Iain Dale: If Milling isn’t up to being Party Chairman, why was she appointed in the first place?

9 Oct

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

I have to admit that I didn’t watch any of the Conservative virtual conference online. Judging by the number of registrations, it can be deemed a success. Twenty thousand people registered, and there were often more than 6,000 people watching.

I’m told fringe meetings proved more popular than the set-piece cabinet minister speeches (wasn’t it ever thus?) with some events, including those hosted by ConHome) attracting online audiences in four figures.

Given that normal fringe meetings might attract a couple of hundred people at most, this ought to give the conference organisers food for thought for the future. CCHQ told me this week that future conferences would almost certainly be hybrid events, and that’s exactly right. The more people who are able to take part, the better.

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Watching highlights of the US Vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, it almost seemed like normal politics had returned.

For the most part, the debate was conducted with mutual respect, good humour and dignity from both candidates. Yes, there were some interruptions, but that happens in debates. We had none of the abuse, insults and acrimony that characterised the debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden a week before.

And it wasn’t just the President who was guilty. We don’t know yet whether the next debate, due to take place in Florida next week, will go ahead. If it does, let’s hope that it’s more edifying than the first one.

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On Tuesday, I deputised for Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph.  I thought long and hard about writing what I did – but it had to be said.

I wrote about the role of the Party Chairman, and how its importance has diminished over the years, and how the present incumbent, Amanda Milling, was performing no useful role, except to travel the country and eat a few rubber chickens

It gave me no pleasure, and in many ways it’s not her fault. She’s performing the role dictated by Number Ten. She has no power to change anything, and scant little influence. Her co-chairman, Ben Elliot, is the one in control and we all know it.

The one role she could perform, but hasn’t got the experience to do, is to get out there on the media and be a lightning rod for the Prime Minister. That’s what Cecil Parkinson did. It’s what Norman Tebbit used to do. It’s what Brian Mawhinney did for John Major. And it’s what Brandon Lewis did for Theresa May.

Amanda Milling went on Any Questions last Friday, and proceeded to read out lines from her briefing notes. It was buttock-clenchingly embarrassing. A programme insider reckoned she was the worst guest they had had on in recent memory.

Again, in many ways, I don’t blame her for that. Everyone tells me that Milling was an excellent Deputy Chief Whip, but we all know that whips don’t do media, and don’t speak in the chamber.

So to appoint someone with little media experience as co-Party Chairman was bizarre to say the least. It did her no favours whatsoever. By all accounts, the Number Ten machine is frustrated by her performance. No shit, Sherlock. Well, they shouldn’t blame her for it, they should apportion the blame to the person who made the appointment.

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I was disappointed but not surprised to see Liam Fox fail to reach the final two in the race to become the next director general of the World Trade Organisation.

The EU was always determined to scupper him, which says far about them than it does about him. He is very well qualified to do the job, which will now be a straight fight between candidates from South Korea and Nigeria. Péter Szijjártó, Hungary’s Foreign Minister, has spoken out and said the whole charade has not been “to the greater glory of the European Union”.

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Just as the Conservative Party has had to put its conference online, so have literary festivals – or at least some of them. I’ve done quite a few on Zoom over the last few months, but appeared in person last Saturday at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, as trailed on this site last week.

The event was organised it very well, ensuring that both speakers and audience were safe. Next Friday ,I’m doing the Bristol Festival of Ideas remotely, but the Wells Festival of Literature in person on the same day.

Then on Sunday October 18, I’m in Twickenham being interviewed on stage by LBC’s Steve Allen, and then on  October 24 in Diss, Norfolk.

On that occasion Brandon Lewis will interview me, which I suspect he’s going to relish, given he tells me I always give him such a hard time when he comes on my show. Ticketing details can be found here.

Iain Dale: Covid-19. There is no good reason why the arts sector should get a billion pound bailout while coach operators do not

2 Oct

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Like most of you (I hope) I was absolutely appalled by the US Presidential debate on Wednesday. I stayed up to watch it, last I have done for virtually every debate of this kind since I saw Ronald Reagan whip Jimmy Carter’s sorry ass in 1980.

I suppose that I knew what was about to happen but, even so, to see it actually unfurl in front of my eyes was a real shock.

Trump was at his bombastic worst, flailing around in all directions and socking it to Joe Biden from start to finish. He ignored all the rules of the debate and reduced the moderator, Chris Wallace from Fox News, to a jabbering wreck.

All Biden had to do in response was be vaguely coherent and look statesmanlike. He failed on both counts. He was like a rabbit in the headlights, barely able to get a sentence out without stuttering. He repeatedly said ‘here’s the deal’ without actually explaining what the deal was. He lost his cool too often, and insulted Trump in the same childish way that Trump insulted him.

They both made our own political leaders look like giants in comparison. Even Boris Johnson at his blustering worst couldn’t have been as bad as either of these two embarrassments to their nation. And to think that there are two more of these debates to come. Watching them will be like rubbernecking a train crash – one for the whole of America.

– – – – – – – – – –

The understandable tension that exists between protecting the nation’s health and reopening the economy has been stark this week.

Whatever decisions the Government takes are bound to be wrong for either side of the extremes of this debate. Taking the ‘right decision at the right time’ is proving to be impossible.

