Amanda Milling’s “greatest love” is Formula 1 and she is making sure the Conservative machine is ready for next year’s election races: “I’ve got the bonnet open, we’re having a look at what needs a bit of oil, what maybe needs replacing.”
As Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party she announces “the biggest conference ever”, starting on Saturday, and has been “on the road constantly for the last three months”, visiting all 48 of the Red or, as they are now sometimes called, Blue Wall seats won off other parties at the general election.
Milling denies in this interview that Ben Elliot, her Co-Chairman, runs the show at CCHQ, just as Andrew Feldman did for David Cameron.
She does not deny that since the general election victory in December, CCHQ has got rid of some campaign managers: “It’s not unusual after a general election you don’t have as many campaign managers round the country.”
Her role, she explains, is not to represent the party on the airwaves, but to maintain close contact with activists: “So I haven’t been on either the Today programme or Newsnight, but obviously with Conference it’s a big opportunity to reach out to our activist base.”
The interview was conducted on Monday afternoon in her office at CCHQ, which is adorned by pictures of Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson.
ConHome: “What do you think the virtual party conference will be like, and what do you hope to achieve from it?”
Milling: “Well I’m thoroughly looking forward to the virtual conference which starts on Saturday. It’s going to be the biggest conference ever, given the number of registrations.
“Obviously I’m disappointed we’re not in Birmingham, but we are where we are. You do find yourself attracting people who would normally not come to conference, by virtue of being able to dial in from your home.”
ConHome: “It is very expensive, in time as well as money, to go to conference.”
Milling: “Yes, in terms of normal conference, if you think about actually going along to Birmingham or Manchester, the hotel, it can be quite a big commitment.
“But I’m delighted we’ve got this virtual conference this year to be able to pour more people in, and hopefully it’ll give them appetite to join us at future conferences both in the spring and in the autumn.”
ConHome: “Will they be able to answer back, or to applaud?”
Milling: “It’s going to be very interactive. A virtual conference does give us the opportunity to have that chat function. People can pose their questions.
“I think that’s quite an important part of this. Because otherwise I think there’s a bit of a danger that it’s permanently just ‘transmit’ – it’s much better to have that interaction – the ability to ask colleagues questions.
“And I’m very pleased that ConHome are having the fringe events too.”
ConHome: “We are, in massive number. Just so you can help us plan, how many set-piece speeches will there be?”
Milling: “We’ve got set-piece speeches from the Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary, Chancellor and Prime Minister, but other Cabinet ministers will be having their slots as well.”
ConHome: “Let me ask you about your function, and do this by looking back for a moment. We’ve had a number of dual chairs, we’ve had Saatchi and Fox, then we got to Feldman and Shapps, and Feldman chaired the Board, and Feldman really was David Cameron’s man, he was in effect the real Party Chairman.
“I’m going to put this to you absolutely straight. There’s a view that Ben Elliot chairs the Board, Ben Elliot is a long-time supporter of Boris, as you are, and Ben’s the real Party Chairman.
“And that with no local elections this year it’s been very hard to see what you’re up to, or some people would say, brutally, why you’re there.”
Milling: “It’s very much a Co-Chairman role, and very much teamwork, with both of us working together. Inevitably we take on different roles and responsibilities.
“Your point about campaigning. Whilst we did have the pause, the postponement of elections earlier in the year, we still have to work towards those elections next May.
“During the summer since we had the easing of lockdown one of the things that’s been really important is setting out guidance for our activists in terms of how they can campaign in a Covid-secure way ahead of those elections next year.”
ConHome: “Tell us about your year. What have you been doing with no local elections? How did you fill in and prepare for next year’s?”
Milling: “Let’s be honest, when I was appointed Co-Chairman back in February I was there ready to get out campaigning and get out also to those seats which are the Blue Wall seats.
“They are Blue Wall seats not Red Wall seats now. Lockdown made that somewhat more difficult. But during lockdown I did a lot of work engaging with the membership via our various new virtual platforms, Zoom and Teams.
