Iain Dale is Presenter of LBC Drive, Managing Director of Biteback Publications, a columnist and broadcaster and a former Conservative Parliamentary candidate.
One of the most important aspects of our democracy is that it needs to be open to anyone – old or young, black or white, male or female, rich or poor. And it’s the last point that the Conservative Party needs to be particularly sensitive about.
To its credit, it has made great play of pushing all sorts of different candidates forward from different backgrounds. The one area it needs to improve on is attracting people from working class backgrounds, or who don’t have oodles of money. This is something that Tim Montgomerie has highlighted many time in the past.
So when someone sent me the application form for would-be Conservative GLA candidates, I shook my head in despair. On this form there are conditions that applicants have to agree to. Condition B is of particular interest: “I accept the practice of paying to help campaign funding”. I assume this means all candidates are responsible for their own election funding.
Now that’s OK if you’re fighting a local council seat, but it costs around £15,000 just to put one leaflet out across a London GLA constituency. Is the party really saying that it would provide no financial support at all? If I were running the Labour campaign, I’d see this as further evidence that the Conservatives have given up pretending that they are anything but a party for the extremely rich. Now you and I know that is very far from the truth, but impressions count.
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In a similar vein, there are rumours that George Osborne will cut the top rate of tax to 40p in his budget. I hope he does. And I hope he also introduces a new 30p band. It’s faintly ridiculous that you have only a 20p, then a 40p, then a 45p band. You’d never create a tax system that had those rates right from the start, so I’d say the whole income tax banding is ripe for reform.
Clearly we don’t need to over-complicate things, but a 20/30/40 system is surely a better one than that we have now? But even if the Chancellor doesn’t go that far, I still hope he reduces the top rate and reforms the system so that everyone, no matter what rate of tax they pay, qualifies for the £10,600 tax free allowance.
I remain convinced that bringing down the top rate of tax would actually increase the tax take. Yes, there would be a short term political hit, and Labour would no doubt bang on about the Tories looking after their own, but no one’s listening to Labour at the moment, and if it’s fiscally neutral or even fiscally positive the Chancellor needs to weather the storm and do it.
As Alistair Darling will no doubt confirm, the rise to 50p was only ever meant to be temporary. Or of course if Osborne is really clever, he might say that he will reduce it the moment the deficit is reduced to zero. Labour would find that one very difficult to argue with. Darling certainly would, anyway.
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When I first came to Westminster during the mid-1980s, there was a restaurant in Marsham Street called Lockets. As a lowly researcher, it was always a treat to be taken there. At a later point, it was sold to Michael Caine and it became Shepherds. It then closed down a couple of years ago after having tested its patrons’ patience with extortionate prices for average fare served by invariably rude waiting staff.
So when I heard that my old friend Lionel Zetter had bought the lease and was reopening it I wondered if it was the wisest investment he could make. Apparently 80 per cent of restaurants fail within six months.
Anyway, on Tuesday I went for a meal for the first time. I felt really guilty for not having been before, but because of the timing of my radio show I can’t really do long lunches any more. Anyway, this week I’ve been doing the breakfast show – so long lunches every day. Way hey!
Shepherds always had a reputation for being the politico’s favourite restaurant and it hasn’t changed a bit. On the table to the left of us was a Prime Minister’s former chief of staff. On one the right of us was a Conservative MP lunching with a top lobbyist (who is also a former Tory MP). Lord Ashcroft was there, too.
The décor is very understated, which is exactly how it should be. There are no over-the-top pictures or pieces of memorabilia. The seats are made of green leather, and the tables are divided by some tasteful dark wood panelling. The service is excellent ,with the waiting staff only interrupting you when they need to, without constant questions about how much you’re enjoying your meal. They are also very knowledgeable about the menu and quite bantery when it’s appropriate.
The menu itself, on first impressions, isn’t that extensive, with about ten starters and then main courses to choose from. But in a way it’s good that it doesn’t offer too much choice. There is something for everyone ,and it’s a mix of traditional and modern cooking.
We skipped the starter (my excuse is I was lunching a Liberal Democrat) and headed straight for the main course, and both plumped for the Shepherd’s Pie. I have to say, it was fabulous. For dessert I chose the Eton Tidy and my lunch companion went for the Apple Crumble. Again, superb. I don’t drink, but my lunch partner downed two or three glasses of red (well, the poor love needed it, given the LibDem election performance), and the bill came to just over £70.
Now I reckon that’s pretty good value for money. I can’t actually think of anything to complain about. The general manager even spotted I had left my bag in the bar and came over with a cloakroom ticket. Little touches like that mean a lot.
So do try it out. I can virtually guarantee that you’ll love it and return again and again. It’s my new lunchtime hangout. Or at least it would be if I was ever able to do lunches properly again.
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I’m looking forward to seeing some of you in Finchley on Saturday when I’ll be hosting the hustings for some of the declared London mayoral candidates. Should be fun.