Everyone hailed the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme: it certainly did wonders for the restaurant industry, and probably saved some businesses from going under.

But there’s also little doubt that it gave people a false sense that everything was about to return to normal. Not so. Coronavirus will be with us for many, many months to come. Normality – whatever that is – will not return until a mass vaccinisation programme is launched, and that won’t be until well into 2021.

Until then, everyone will have to adapt the best they can. For some sectors, it will be easier than others. The wedding industry, together with events and exhibitions, get a lot of publicity for the understandable woes they’re going through, but there are plenty of other sectors which don’t get any publicity at all, but are suffering just as badly.

I’ve taken up the cause of coach operators, who are going through some incredibly tough times, especially the smaller, often family-owned businesses. These are perfectly good and viable companies yet, through no fault of their own they are now living on a financial precipice.

These are the companies I hope that the Government will find an innovative way of helping. Banks cannot be relied on to come to their rescue and, while I fully accept that taxpayer subsidies cannot go on for ever, there is no reason that the arts and culture sectors should get a £1.5 billion bailout, when others are getting the sweet sum of diddly squat.

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After a couple of weeks of stories speculating about the Prime Minister’s health, motivation, finances and mojo, it’s been good to see him re-enter the fray this week, and actually looking and acingt the part.

Bluster will always be part of Johnson’s armoury, but he has to learn when it’s appropriate to deploy it and when not. In Prime Minister’s Questions this week, he decided to reduce it to Defcon 4, which was the right thing to do.

His statement to the Commons and press conference were at least part way to rediscovering the Boris of old. Now that the stories have started about the timing of his eventual departure from the job, it will be difficult to stop them.

The crucial factor here is whether he actually enjoys the job, and whether it is what he thought it would be. In any normal era, winning an 80 seat majority would mean you had a cast-iron right to fight the next election. (Of course, in 1987 Margaret Thatcher won a 100 seat majority and was out on her ear only three and a half years later.)

Contrary to what some people are writing, Conservative MPs may be a bit whingey and whiny at the moment, but they know that there would be no appetite to turf out a Prime Minister who won an election only nine and a half months ago.

No, if Johnson decides to depart early, it will his decision and his decision alone. The historical precedents suggest that his is unlikely to occur. With the exception of Harold Wilson, no Prime Minister in the last century has left office voluntarily. And before you cite Macmillan and Eden at me, both were forced to resign because of ill health. Blair was forced out by Brown, long before he really wanted to go, too.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tomorrow I am speaking (in person, rather than via Zoom) at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. The audience will be socially distanced and I’m not even sure I’m allowed to do a conventional book signing afterwards. Strange times.

Iain Dale: We all want our city and town centres to return to normal. But that isn’t possible at present – so we must get used to it.

25 Sep

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and is a commentator for CNN.

A sign of a Prime Minister in trouble is when journalists start writing articles about possible successors, and who might be the runners and riders in a leadership contest.

Given that Boris Johnson has only been the Conservative leader for just over a year, it comes as something of a surprise that he’s already being written off by some of his colleagues and commentators.

Some allege that it’s clear that he’s suffering from so-called “Long Covid”, and knows in his heart of hearts that he’s not performing on all six cylinders. Others reckon that if he gets a free trade agreement with the EU and the post- Coronavirus economy returns to something like normality, he might decide his work is done and he’ll be off to enjoy the fruits of a post Prime Ministerial career.

The truth is that no one knows. I find both these scenarios entirely plausible, if not wholly likely. It is very rare for a Prime Minister to give up office voluntarily, even when they might not be in the best of health. Tony Blair did – sort of, although a Gordon Brown shaped gun had been put to his temple. Harold Wilson did, but he knew his mental capacity was on the decline.

A party leader only serves at the pleasure of the Parliamentary Conservative Party. Yes, there are rumblings of discontent but, again, this is nothing unusual. Margaret Thatcher experienced such tremors throughout her leadership, but it took the cowards 15 years to get rid of her.

I find it difficult to foresee that things would get so bad within the next twelve months that Tory MPs would get rid of the man who brought them an 80 seat majority only 10 months ago. But in politics, the unexpected often happens.

– – – – – – – – – –

On Matt Forde’s Political Party podcast this week, I recounted a tale from my schooldays which left him open- mouthed with horror.

Back in 1978, when I was 15  my school held an end of term fancy dress disco in the cavernous school hall at Saffron Walden County High. I decided to go as a gamekeeper, given I had all the gear.

I arrived at the do dressed up in proper ‘Seth Armstrong’ gear (if you aren’t an Emmerdale fan, you won’t get that reference), replete with flat cap and wellington boots.

But more to the point, I was also carrying a double barrel twelve-bore shotgun (my father’s) and a cartridge belt full of live cartridges. No one batted an eyelid. If I did that now, the Police would be called and I’d probably get a mention in the Daily Mail, and get an ASBO. Innocent times.

– – – – – – – – – –

I am starting a new series of 55 podcasts on each of our 55 Prime Minsters to accompany the book I am editing on the subject which comes out in November.

Yesterday, one of the contributors pulled out of recording the podcast, because his three meetings in London that were summarily cancelled and transferred to Zoom calls – so he didn’t want to come in just for one.

