Iain Dale is Presenter of LBC Drive, Managing Director of Biteback Publishing, a columnist and broadcaster and a former Conservative Parliamentary candidate.
At the weekend I went to prison. Luckily only for a couple of hours – but it was an experience nonetheless. The only time I’d been inside a prison before was to visit someone who was serving 25 years for murder. He wanted to write a book when he came out. For various reasons it never happened.
And so it was on Saturday that I visited a friend who has been sent to prison for a relatively short sentence. I have a policy when a friend is in trouble or falls on hard times: I stand by them. It’s what friends do. What I have found time and time again is that this is when people in trouble really find out who their friends are. Who are the real friends and who are the “friends”?
I well remember the day when I got a phone call from Channel 4 News telling me that Neil and Christine Hamilton were in Ilford ‘nick’ being questioned about a rape they were supposed to have committed. Would I go on their programme and talk about it? It was so preposterous as to be impossible to believe – so I went on the show.
I then got quite a few calls telling me I shouldn’t do any more media on it because it could harm my political career. I politely told these well-meaning friends exactly where they could shove their advice. Neil and Christine were (and are) good friends and I certainly wasn’t going to drop them in the way many people did during the events of 1996 to 1997.
Anyway, I digress. I arrived at the prison with a certain degree of trepidation. I suppose that I was afraid that the conversation might be a bit stilted, and that five months in this rather Victoria prison might have really changed my friend. I queued up in the waiting room along with, shall we say, all forms of human life, the majority of which seemed to be wearing track suit bottoms and answered to the name of Waynetta or kept shrieking “am I bovvered? Do I look bovvered?” It was the small kids who were running around that I felt sorry for. Poor little sods didn’t stand a chance.
My time soon arrived, and I was led through three gates to the visiting room. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I was led to a numbered table where my friend was waiting. It was all fairly informal with us sitting on a sofa and soft chair. The time flew by, and two hours later it was time to leave.
I was glad I went. My friend seemed to really appreciate it. It had been a round trip of 300 miles or so, but I am glad that I took the time to do it. I know if it had been me, it would have meant a lot. And, you know, there really was a feeling of there but for the grace of God go I. I don’t think I have ever done anything which could have merited going to prison – but then again, in my opinion, nor had my friend. More of that another time, maybe.
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I’ve got my iPhone on shuffle at the moment. I’m writing this to the dulcet tones of a Boney M Megamix. For younger readers they were a 1980s popular music neat combo whose biggest hit was a rather soothing song called ‘Rivers of Babylon’. It was ‘Daddy Cool’.
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I don’t know what the Daily Telegraph thought it was trying to achieve by its front page showing mugshots of the 15 Brexit ‘Mutineers’. Still, at least they didn’t call them ‘collaborators’. That was left to the Daily Mail.
Why is it that people who hold a minority view are demonised like this? Some of the female MPs named have received the most disgusting abuse on social media following this. Sarah Wollaston told me live on air that she hadn’t told anyone but her whip of her views on the Brexit Bill amendments, so she could only conclude that the whips had deliberately leaked these 15 names to the Telegraph. She will never be able to prove it – but, if it’s true, it’s a terrible state of affairs. Conversations with whips must remain confidential otherwise the whole system teeters on the verge of collapse.
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The reaction to the first episode of my For the Many iTunes podcast, which I record with Jacqui Smith, has been very gratifying. It reached the top 25 overall iTunes chart and was number 3 in the News & Politics category, only beaten by Serial and the Radio 4 Friday night comedy, although how those two podcasts belong in the News & Politics category I don’t quite understand. If you haven’t subscribed, do give it a try. The second episode will be available early Monday morning.
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It was good to see the Prime Minister on fine form during this week’s PMQs. She looked as if she was genuinely enjoying it – which is more than can be said for the Leader of the Opposition, who at one point called the Government benches ‘The Opposition’. It was a truly lamentable performance from Jeremy Corbyn.
My LBC colleague James O’Brien, who I normally disagree with on most things, tweeted afterwards that he reckons we’ve seen ‘Peak Corbyn’. I wonder if there’s something in that. As Tony Blair said, given the divisions which exist in the government and the bad press they’ve had in recent months you might expect Labour to be well ahead in the opinion polls. But still Theresa May is polling above 40 per cent.
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Philip Hammond faces an impossible task in next week’s budget. Expectations have been set so high that he cannot possibly meet them. So far we haven’t had many leaks about what to expect, and if his Treasury spinners have any sense they’ll leave it that way.
If he can produce a couple of positive surprises on the day, all well and good, but otherwise it’s surely likely to be a steady-as-she-goes, tinkering budget. It’s not in the Chancellor’s nature to be radical, but now I’ve said that he’ll probably go and abolish stamp duty or something which will have us all scratching our collective heads in utter astonishment.
While we are on stamp duty, perhaps we should all acknowledge that it is basically a form of licensed robbery. The trouble is that if you raised the limit for first time buyers to £400,000 or so, he’ll still need to recover the shortfall from elsewhere in the tax system. A Conservative Chancellor cannot surely be seen to raise borrowing.
That’s Labour’s job, and what a good job they are doing. I think in this week’s PMQs if you add the spending commitments made in Corbyn’s six questions, you’d probably add a good £50 billion to borrowing. Come the next election, this is going to a be a crucial battleground. The dividing lines are already there and they certainly shouldn’t be blurred in the Budget.