Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of chairing the Tonbridge & Malling Open Primary. I’ve written about it in detail on my blog but it seems to me that these kind of selections are the way forward. It showcases the local Tories to their local media and constituents ,and I have yet to hear of any constituency which has felt that opposition voters have flooded the meeting and affected the selection. There are still those who say, ah, but what’s the point of joining the Conservative Party if I can’t have an exclusive right to select a candidate? There’s an easy answer to that question. Is there a single Tory Party member who joins the party for that reason? And if there is, surely they’ve joined for the wrong reason. Surely people join the party because they share Conservative values? Of course, in reality, these selections are not open primaries at all, they are open selections or caucuses, but people shouldn’t get hung up on the terminology.
There was one question from the audience which made me feel slightly uncomfortable at the Tonbridge selection, and it concerned religion. Each candidate was asked if they had any religious beliefs. Now on the face of it you could say that people are entitled to know about a candidate’s religious beliefs, but if you are not allowed to ask a candidate about their sexuality, why should you be able to test their religious convictions? I had half a mind to rule it out of order, but in the end didn’t. I don’t see religious convictions being at all relevant to a candidate’s ability to be a good MP, but I am sure many readers of this site will disagree.
I enjoyed chairing the selection much more than I ever expected to. “Why on earth did I agree to do this?” was a thought which ran through my mind quite often during the few days prior to last Saturday. I decided that I was going to make it fun, and encourage the audience to have a good time. It was a slightly risky approach because these events are all about the candidates and not the moderator. And if you are successful in introducing humour into the proceedings you risk it being too much about you. But I think it worked, because the candidates felt able to spark off me, and that was what I wanted – to allow them to demonstrate what kind of characters they were. I didn’t really ask very political questions. I left that to the audience. One man in the audience asked each candidate what they thought of the Tonbridge & Malling cycling strategy. “I’m delighted there is one!” came the answer from one candidate, who got a roar of approval from an audience which would not have been very receptive to any fannying around. In the end, we had four candidates each of whom I am sure will grace the green benches after the next election. Tom Tugendhat won after three ballots, but the others did themselves proud too.
It was in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. It was in the Tory manifesto. It was in the Coalition Agreement. So why has nothing been done about it? What am I talking about? Yes, the power of recall. After the expenses scandal, David Cameron and Nick Clegg made great play of the fact that constituents should have the right to ‘recall’ their MPs if they had been involved in a scandal. And yet nothing has happened. It could have been included in any number of bills that have passed through Parliament over the last three years, and yet Cameron and Clegg haven’t availed themselves of the opportunity. One MP is determined they should. His name is Zac Goldmsith, and he is not to be underestimated. This week he launched an e-Petition which has already got 1,200 signatures in a couple of days. I am all in favour of recall, but it must be done in a way which will thwart vexatious constituents. I’d say there needs to be a minimum of 35 per cent or 30 per cent of them who would have to sign a petition before recall could be effected.
I’ve just finished reading Piers Morgan’s third volume of diaries. I’ve never quite understood why so many people appear to hate Piers. I like him. I find him funny, witty, entertaining and, yes, often thoroughly irritating. People write about him as if he is somehow thick, and has got to where he has purely by luck and good fortune. It’s bizarre that people don’t seem to understand that you don’t get to where he has if you are devoid of talent.
It was with a slight sense of impending disappointment that I approached this latest volume of the Morgan diaries, as I expected the book to be one big name drop. In a sense it is, but it is also so much more than that. It’s the story about a Brit conquering American and his first 18 months hosting CNN’s main talk show. You do get a real sense of Piers Morgan’s own lack of self-confidence. Yes, you read that correctly. Piers is often seen as the world’s ultimate extrovert, yet deep down I detect an innate shyness. You might say that he keeps it well hidden, but it comes to the fore when he is covering news stories and interviews which are emotional in tone. He gets it right by never prying too far. Yes, he wants his guest to show emotion, but he doesn’t want to exploit them, and in an interviewer that is a real talent.