In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon had continued to urge people to work from home if they could, whereas in England we had all be encouraged to return to work outside it if we could from July onwards. In hindsight, that was wrong.

Of course, we all want to get our city and town centres back to normal, but policy cannot be guided by an understandable desire to keep sandwich shops in business. We are not yet ‘Pret a Manger’.

The thought that this could all go on for another six months is not one any of us relishes, yet I think it was quite right of the Prime Minister to say that.

In March, he was criticised for what some described as false optimism, when he intimated that everything would be back to normal by Christmas. Now he’s being criticised for being a doomster…Sometimes, as a politician, you just can’t win.

– – – – – – – – – –

There’s a new authorised biography of Diane Abbott out this week. In the index it says I get a mention on page 52. The only Dale mentioned on that page is Diane’s maternal grandmother, Dinah Dale. I wonder if we are by any chance related? Now there’s one for Who do you think you are?  It’s entirely possible we could be related, you know – I can’t count either.

Iain Dale: Cameron changed the Conservatives, and in many ways he changed the country for good

18 Sep

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

On Monday, I announced on my Twitter feed that I would be interviewing David Cameron later in the week. The paperback of his memoirs, For the Record, was published yesterday, so the interview was timed to coincide with that.

Never for a moment did I think an announcement that I would be interviewing a former Prime Minister would be met with such abuse. “What’s the point?” “He was a failure, why would you interview a failure?” And there was plenty that was much worse.

It illustrates the debasing of public discourse when people can be quite so insulting about someone who served his country as Prime Minister for six years. And he got it with both barrels from both sides.

To the more extreme Remainers, he is a traitor to his country for allowing the referendum to take place, and to hard Brexiteers he’s, well, just a traitor. “Why would you interview someone who walked away, the day after the referendum?” they brayed in unison.

Well, I’ll tell you why. Cameron changed the Conservative Party. In many ways he changed the country for good. Yes, he had political and policy failings, but all Prime Ministers do.

He may well go down in history as the man who allowed Brexit to happen. We don’t know yet whether that will turn out well or not. He may go down in history as the Prime Minister who started the process by which Scotland parted company from the rest of the UK – although if it happens, there will have been many other factors at play.

I interviewed Cameron because he presided over this country at a time of unique economic and political turmoil. All Prime Ministers are fascinating to one degree or another, and if anyone thinks I’d turn down the opportunity of interviewing him, Gordon Brown, John Major – or Lord Palmerston – well, they live in a delusional world of their own making. If you missed the interview it’s on the Iain Dale Book Club podcast right now.

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This lunchtime, I’m in Appledore in North Devon speaking at their book festival. Also on the programme are Labour’s Rachel Reeves and Jeremy Vine.

Most literary festivals this autumn have been cancelled, but Appledore have taken a brave decision to go ahead – and reformat it as a ‘Drive-in’ event.

So I’ll be on stage. Being interviewed about my book by a local journalist, and the audience will be in their cars, watching a big screen and listening to my words of wisdom via their car radios. What could possibly go wrong…?

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The Government is planning to double the maximum prison sentence for people who launch physical attacks on emergency workers.

Great news, you’d think. But it’s only from one to two years. Given we have the most right-wing Home Secretary in our lifetimes, you’d have thought she might have been willing to go to five or even ten years – but it seems not.

I just do not understand the mentality of anyone who would deliberately attack a paramedic or a firefighter or an ambulance driver. Of course, some will no doubt have mental health issues, but most will not.

I’m not sure that when the red mists descends you worry about a one or two year prison sentence, but it might cross your mind that discretion may be the better part of valour, were the sentence ten years.

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Sasha Swire’s diaries look as if they are going to be unputdownable when they are published next Thursday. If you’ve missed the serialisation in The Times, she is the wife of the former Conservative MP, Hugo Swire. And she has written a potboiler of a book, which, if rumour is to be believed, threatens to despatch them into the realms of social pariahdom.

The diaries are so indiscreet that it’s difficult to see how some of the couple’s long-term friendships can survive some of the revelations. I’ve published and edited a fair few political diaries in my time, and it’s always a balancing act between keeping juicy bits in to attract readers and editing the more salacious bits to avoid upsetting too many people.

I published Michael Spicer’s diaries some years ago and, as the publishing process wore on, he proceeded to take every single juicy anecdote out, including the identity of a Liberal Democrat MP who nearly defected to the Conservatives. He wouldn’t even say he was a LibDem. It was John Burnett, by the way. Nope, me neither.

Iain Dale: Good luck to Robbie Gibb’s prospective challenger to the BBC and Sky. And to News UK if it has a go, too.

4 Sep

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

On Wednesday, the German government declared that the Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, had indeed be poisoned, and that the nerve agent used was Novichok.

Predictably the Kremlin denied any involvement whatsoever, thereby taking the West for fools yet again. Novichok appears to have become the poison of choice for the Russian Government’s Federal Security Service (FSB). For an apparently developed country to sanction the use of chemical weapons against its own citizens is both unconscionable, and tells us a lot about the ruthlessness of Valdimir Putin.

