Iain Dale is Presenter of LBC Drive, Managing Director of Biteback Publishing, a columnist and broadcaster and a former Conservative Parliamentary candidate.
It’s just gone midnight on Wednesday night/Thursday morning. Normally, I write this column on the Thursday but, given the day that’s just gone, I thought I’d put pen to paper now rather than wait until the morning.
It’s been one of the oddest days in party conference history. I got up in Manchester imagining quite a calm day – starting with a brisk walk to the conference centre from the rather lovely Malmaison Hotel, in which LBC had booked us for the conference.
Imagine my surprise when I got there on Saturday night to walk into the room to find there was no bed. Except there was – but in the second room. I had been upgraded to a suite. Perhaps it was meant for Nick Ferrari. Oh well – he’ll never know. If you’ve ever stayed in a Malmaison you’ll know what I mean when I say that the décor of the bedrooms are how I imagine a brothel’s bedroom would look. Lots of dark purples and slightly erotic paintings. You get the picture. Anyway, I digress.
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And on Monday, imagine my surprise to get a call from the Evening Standard at about 10am asking me to write the next day’s op-ed column on the state of the Conservative Party and the conference. And there was me thinking George Osborne had ignored my talents for so long.
I scratched my head. Given that the paper wanted the first draft by 7pm that evening, I couldn’t work out when I would get a chance to write it – given the timing of my LBC show. We settled on a compromise. I’d deliver it at 7.30 the next morning on pain of death (and never being asked to write a column again).
Now believe it or not, I don’t particularly enjoy writing, and I have a massive inferiority complex about it. I know that I can’t write like Boris Johnson or Michael Gove, and as soon as I press SEND, I always imagine the article will be sent back with a message saying “nice try: now write it properly.” It’s never actually happened, but I still think it will. I wonder if other columnists think like this, or is it just me with a chip on my writing shoulder. I can’t help preferring oral… (ahem).
Anyway, one bit of the article caused a bit of a stir. I wrote: “If the Tories want to win again – and listening to some of the Cabinet you could be forgiven for wondering if they do – they need to stop the schoolboy games. I was told by one broadcaster who has interviewed the Prime Minister in recent weeks that he received several texts from Cabinet ministers suggesting lines of questioning. And they weren’t meant to be helpful to Theresa May. What utter shits.”
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Well, on Wednesday things took a turn for the worse. I ambled up to the Convention centre, did a turn on the Daily Politics previewing May’s speech, and then went over to CNN to broadcast a special edition of CNN Talk with Ayesha Hazirika and Liam Halligan.
The three of us normally get on, but this was our sparkiest edition yet. They played a bit of the speech then we started debating whether Britain was still the power in the world it once was. All of a sudden, I could tell that something was wrong in the hall because I couldn’t hear the Prime Minister’s voice in the background. A couple of minutes later the so-called comedian – or ‘twat’, as I call him – was being shown the door right behind our broadcasting point. Talk about drama.
I then noticed that May had gulped a glass of wate,r and that some seemed to be dribbling down her chin. This was not going well. It was only once I got back to the LBC stand and watched the rest of the speech live that I realised just how bad her cough had become. But persevere she did – and in the end her nightmare was over.
I was supposed to interview Amber Rudd in a pre-record for my Drivetime show, but I decided to be a team player and suggested that she went on live with my colleague, Shelagh Fogarty. Much as I’d have liked the interview for myself, it was the right thing to do.
I then had to skedaddle to LBC’s Manchester studio to do my show from there, since the LBC stand was being dismantled. It felt very lonely, and I longed to be back in our London studio, where my producers could more easily guide me through the show. Interestingly, our listeners were far more interested in talking about the energy cap and the housing announcement than talking about twattish comedians and bad coughs.
In the meantime, Newsnight had asked me to go on a panel with Margot James and Jenni Russell, the Times columnist. I calculated that I could just about get there if the train to Euston was on time. It was scheduled to get in at 22.10. I was due on screen at 22.40. I got a text from the producer saying that she was tracking the train on an App (whatever next) and it was running ten minutes late. Eeek.
Indeed, the train got in at 22.20, but it was 22.25 by the time I found the car the BBC had booked for me. “Put you foot down, mate,” I pleaded. It was 22.34 by the time I walked through the door of New Broadcasting House. I started to walk through the security door when someone said that I had to put my rucksack and small suitcase through the security thing. “I’m on air in six minutes,” I said. It was to no avail.
In the end, I sat down on the set with two minutes to spare. Not the ideal preparation for a panel discussion which I hadn’t really thought too much about what I would say. But it turned out to be a really good discussion, and I think I made all the points I’d have wanted to had I actually thought about them properly.
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As I sit here at the desk of my Premier Inn hotel room in Euston (yes, when I pay for it myself I do like to economise… but Premier Inn beds are so fabulous that I even bought one myself!), I reflect on what Theresa May must be thinking as she puts her head down on the pillow tonight. I’m so glad that she has Philip there with her. He will have known what to say and what not to say to her.
You find out a lot about a politician when they face adversity. Where most of us might have recoiled or stepped back when confronted by the P45 twat, she stood resolute and even made a joke of it. When Freddie the Frog first appeared, she had a good nine pages to go. Yes, it was a painful watch at times, but she persevered and wasn’t going to let it beat her.
If any Conservative MP is so flaky as to think that a cough ought to deprive Theresa May of the leadership it says a lot more about them than it does about her. I’m told that an ex-Cameron Cabinet Minister is trying to persuade colleagues to write to Graham Brady urging a vote of no-confidence.
How pathetically self-indulgent. Then what? What on earth would the European Commission make of this? Our negotiating position would then be weaker than it is. If I hear one more squeak out of Boris Johnson which could be interpreted as a move on Theresa May, it would be final proof that he wouldn’t be fit to lead the Conservative Party. He’s bloody lucky to still be in his job. As is his deputy, Alan Duncan for his crass comments in Chicago.
May must have the self-confidence to embrace what has happened today. The fact that she tweeted a picture of her red box with Strepsils and medicine beside a copy of her speech, and the word “coughs” shows she’s doing just that.
“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” said Winston Churchill. Out of threat springs opportunity. It’s now up to the Prime Mibister to turn this unfortunate day into a positive for her.