Let me be blunt. I think Piers Morgan is one of the great interviewers of our time. His Life Stories programmes are rarely anything other than gripping, even when the celebrity he is interviewing is someone the viewer doesn’t really care much about. It’s a modern day This Is Your Life with added emotion. I haven’t watched much of his CNN show but. from what I have seen, and from what I read, he gets the big guests and most of them want to return. It’s not because he always gives soft interviews, it’s because he’s fair but hard when he needs to be.
The question is whether the US will remain his main area of operation, or if he will return to these shores. I suspect he will follow the path of David Frost and try to do both. And good luck to him.
I love the genre of literary or political diaries, and the greatest exponent of the latter has to be Tony Benn (sorry, Alastair). I’ve read all nine volumes and this week I finished his latest, and last diary A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine. When I finished the last page, I experienced a sense of bearevement. There is a profound sense of melancholy running right throughout the book. It is much more reflective than the other volumes, and although I wouldn’t go so far as to describe it as self-obsessed it is only natural that a man heading for his ninetieth birthday looks back on his life and tries to assess his successes and failures. He tends to concentrate on the negatives quite a lot and the reader sometimes wants to shake him out of it, and get back the Tony Benn of previous volumes. He’s less angry in this volume and seems to have come to terms with the fact that his influence on political life is necessarily on the wane. But he rejoices in telling anecdotes of people who come up to him in the street and tell him how wonderful he is and thank him for deeds done in the past. And why not. He won’t appreciate me saying it, but this book is all about personality rather than policy, and it is none the worse for it. We discover both a softer side to Tony Benn’s personality, but also a recognition that he easily takes against people. Even though he recognises it, he still can’t stop himself occasionally having a slight go at a few people, Hazel Blears and Jesse Jackson to name but two.
The book is littered with warm references to Tony’s family, who he clearly adores. His son Joshua comes across as a bit of a hero to his father, and they both clearly dote on each other. Joshua comes to his father’s technological rescue on many occasions, and it’s all rather endearing. Perhaps the most overused phrase in the book is ‘bless his heart’, and it is invariably used with regard to Joshua. Hilary Benn, one of the nicest people I have ever met in politics, is clearly not in tune with his father’s politics. but Tony understands that and makes allowances. He’s clearly very proud of his son having been in the Cabinet, and goes out of his way not to do or say anything which would embarrass him.
Perhaps the overwhelming themes that run through this book are illness, incapacity and the inevitability of death. Tony is philosophical about the prospect of death, and seems to think it is just around the corner at various points in the book. He is frustrated by his growing physical incapacity, yet refuses to allow any degree of infirmity to stop him going to to rallies, marches and his theatre evenings. At times his diary commitments leave the reader somewhat breathless, and although at various times Tony writes in his diary that he needs to slow down, he never really does.
I first met Tony Benn fifteen or so years ago. He was someone I regarded in the 1970s as the most dangerous politician in Britain, and yet here we were 20 years later with us enjoying gossipy chats and him referring to me publicly as his ‘favourite Thatcherite entrepreneur’. They say politics is circular, and that at some point left meets right. He and I found ourselves increasingly agreeing on areas like parliamentary sovereignty, Europe and civil liberties. That’s as far as it ever went, but I have thoroughly enjoyed our debates over the years.
There will never be another diarist like Tony Benn. He is primus inter pares of the genre. I am bereft that I will never have another of his diaries to read, but he has given me hundreds of hours of reading pleasure, and for that I thank him. It is a privilege to know him.
OK, I admit it, I have been a bit lazy this week and filled out the column with a couple of book reviews. My excuse? I am on holiday in Norfolk and would rather play with my dogs than revel in political gossip. That’s my excuse and I am sticking to it. But, hey, you’ve got 1800 words this week, which is more than you usually get!