It is inconceivable that he doesn’t know it is going on, whether or not he gives the direct orders or not. After Salisbury, he could have read the riot act to his former colleagues in the FSB and said: ‘Never again’. He chose not to – and the poisoning of his main political opponent is the result.

So what should the response be? When he was Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson did brilliantly to persuade 20 countries to expel more than 130 Russian diplomats. That was fine, but it didn’t go far enough. All western countries should now impose the most severe Magnitsky sanctions possible against all senior members of the FSB and every single member of the Russian cabinet, including Putin himself.

Germany will be key here. Angela Merkel has enjoyed a better relationship with Putin than most western leaders, and Russia and Germany enjoy economic ties which Britain and Russia do not have.

For Germany to take serious measures against the Kremlin may be the jolt that Putin needs if he is to re-evaluate his ‘poison policy’. Or he may respond by threatening to switch off the supply of gas to Western Europe. If you appease people like Putin, they just laugh at you. The time for serious action is now.

– – – – – – – – – –

I’ve enjoyed reading Philip Collins in The Times over the last twelve years. Sadly he’s been let go as a weekly columnist, but by most standards he’s had a good innings.

He fired off a parting shot email which was particularly ill-judged and ungracious. Rather than thank The Times for giving him the space to air his views over twelve years, he complained that he’d been let go in a thirty second conversation.

Galling, yes, but it’s always better to leave with your head held high, even if you think your benefactors have made a huge mistake. Bitterness is never a good look.

All columnists, and radio presenters for that matter, know that as each hour passes, their day of departure looms ever nearer. I’ve been on LBC for eleven years now. I hope when my time comes I conduct myself with due decorum, but also  hope that day is a long way off!

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It is rumoured that two more news channels may appear on our screens before too long. There’s little doubt that there is growing dissatisfaction with the news coverage provided by Sky and the BBC, but there is a big question-mark over whether the news viewing market is big enough to sustain new entrants. And would a news channel with a centre-right slant be able to garner enough of an audience to make it commercially viable?

GB News (let’s hope that if it gets on air it has a snappier name) is led by Robbie Gibb and an ex-head of Sky Australia. News UK is also rumoured to be planning something similar.

Both are at pains to say their vision does not involve becoming a UK version of Fox News. Would conventional advertisers be flocking to advertise on a right of centre TV channel? They advertise in right of centre newspapers, so there is no reason why not, I suppose, but I suspect they will take some convincing.

Whoever the financial backers of these channels may be will need to have some very deep pockets indeed to get them through the initial few years. Running costs will go into the tens of millions of pounds. I wish both enterprises luck, because competition is always good, and new entrants to a market can help shake the existing channels out of their rank complacency.

I remember that when Stephan Shakespeare, Tim Montgomerie, Donal Blaney and I started 18 Doughty Street TV in 2006 how difficult it was to build an audience. In those days few people watched video, live or not, on their laptops. Smartphones hadn’t then been invented. In retrospect, we were ten years ahead of our time. Such a channel would do really well nowadays, I suspect.

Iain Dale: Davey is the new LibDem leader. But only 57 per cent of his party’s members could be bothered to vote

28 Aug

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

So we now have two party leaders who we have to call Sir. (Can it really be long before we all have to imagine the words, ‘Arise, Sir Ian Blackford’?)

After an interminable leadership campaign, the Liberal Democrats announced yesterday that Ed Davey has been elected their new leader, walloping Layla Moran by 43,000 votes to only 25,000.

It’s interesting to note that while 88 per cent of Conservative members voted in the 2019 leadership contest, only 57 per cent of LibDems could be bothered to vote for either Davey or Moran. Make of that what you will. I wonder how much is down to the constant ‘wokery’ they both invoked, especially on Trans issues.

– – – – – – – – – –

It was announced this week that both Sally Collier, the Chief Executive of Ofqual, and Jonathan Slater, the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Education, are leaving their posts. Given the exams fiasco, this is to be welcomed, and the moves are an acknowledgement that those who presided over it have had to take the consequences of the crass incompetence displayed by both their departments.

But hold on a cotton-pickin’ minute. If officials are despatched in such a summary manner, should not the same apply to their political masters too?

It is reported (but not confirmed) that Gavin Williamson offered his resignation to the Prime Minister, but that it was refused. Nick Gibb says he thought seriously about resigning but concluded that it would be the wrong thing to do.

I like both of them, and it pains me to say it, especially in this forum, but they must know they are dead men walking. Presumably they are only still in their jobs because of the importance of what is to happen next week, when pupils go back to school.

Once that is over (whether it goes smoothly or not) the best thing would be for them to be replaced PDQ, rather than wait for an expected January reshuffle. It’s not fair on the Education Department to have two lame duck ministers presiding over it for another four or five months.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Government’s policy on facemasks in schools has not, shall we say, exactly been as clear as it might have been, but can we get one thing straight? An adjustment of policy is not a U-turn.

This media obsession with them is getting out of hand. When scientific, medical and WHO advice seems to be changing almost weekly on the issue of facemasks, can it be any surprise that the Government’s position changes too?

Yes, Nicola Sturgeon made her announcement a few days before the Westminster government did, but the London media seems to forget that Scottish schools returned ten days ago. If the phrase U-turn is to be used to characterise a reversal of government policy, let’s use it when it really is a proper reverse ferret. This is not one of those occasions.