“in fact the day was filled morning to evening engaging with our activists. Actually you can get to see more activists in many ways using technology because you’re cutting out the travel time.
“But then after the lockdown was eased I started on what my original mission had been which is to get out and visit these Blue Wall seats.
“And at the weekend I did my last visit which meant I’d visited every single seat that we gained in December. I’ve been on the road constantly for the last three months.”
ConHome: “You actually visited physically?”
Milling: “Physically every single one.”
ConHome: “Could you remind me how many that is?”
Milling: “It is 48.”
ConHome: “And how many times in the year have you been put up on the Today programme or Newsnight?”
Milling: “So I haven’t been on either the Today programme or Newsnight, but obviously with Conference it’s a big opportunity to reach out to our activist base, our members, and talk about my vision for the party.”
ConHome: “Will the local elections definitely go ahead next year?”
Milling: “Yes, there is a lot of work going on in the Cabinet Office to make sure that those local elections go ahead.”
ConHome: “This is a bumper crop of local elections. What have we got? We’ve got London…”
Milling: “We’ve got the county council elections, PCC elections, mayoral elections from 2020 and also 2021, we’ve got elections in Wales and elections in Scotland. So you’re right, this is an absolutely bumper year.”
ConHome: “And everywhere you’ve got a third of the council being elected.”
Milling: “And you’ve got some by-elections. This is why this conference is a really great opportunity to galvanise the troops, enthuse the troops in terms of campaigning.
“I think back to about June time, I would go round the House of Commons, I would literally have colleagues going ‘When can we go out campaigning?’ I was actually hearing that from the grassroots as well.
“And it’s been great to see people getting back on the campaign trail, having rested their legs over lockdown.”
ConHome: “Do you think these elections will be seen as a referendum on the Government?”
Milling: “These elections are our opportunity to really demonstrate Conservatives delivering at a local level. These are local elections, but on a very large scale, given that they are two years’ worth.”
ConHome: “How has it come about that the opposition to the way the fight against Covid was conducted is actually now being led by the Chairman of the 1922 Committee?”
Milling: “Throughout this, we as a Government had to respond to an unprecedented situation with measures to protect jobs, businesses and also lives.”
ConHome: “But how come you seem to have lost the confidence, up to a point, if I read his piece in The Telegraph on Saturday rightly, of the Chairman of the ’22?”
Milling: “So what this debate is about at the moment is the time spent in Parliament discussing it. Today [Monday], as an example, we are having a debate on Coronavirus and the various measures, and a staggering 80 people are in that debate. And there will be further debates and votes going forward.”
ConHome: “But some of them are hopping up and down because today they say we’ve had another set of regulations sprung on us without any notice, saying you can’t dance in a pub and you can’t sing in a pub.”
Milling: “What the Government’s having to do is respond to what is a very fast-moving situation, but at the same time giving colleagues the opportunity to debate that, as is being demonstrated this evening.”
ConHome: “Do you feel there’s been a movement among the colleagues towards a more Swedish-type solution?”
Milling: “Colleagues are as I say debating this today and the Government are responding to the science and the research to ultimately save lives, and that’s the most important thing.”
ConHome: “If this Brady amendment is debated on Wednesday, by then we would expect the Government to have made some move to accommodate it?”
Milling: “We will be having the vote on the Rule of Six next week.”
ConHome: “Though not amendable.”
Milling: “The days of me being in the Whips Office in terms of what’s amendable are over, you seem to forget.”
ConHome: “What do you do in your spare time? Though by the sound of it you don’t have all that much of it just at the moment.”
Milling: “Well my greatest love, and I do try to carve out the time for this, is watching Formula 1.”
Milling: “So I am a petrolhead.”
ConHome: “From what age were you a petrolhead?”
Milling: “From childhood. I was brought up around cars.”
