as Englishmen of a certain type do, behind a screen of affability, but who gets immensely frustrated when he cannot achieve what he has set out to achieve.
In this he is like the Prime Minister, another man often written off as not serious, because his manner seems to indicate incorrigible frivolity.
The two of them are more ambitious, incisive and energetic than their critics are willing to admit. Both of them want to make dramatic changes to the organisations they are running, not conduct themselves as caretakers.
Last summer, when Johnson became Prime Minister and put Elliot into CCHQ, preparations began for an early general election campaign, to be run by Isaac Levido, protégé of Lynton Crosby, who himself got Johnson elected as Mayor of London in 2008, and ran David Cameron’s successful general campaign in 2015.
Most of the recommendations of the Pickles Review, set up to work out what went wrong in Theresa May’s disastrous campaign in 2017, had already been implemented.
Elliot raised the money for the 2019 campaign, frightening donors with the prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn government. He also ensured that Levido had the space to get on with running the show. No turf wars disrupted what was a highly successful operation.
Johnson since his Oxford days, when the workers, peasants and intellectuals of Balliol were given no glimpse of his upper-class friends, has had a talent for belonging to several different circles which are for most of the time unaware of each other’s existence. Elliot, close to Gove, great friends with the Goldsmith brothers, and a member at 5 Hertford Street, a club owned by Robin Birley, belongs to one such circle.
The press has striven, quite rightly, to find out all it can about Jenrick and Desmond, and to investigate Elliot’s other enterprises, including the Government work obtained some years ago by Quintessentially, and the lobbying firm, Hawthorn Advisors, which he and others founded in 2013.
That sort of journalism is an indispensable check on the abuse of power. But it may also lead, paradoxically, to an underestimate of the abilities of those against whom it is directed; a cutting down to size which misses significant aspects of someone’s character.
Elliot is described, by one who has seen him at close quarters, as an invigorating boss, a genuine believer in entrepreneurship who sees the good in people, and takes it personally when people criticise Johnson, in whose leadership campaign he played a important role.
If Elliot lacked self-confidence, he would be useless as a fundraiser. To ask people for large sums of money in return for the opportunity to eat an over-priced dinner with Jenrick, and bid for an absurdly expensive game of tennis against Johnson and Elliot, requires a degree of impudence.