– – – – – – – – – –

This evening, I’m appearing on Radio 4’s Any Questions which, let’s face it, is a funny think to do when you’re supposed to be on holiday.

I only found out recently that the bulk of listeners to the show listen to the Saturday lunchtime repeat rather than on a Friday evening. It’s a show in which there’s a tremendous opportunity to make a complete arse of yourself. I’ve been on it about a dozen times before and so far I don’t think I have, but there’s always a first time.

You genuinely don’t know the questions in advance, but have to be a bit of a dunce if you can’t predict at least three of the subject areas. However, this week it’s a little more challenging given there haven’t been any really dominant news stories.

– – – – – – – – – –

In related news, my own version of Any Questions is returning to the LBC airwaves on Wednesday 9 September. Cross Question also features four panellists, but they take questions/calls from LBC listeners and we also live stream it on video.

It’s a little less formal than Any Questions, although Chris Mason has introduced much more informality since he took over the presenting reins from Jonathan Dimbleby. We had to pause Cross Question in March, since we couldn’t have four guests in the studio. For the foreseeable future, we’re going to have two guests in the studio and two on giant video screens. Hopefully, it will work!

Iain Dale: How many Cabinet members would your fantasy Cabinet. I count five. And it gets worse.

20 Aug

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to defend what’s happened over the last week or ten days with exam results.

Clustershambles doesn’t really cover it. And the trouble is that it has affected a huge number of people, not just the students and teachers concerned, but their parents and grandparents too.

Add them up, and we’re talking several million people, I imagine. Like the Dominic Cummings’ Barnard Castle trip, it’s had cut-through.

The latest YouGov poll, out on Wednesday should a four point dip in the Tory ratings to 40 per cent. While that is still a two point lead, it’s not difficult to imagine that next week Labour could be ahead for the first time in, well, many years.

Optimists might point out that we are three and a half years away from a general election and that time is a great healer. Maybe, but once a Government gets a reputation for crass incompetence it is very difficult to shake off.

– – – – – – – – – –

It was reported by The Independent (yes, it still exists online) that Gavin Williamson offered his resignation on Monday, but that it was rejected by the Prime Minister. Only they know the truth of this, but it certainly hasn’t been denied by the beleaguered Education Secretary.

If he did indeed do the honourable thing, all credit to him. But surely if you resign, you, er, resign. It’s all very well for the Prime Minister to have said (if he in fact did), well, you got us into this, you get us out, but in the end once a politician loses the confidence of his or her client groups, it’s very difficult to get things back on an even keel.

Your Cabinet colleagues look at you as a dead man walking. Your enemies can’t wait until your inevitable denouement, and your “friends” melt away at the first whiff of grapeshot. If you’re going to survive, you don’t have long to plan how to do it. In Williamson’s case, he has until Christmas, given that I am led to understand that the reshuffle is now planned for January.

– – – – – – – – – –

The trouble with this Cabinet is that it has a distinctly second-rate feel about it. How many of them would make it into a Thatcher or Major cabinet. Very few, I would venture to suggest.

I interviewed Alastair Campbell on Wednesday (it will be on the Iain Dale All Talk podcast next Wednesday), and he reckoned that most of the current crew wouldn’t have even made it to Minister of State in Mrs T’s day.

Do it yourself. Go through the whole cabinet, and think how many of them would make your own fantasy cabinet. I just did so and came up with a total of five. Lamentable.

But it gets worse. Look down the list of Ministers of State – the ministers who would normally be next in line for the cabinet. I count five that are cabinet material. This is a dire state of affairs.

But it gets even worse. Normally you have a range of former ministers who you could think about bringing back to add a bit of weight and gravitas. Trouble is, most of them left Parliament at the last election. Looking at the greybeards on the Tory benches with cabinet experience you have Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis, John Redwood, Maria Miller, Greg Clark, Stephen Crabb, Liam Fox, Cheryl Gillan, Chris Grayling, Damian Green, Mark Harper, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Andrea Leadsom, Theresa May, Esther McVey, Andrew Mitchell, Owen Paterson and Theresa Villiers.

Now, how many of those could realistically be restored to cabinet status to bring something extra in terms of political weight, gravitas or character? I’ll leave that to your impeccable judgement.

– – – – – – – – – –

So far this year, I haven’t taken any holiday at all. However, next week I’m on holiday in Norfolk – apart from the fact that I’ll be writing this column, doing several podcasts and appearing on Any Questions.

I realised last week that I’ve lost the art of doing nothing. If I’m watching TV, I’ve got my laptop open and I will be flicking through Twitter or something.

Next week, I’m going to try to do some reading, and I mean reading for pleasure – not reading something because I have to for my job. Talking of which I have just done an hour-long interview for my Iain Dale Book Club podcast with Danny Finkelstein. He’s just published a book of his collected columns. What a truly fascinating man he is. The podcast will be released on Friday 4 September.

Iain Dale: In the aftermath of the Beirut disaster, my memory of Lebanon.