ConHome: “Who are the greatest racing drivers in your lifetime? Lewis Hamilton’s a bit dull, isn’t he? I mean obviously very good at it.”
Milling: “He’s very, very good at it. He had a bit of a tough day in the office yesterday. Eddie Irvine I always thought was quite an interesting character, because he really took the challenge to Schumacher at the time if I recall rightly.
“So I love Formula 1. So you can imagine my Sunday evenings are most definitely carved out for watching the highlights.
“It’s nice downtime. It would be nicer to actually go to one, but obviously at the moment that’s more difficult. Going to Silverstone is a great, great experience.”
ConHome: “You were brought up around cars?”
Milling: “My father had some vintage cars. There’s a photo if I recall correctly of me at about two in a kind of jump suit with a spanner in hand, although I’m not sure I’d be very good at servicing cars.
“Although on the matter of servicing cars, in terms of this particular role at the moment, I’ve got the bonnet open, we’re having a look at what needs a bit of oil, what maybe needs replacing.
“You haven’t maybe been able to do these things over the last few years, because we’ve just been so focussed on elections.”
ConHome: “So you’re tuning the engine.”
Milling: “We’re tuning the engine. Curiously, lockdown enabled us to do that to a greater extent.”
ConHome: “What sort of things?”
Milling: “One of the things is the candidates’ process, so an end-to-end review of that, from identifying talent to assessing talent and then supporting and nurturing talent.
“We did the Welsh review. We’ve recently appointed a team member to be the campaign manager for Northern Ireland.”
ConHome: “In the past there’s been a lot of criticism of losing highly knowledgeable campaign managers after a general election, and then the machine not in fact being in proper working order, for example in 2017.”
Milling: “So what we’ve been doing over the last few months, particularly ahead of next year’s elections, is making sure that our team are in the right places.
“But also over time our main focus is on getting the organisation fit for not just next year but 2024.”
ConHome: “The organisation was very scanty in many of the 48 seats which were won in December. What are you doing to build up some troops, some boots on the ground, for next time?”
Milling: “There’s a big piece of work we’ve been undertaking looking at these Blue Wall seats. Lee Rowley, who’s the Deputy Chairman, has been sitting down with all these colleagues to really get under the skin of what have they got, what have they not got, what their priorities are, what we need to do to build a membership and activists in these different areas.
“We’re going to be having a working group to make that more action-focussed.”
ConHome: “You just said you’ll be getting the campaign managers to the right places. Is that fewer people to the right places?”
Milling: “It’s not unusual after a general election you don’t have as many campaign managers around the country. But I think the main point for me as well is making sure that those campaign managers that we’ve got are focussed in the right places, particularly ahead of next year, which you know is a challenge, given the number of elections that we’ve got.”
ConHome: “When you went round the Red Wall or Blue Wall seats, how many of them don’t have a Conservative councillor?”
Milling: “It’s a big of a mixed bag. I think the key here is about building on having a Conservative MP. From being out on the ground, when I’ve met with businesses and residents, they’re really chuffed to have a Conservative MP who’s really there acting on their behalf, a voice in Parliament for them.”
ConHome: “How many of them actually have activists, never mind local councillors? How many of them have had to put together a team outside the traditional association structure?”
Milling: “My seat back in 2015 was a marginal seat and you have to build it up over time to have that broader activist base.”
ConHome: “Previous Chairmen have actually declared the membership figures. I don’t think you’ve got any plans to do that, have you?”
Milling: “No. I’m not going to be declaring the membership figures.”
ConHome: “Why not?”
Milling: “There’s a number of things on this. Number one which is actually membership’s just part of the Conservative family in many ways. It’s also about activists as well.
“At the end of the day, the most important thing is actually people putting their cross by the Conservatives at an election.
“But what I would say is that membership is up from this time last year.”
ConHome: “Is there any other organisation – the National Trust or whatever – name me another that doesn’t declare their membership.”
Milling: “Look, I’m not going to declare the membership numbers. But as I say, it is up from last year.”