Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio, and is the author of the forthcoming book ‘Why can’t we all just get along’.
Margaret Thatcher once famously said that “every Prime Minister needs a Willie”. She was right – but every Prime Minister also needs a lighting rod, someone who is able to soak up much of the criticism that would ordinarily be directed at the Prime Minister himself.
Margaret Thatcher had Norman Tebbit, Major had Chris Patten, Tony Blair had Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, Gordon Brown had Damian McBride (until it all went wrong) and David Cameron had Andy Coulson and Steve Hilton.
Theresa May didn’t really have anyone. I suppose Damian Green fulfilled that role for a time but, after he left, there was no one. Gavin Barwell and Robbie Gibb were often targets of criticism, but not in the same way as the others I have mentioned. Their roles were very different.
Dominic Cummings is clearly taking on the former mantle for Boris Johnson. He’s the bete noire of lefties everywhere and the media is really building him up into a voodoo doll figure for people to stick their pins in. I don’t know Cummings, although I’ve been aware of him ever since David Davis intervened to try to prevent Iain Duncan Smith sacking him from his Conservative Central Office role back in 2003.
I don’t think we’ve ever met, although I did make a vain attempt to try to persuade him to write a book after the referendum. Instead, he wrote several massively long and entertaining blog articles about the experience.
There’s no doubt that he engenders huge loyalty from people who work for him. He’s one of those unpredictable, quixotic characters who the media love to write lengthy profiles about without ever really getting to the core of who he is and what he’s about. He’s a bit like the royal family used to be, in that he is brilliant at cultivating an aura of mystique, though in this case with a slight whiff of menace.
He has a great strength which few have commented on so far. Mandelson and Campbell always wanted to be feared and respected in equal measure. Neither could understand why some people, especially on their own side, intensely disliked them. Cummings couldn’t give a toss. He couldn’t care less whether he’s liked, feared or respected. He’s got a job to do and will get on with it – and sod the consequences if anyone’s nose is put out of joint.
Cummings is a brilliant strategist, but he’ll need to be at the top of his game over the next three months. Labour will move heaven and earth to oust him. There are plenty of Tories who loathe and despise him, and who will happily feed any destructive morsels to an eagerly receptive press.
He is worldly-wise enough to know they’re coming for him. I hope Johnson is able to resist any pressures to get rid, of him, because his track record of standing by advisers in a bit of media trouble is not, shall we say, exemplary.
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I’ve spent this week hosting shows at the Edinburgh Festival. One or two of my interlocutors have been busy ‘committing news’, as Ruth Davidson puts it.
My interview with Nicola Sturgeon got a lot of headlines because she was out of her normal zone and came across as a warm, entertaining human being, capable of laughing at herself. People hadn’t seen that side to her before, I think think.
With John McDonnell it was somewhat different. For someone with very hard left views, he is very skilled at coming across as the voice of sweet reason in interviews. This time, the mask slipped somewhat in his threats to imprison Conservative MPs for supporting austerity. “Under what law would you do that?” I asked. “I’ll have to invent one,” he said. I assumed he was joking, but the look on his face gave some people a different impression.
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It’s been ten days since I saw anything on television. The student accommodation I’m staying I doesn’t have one. OK, I’ve got my laptop but, generally, I’m completely out of touch with what’s going on in the world.
In other words, I’m probably in line with the majority of the country which generally gets on with their lives without worrying too much about what’s going on in the world of politics and current affairs.
I didn’t even know about the Whaley Bridge reservoir issue until two days after it had happened. Same with the El Paso and Dayton shootings. It’s amazing how quickly I’ve weaned myself off watching Sky News, or at least having it on in the background. There’s a lesson there somewhere. Sorry, Kay.