7 Aug

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

This week’s terrible events in Beirut brought back a lot of memories for me. The dust filled streets were reminiscent of the aftermath of 9/11, in which I feared a friend of mine had been killed. My friend, Jacqui Smith, the former Labour Home Secretary, is a regular visitor to Beirut, and she told me the hotel she stays in has been totally destroyed.

I am glad the UK government is sending £5 million in aid, along with medical equipment and supplies. It’s good to see that the Israeli government has offered aid too, although it remains to be seen whether it will be accepted.

But the main memory it brought back was a trip I made to Beirut in the early 1990s, not long after the British hostages had been freed. Indeed, I was told I was the first Brit to have ventured there following John McCarthy’s release, a bit of a coincidence as John McCarthy lived in the next village to me in Essex. Had I known this before my trip I suspect I might well have chickened out of going.

The reason for my trip was equally bizarre. I was working as transport lobbyist at the time, specialising in various forms of transport privatisation. I got a call from the Foreign Office asking if I would be interested in speaking at a conference on the subject in the Middle East as no one in the Department of Transport could go. Never having been to that part of the world before, I was naturally rather keen.

‘Where is it being held?’ I asked. ‘Er, Beirut,’ came the response. I began to understand why Department for Transport diaries were curiously full. But my own curiosity and sense of adventure got the better of me and a few weeks later I was travelling to the Lebanese capital courtesy of a first class ticket of Middle Eastern Airlines. ‘This is the life,’ I thought to myself.

I had been told by the Foreign Office that when I got off the plane I would be met by officials from the British Embassy and that I wasn’t to talk to, or go off with, anyone but them. When I started descending the rather rickety steps, all I could see were Lebanese army soldiers surrounding the plane toting AK47s. It was at that point I did wonder to myself if this had been such a good idea.

When I got to the bottom of the steps a black Mercedes with darkened windows pulled up. A man wearing dark glasses got out, approached me and said: ‘Mr Dale? You come with me.’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m being collected by the British Embassy’. ‘Mr Dale, you come with me,’ he repeated in a manner which seemed rather determined. Being a complete coward, I got in the car and travelled a couple of hundred yards to a shed where he demanded my passport.

Eventually I gave up asking where the British embassy officials were and decided that doing what I was told was the best way forward. Once the passport formalities were complete, he told me he would take me to my hotel, which was about half an hour’s drive away. I knew that the airport road was not exactly the safest part of Beirut, but I wasn’t in much of a position to argue.

On the way to the hotel I had a running commentary of all the people who had been killed or kidnapped on this road. Just what I needed. The whole area seemed to resemble Dresden after a bombing raid. Rubble everywhere, people nowhere. As we approached Beirut itself it was quite clear that this had once been a truly beautiful place.

The hotel was comfortable, if not luxurious. But looking out of the reception window it was impossible to ignore the armed guards who surrounded its perimeter.

At last I heard the sound of British voices. I turned round and saw four khaki dressed soldiers approaching. They apologised for missing me at the airport and asked if I was ready. ‘Ready for what?’ I asked. ‘You’re guest of honour at a dinner at the British Embassy in an hour,’ they informed me. ‘Nice of someone to tell me,’ I thought.

I have to admit I am not the kind of person who is used to Embassy dinners or cocktail parties. Indeed, I had never been to one before, and haven’t been to another one since. But it’s not the dinner that sticks in my mind from that memorable day. It was the 45 minute drive from the hotel to the Embassy.

We were in a convoy of two armed land rovers, each with soldiers almost hanging out of the windows, carrying guns. We drove at breakneck speed through down Beirut, up into the hills. I did wonder if it was such a good idea to have a Union Jack flying from the front of each Land Rover but didn’t like to say anything. We got to the embassy and negotiated the 200 yard long chicane of concrete blocks which was supposed to protect the building from suicide bombers, I imagine, and I arrived to be greeted by the Ambassador and his wife who had invited a selection of local businesspeople and journalists to meet me. Not only that, it turned out they were expecting a speech. Nowadays, that wouldn’t particularly phase me, but it did then! Somehow I got through it.

The next day I spoke at the Transport Privatisation conference, which was being shown live on TV throughout the Middle East, therefore telling every terrorist organisation in the region that a new Brit was in their midst. Thankfully I wasn’t told that until I was about to leave. The speech went well and I then had the best part of a day to myself. I had been told I wasn’t to set foot outside the hotel without ringing the embassy and getting their permission and a guard.

They provided me with a driver for a visit I wanted to make to the port area. I was shown round by the port manager whose English was only slightly worse than my French. They were still trying to clear the harbour area of wreckage so the port could start to function again properly. I suspect the explosion has meant they will have to start all over again. Given Lebanon is a country that relies entirely in imports, they will need to get the port up and running pretty quickly.

On the way back I tried to ask my driver where I could buy some souvenirs. Feeling quite proud of myself for making myself understood in French I was horrified when I found him driving off the main road through some backstreets. He understood I needed to change some dollars but the first place we went to couldn’t do it. I then found myself walking down the main shopping street in Beirut behind this man feeling rather conspicuous in my western suit. All eyes were on me – well at least I thought they were. I changed some money and bought a few vases and then scarpered back to the hotel.

