Was I too hard on Sarah Wollaston in last week’s column? I’ve been asking this question ever since a rather terse tweet from the Totnes MP, which said something like: “Iain Dale has suggested I should examine my role in the Nigel Evans case, so I have.” Strangely, the tweet has been consigned to the twitter dustbin it seems. What I actually said was: “She no doubt felt she was exercising a duty of care towards the man who cried rape. She clearly believed his story, but today she must also be asking herself if she acted properly throughout this sorry saga.” Sarah then wrote a very powerful piece in the Daily Telegraph and gave an interview to Newsnight. She asked what would others have done in the circumstances. I have asked myself the same question. My answer remains very different to Sarah’s. I would have gone to the Chief Whip and trusted him to sort it. Sarah alleges that the whips are hopelessly conflicted and couldn’t have dealt with it properly. I disagree. If they hadn’t it would still have been open to the men to go to the police. My high regard, though, for Sarah is undimmed. I regard her as a breath of fresh air and Parliament needs more independent minded voices like hers.
I interviewed Nigel on Monday afternoon for 45 minutes on my LBC show. As an interviewer, I was relishing the prospect. But as a friend of Nigel’s, I found the prospect quite intimidating because I knew I was in a no-win situation, especially as I had to begin by declaring my interest. After all, I could hardly avoid mentioning the fact that I had written him a character witness statement, which had been read out in court. It was his longest interview of the day, and I suspect the most searching. But despite the fact I asked him if he was a drunk, and if his behaviour hadn’t been completely inappropriate for a Deputy Speaker, and how on earth would he be able to make the first move if he wanted to date someone, I knew I would still stand accused of conducting a soft interview. The trouble is that if you don’t shout at someone in an interview, that’s what you’re always accused of.
Nigel also told me he had had a conversation with Sir George Young since the verdict, but it was clear that he hadn’t been offered back the Conservative Whip yet. Why on earth not? He’s been found not guilty. Surely it should have been offered back immediately? If not, why not?
As a post script to the above pieces, I also asked Nigel if he had spoken to Sarah. He said he hadn’t but he expected they would sit down and grab a coffee. They ought to, because I think there have been some grave misunderstandings on both their parts. If you’re interested you can hear the full interview here.
It’s a radio presenter’s dream for a Cabinet Minister to resign when you’re broadcasting live. And so it was that, at 7.20am last Thursday, the news broke that Maria Miller had left the government. What a shame we were in an ad break. It’s on programmes like this that someone like me is expected to prove their worth. You know the bosses will be thinking to themselves: “Well, if he doesn’t get Cameron on live in the next ten minutes, what do we employ him for?” I’m not very good at predictions but, on the previous day’s programme I had indeed predicted live on air that Miller would be gone within 48 hours. Various political pundits I interviewed wouldn’t be so definitive, and hedged their bets. One of my favourite people to interview is the Daily Telegraph’s Peter Oborne, but even he wasn’t quite sure how it would all play out when I spoke to him on the Wednesday. But on Thursday he came on the programme and called me a “modern day Nostradamus” for getting it right. I tittered, remembering our last interview in which he had called me a socialist. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the presence of mind to remind him that it was him, not me, who continued to advocate a 50p tax rate. Why is it we always think of these clever retorts when it is too late?
This week my publishing company publishes Smile for the camera by Simon Danczuk, the Labour MP, and Matthew Baker. It’s rare for a new book to make one front page of a national newspaper, but this book collared the Daily Mail’s front page three days in a row. I cannot understand the Liberal Democrats’ refusal to acknowledge that senior people in the party knew all about Cyril Smith’s disgusting habits. It is simply beyond comprehension that David Steel, the former Liberal leader, protests he knew nothing. Having read an entry in John Biffen’s diary, I suspect the direct opposite. I haven’t got it to hand but it made clear that Biffen had heard the rumours which were causing difficulty for Smith in his Rochdale seat before the 1979 election. If a Conservative frontbencher had heard the rumours, is it really conceivable that they hadn’t reached the ears of Smith’s own party leader? I think not. I suspect he knew only too well what the rumours were, but didn’t take the kind of action any party leader would be duty bound to take in this day and age.
A play consisting of two Margaret Thatchers and two Queens and precious little else…well, that’ll never work I thought when I first heard about Handbagged. How wrong could I have been! I am not sure if the play is meant to be a relatively serious commentary on the relationship between the Queen and Margaret Thatcher, or a comedy. In truth it is both and, bizarrely, it works. It could have gone so very wrong, but I doubt whether a single person walks out of the theatre thinking they have been cheated. It holds your attention right through, and is the sort of play you probably need to see two or three times to really appreciate its many nuances.
It is based around four main characters – a young Margaret Thatcher (of 1979 vintage), a young Queen, an older Margaret Thatcher (1990 vintage) and an older Queen. There is also a kind of narrator, who also performs various characters and Denis, who at times transforms into Ronald Reagan, Rupert Murdoch, Geoffrey Howe, Michael Heseltine and Neil Kinnock.
At times the play, which runs at the Vaudeville Threatre until early August, is moving, at other times it descends into slapstick, but somehow it works. Just don’t ask me how. Thatcher fans and Thatcher haters alike will love it. I was sitting behind Mary Beard on the opening night and she could hardly believe what she was seeing. Yes, it has a slight leftish bias, but not enough to put an ardent Thatcherite like me off finding it simply beguiling.
Close your eyes and you could really imagine the younger Margaret Thatcher really was Margaret Thatcher. Not only did Fenella Woolgar have the voice down to a tee, she also had all the mannerisms exactly right. The same with the older Queen, played by Marion Bailey. Together they stole the show. That’s not to criticise Stella Gonet who played the older Margaret Thatcher. She was quite brilliant too, but in a very different way. She too got the voice right, but perhaps she became a little too ‘Spitting Image’ and overplayed the slightly ‘mad’ element to her performance. The weakest performance of the whole cast, I felt, was played by Lucy Robinson, who played the younger Queen. It wasn’t that she was particularly bad, she wasn’t. But she looked nothing like the younger Queen and her voice wasn’t quite right. I gather she replaced the original young Queen at quite a late stage. But that is to carp. She just wasn’t quite as accurate as the other three.
The other star of the show was played by Neet Mohan who appeared on stage as the Queen’s butler, but went on to provide many of the evening’s comedic moments as he switched from one character to another, perhaps most memorably Nancy Reagan. It was he who also provided most of the left-wingery on stage as he questioned why there was no mention of the miners strike and such like. But he did it in a way which didn’t have the right wingers in the audience shifting uneasily in their seats.
Jeff Rawle, who played the hapless newsroom editor in Drop the Dead Donkey, was superb as Denis Thatcher, although I never did work out why he played him with a slight Brummie accent. He also played various other characters to varying degrees of accuracy. In a way it didn’t matter if he didn’t get the voices quite right. He had clearly studied their mannerisms, so it was always clear who he was portraying, not least because he usually told us!
You don’t have to be a Thatcher fan or Thatcher hater to enjoy this fast moving, pacy production. You don’t have to be a royalist or a republican. All you need to do is go into the theatre determined to enjoy yourself. I promise you won’t be disappointed. At all.
Because of my working hours I don’t get to go to the theatre much nowadays, but I can honestly say this is the most I have enjoyed myself in a theatre since I saw Frankie Howerd back in the early 1990s. I enjoyed it so much I will go and see it again. It’s five stars from me.