But the best part of the trip was about to happen. A man from the organisers of the conference asked if I would like a tour of the countryside surrounding Beirut. I said I didn’t think the Embassy would allow me to, but I let myself be persuaded (the follies of youth) and spent the next two hours in his company being drive round the mountains and valleys that surround Beirut, including the famous Bekaa valley. He even took me to meet his family.

It really was a trip that will be forever etched into my memory. I was utterly stupid and irresponsible to go. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Iain Dale: My end of term report on the Cabinet. Part Two.

31 Jul

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Last week, I awarded my end of term marks for half the Cabinet. Here are my marks for the second half…

Robert Buckland – Secretary of State for Justice

B +

A calming voice on the media, Buckland comes over as the voice of reason in a world often dominated by unreason. One of the few former Remainers left in government, he has been totally loyal to the Prime Minister and embarked on an important programme of reform in the justice and prison systems.

Liz Truss – Secretary of State for International Trade

B –

A survivor, Truss was tipped to be sacked after the election, but she kept her job…and is now tipped for the sack again. If she negotiates a host of free trade agreements before the end of the year, it would render her unsackable. Japan and New Zealand look to be the first ones, which could be announced in the autumn.

Therese Coffey – Secretary of State for Work & Pensions

C +

A surprise appointment when Amber Rudd resigned, Coffey is a solid performer and simply got on with the job of trying to ensure the benefits system meets the demands of the Covid crisis. She sorted the initial creaks in the Universal Credit system, where people couldn’t access the website or phone lines and neutered it as an issue. Number Ten are said to be unhappy with one or two comments in interviews but she lives to fight another day.

George Eustice – Secretary of State for DEFRA

B –

George Eustice’s great advantage is that he is actually a farmer himself and, in this job, that helps. He chaired quite a few of the Covid press conferences without either putting a foot wrong or saying anything very meaningful. One of the greyer figures in cabinet he needs to up his charisma factor a tad if he is to be able to sell a post Brexit message of optimism for the farming and food sectors.

Robert Jenrick – Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government

C

Given the two big scandals he’s faced over the last few months, no-one could accuse the Cabinet’s youngest member of lacking resilience. He’s knuckled down and got on with his job, although his effectiveness within Cabinet has to be questioned given what he’s gone through.

Alistair Jack – Secretary of State for Scotland

C

Largely anonymous to us south of the border, Jack has also failed to fill the charisma gap in Scottish politics left by Ruth Davidson. So has Jackson Carlaw – who has now resigned. Jack needs to be getting out there to sell a positive pro-union message, but seem to be finding it difficult to do so.

Simon Hart – Secretary of State for Wales

Tiggerish and a total enthusiast for politics, Hart has been busy selling the Conservative message in Wales, in a way his Scottish counterparts find more difficult, possibly because of the way the Scottish media works.

Oliver Dowden – Secretary of State for Digital. Culture, Media & Sport

B

After an awkward start in the job, Dowden, commonly considered one of the cleverest people in politics, has come into his own in recent weeks. His statement on Huawei in the House was a master lesson in how to deliver a difficult message and answer questions from MPs fluently and convincingly.

Baroness Evans – Leader of the House of Lords

B

A warm and empathetic character, Natalie Evans is a much unde-rused asset by the government. She doesn’t do enough media, and I say that because she’s good at it and does ‘human’ very well. A popular figure in the Lords she has kept their Lordships onside during some hairy moment.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan – Secretary of State for International Development

C +

Still a Secretary of State despite her department being abolished. Since her appointment at the election, she hasn’t had much of a public profile, but has hopefully brought some renewed rigour to a department that sorely needed it. The question is: Will the Prime Minister deliver on his promise to find a new cabinet job for her when her department is subsumed into the Foreign Office in September?

– – –

And now to the ministers attending Cabinet. By the way, it is a travesty that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Leader of the House aren’t full members of the Cabinet. There was a time when Leader of the House was considered one of the top five jobs in Cabinet.

Steve Barclay – Chief Secretary to the Treasury

B

If controlling spending was the criteria to judge a Chief Secretary by, Steve Barclay would rate a Z, but as we all know, it’s not his fault. He could have been very hacked off about his apparent demotion from Brexit Secretary, but he’s got on with the job, and used his previous experience of being a Treasury Minister to good effect. He does a good job in media interviews, albeit possibly a little bit too much on message. He’s got a good sense of humour and should use it more.

Jacob Rees-Mogg – Leader of the House of Commons

C+

Seems to have been neutered since his election campaign gaffe. He used to be ubiquitous in the media but has now completely disappeared from view and is only ever seen speaking publicly on the floor of the House of Commons. One of the few characters in the cabinet; for Number Ten, he seems to have become rather too much of a character.

Suella Braverman – Attorney General

C+

Has to try harder than her predecessors to gain the respect of the legal profession. There’s a bit of misogyny here, and has had to contend with the fact that there were better qualified candidates for this hugely important job. She’s made a quiet start, but possibly got involved in party politics a tad too much, given the independent nature of the role.

Mark Spencer – Chief Whip

B –

A popular figure with many on the government benches, he’s come under fire over several controversial decisions, not least to withdraw the whip from Julian Lewis, while allowing the likes of Rob Roberts in Delyn to keep it. The Lewis affair was completely mishandled, although the jury is out on how much it was down to Spencer or how much the key decisions were taken in Number Ten.

Iain Dale: My end of term school report on the Cabinet. Grades below. Open with care.

24 Jul

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Parliament has broken up for the summer, and there’s a bit of an end of term feeling around Westminster at the moment.

So what better time to look at how politicians are performing? Here’s Part One of my School Report on the Cabinet – what a great way to make a few new enemies…

Boris Johnson – Prime Minister

B –

A tumultuous first year in power. It was supposed to be all about the bright new post-Brexit era, but everything was turned upside down by Coronavirus, and Johnson himself being hospitalised. Delegation is a great thing, and he did it very well as Mayor of London. Being Prime Minister is much more complicated. Number Ten is too centralised, and Cabinet Ministers need to be given their head if they are to prove themselves. I’m not alone in thinking Johnson hasn’t totally got over his near death experience, but the old Boris is showing signs of returning. There is a degree of Parliamentary unrest, but if he can get his domestic agenda back on track MPs will rally round. In short, did well in the winter term, but needs to concentrate more and give a lead to the class.

Rishi Sunak – Chancellor of the Exchequer

A –

It’s easy to be popular when you’re dishing out the sweeties, and Sunak hasn’t put too many feet wrong since he because Chancellor in February. His business rescue package and furlough programme were effective, albeit with a few teething problems. Yet he has utterly failed to help the so-called ‘excluded three million’ – the self employed and company directors. These are natural Conservative voters, and they won’t forget how they have been ignored. Tipped to be the next Head Boy, but he mustn’t rest on his laurels. If he manages to revive the economy in double quick time, he will be unassailable. But then again, so was a previous Chancellor…

Dominic Raab – Foreign Secretary

A difficult start to the job, but has increasingly grown into it, and has started to display a more humble side to his character. When the Prime Minister was in hospital, he deputised in a very non-showy way, which drew praise from many of the Cabinet. His response to the problems in Hong Kong and China portray a Foreign Secretary who has begun to lose any sense of imposter syndrome.

Priti Patel – Home Secretary

B –  

Endured a difficult start to the job, and has suffered from some appalling misogynistic prejudice, and some racism too, not least from deluded Labour MPs. She’s come across as a gritty fighter, and knows how to find the party’s G spot. She suffers from being unable to project her bubbly, funny persona in the media. If she can conquer that, and increase her public visibility, she will become indispensable to the boss, who reportedly blows hot and cold about her.

Michael Gove – Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

B

One of the government’s few transformational gamechangers, Gove’s job is to coordinate the Government’s Brexit and Coronavirus responses. No pressure, then. In recent weeks, he’s become more of a behind the scenes operator rather than front of house, and there are lingering suspicions that he’s tolerated rather than embraced by his line boss. But Johnson should remember, that if Gove is successful, the government in general will be successful.

Gavin Williamson – Secretary of State for Education

C

He was desperate to get back into the cabinet, but seemed an odd choice for this job. It’s one he’s never appeared comfortable in, and his media appearances have sometimes been a tad uncertain. Needs to get his head down and come to terms that this post is one of the best in government, and onein  you can make real change and have a real impact.

Alok Sharma – Secretary of State for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy

C

Sharma’s niceness is an asset, but his promotion into one of the most important jobs in British politics is seen by many as not having worked. He’s very loyal to the Prime Minister and that loyalty has been repaid in spades but, given the economic recovery should be driven and encouraged by his department, he needs to be far clearer about what his industrial strategy is. Needs to do his homework on his media performances, which can often be sleep inducing.

Ben Wallace – Secretary of State for Defence

C +

A long time Johnson ally, Wallace was tipped by many for the sack in the last reshuffle but was given a reprieve. Defence has largely been out of the headlines over the last year, but that’s about to change. Will Wallace seriously tolerate yet further cuts in the British Army, as is rumoured?

Matt Hancock – Secretary of State for Health & Social Care

B

Hancock has become one of the most well-known faces in government, largely due to Coronavirus. On top of the detail, tiggerish in his enthusiasm, his colleagues have come to respect him more than they perhaps ever thought they would. His frustration with the Health Service establishment has become plain for all to see.

Brandon Lewis – Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

B +

Given he’s one of the government’s most trusted performers, his appointment in the apparent backwater of the Northern Ireland Office came as a surprise to many. He inherited a tricky job given the popularity in the Province of his predecessor. He’s tasked with keeping the parties talking and implementing the Northern Ireland protocol. So far so good. He’s also been used more than might be expected doing the morning media rounds.

Amanda Milling – Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party

C –

The post of Party Chairman used to rank number 5 in the hierarchy. Now it seems to be an afterthought. James Cleverly was neutered in the role, and Amanda Milling is largely anonymous. She has little public profile and most party members wouldn’t recognise her. Without upsetting the boss, she needs to up her profile and do it quickly.

Grant Shapps – Secretary of State for Transport

B +

One of the surprise successes of the Cabinet. It’s the job he wanted, and he’s shown a sure-footed grasp of the different Transport policy nettles. In the Coronavirus press conferences he was by far the most confident and human performers. He’s also got the ability to say ‘I don’t know’ without losing face.