ConHome Diary: Where Were You When Theresa May Called the Election?
21 Apr 2017 at 13:29
It was one of those moments when you’ll always remember where you were when you heard the news. I was sitting in my car outside Wembley Stadium… But I’m getting ahead of myself.
At just after 10am I was driving down the M11 from Norfolk when a news alert from Sky flashed up on my phone. “Prime Minister to make a statement live in Downing Street at 1115am.” Like everyone else, my brain started whirring as to what it could possibly be. I switched from radio station to radio station and none of the clever pundits and commentators seemed to have a clue. I rang a couple of MPs and nor did they. Could it be a death in the Royal family? No, that would be announced from Buckingham Palace. Could it be military action somewhere? No, it would need to be announced by the Americans at the same time and they were still asleep. In the end I narrowed it down to two possibilities, but even then I couldn’t really be very sure given that neither seemed very likely. I thought she would either announce she was standing down from being PM or that she was announcing an election. I couldn’t read Twitter while I was driving so didn’t see Adam Boulton notice that the government logo wasn’t on the lecturn, which was a giveaway that it wasn’t a government matter. Well, we all know what happened next. I picked my jaw up from resting on the steering wheel, cancelled my meeting at Wembley and headed straight to the LBC studios. It was going to be quite an afternoon…
The best thing about this announcement was that it genuinely took everyone by surprise. Can you remember the last time a big announcement like this didn’t leak in advance? There wasn’t even any speculation. Several commentators tried to suggest that they had predicted this all along, but none of them were very convincing. John Rentoul seems to have the biggest claim to have seen it all in his crystal ball. I’m sure there have been occasions when the government has managed not to leak but I can only think of one, when back in April 1989 the Thatcher government made the announcement that they were to repeal the National Dock Labour Scheme. I was involved in that, and so, coincidentally was David Davis. He, my boss as the British Ports Federation and myself were the only three people outside government who knew about it. It was the best kept secret, well, since the last one.
We had decided to hold a one day conference for the employers on the subject and scheduled it for April 6 1989. A few days before the conference one of the civil servants phoned and told us to prepare for an announcement that the Scheme was about to be repealed. “When’s the announcement,” we asked tentatively. “I haven’t told you this, but it will be on 6 April,” he said. Oh. My. God. The day of our “Preparing for a Strike” conference. We knew no one would believe this to be complete coincidence, but that is exactly what it was. We debated whether to call it off, but decided the downsides of that were worse than people thinking we were in collusion with the government.
Mobile phones had only just been invented, and I remember spending half that day with a massive Vodafone handset glued to my ear. The employers themselves hadn’t got a clue what was about to hit them. And nor, more importantly, had the Transport & General Workers’ Union. Finally, at 3.30, Norman Fowler, the Employment Secretary stood up in the Commons and made the announcement. “Thunderbirds are go,” said my informant, the MP for Boothferry, David Davis. We then made the announcement to the employers who received the news in stunned silence. They thought it was a joke, or prelude to some sort of role play exercise. But it wasn’t. It was for real. The T&G union under Ron Todd was caught totally on the hop. They never really thought this day would come. They thought Margaret Thatcher wouldn’t dare do it. Like many others, they underestimated her. Just as we have all seemingly underestimated Theresa May…
There were signs of course, but we all missed them. I was told in March that Lynton Crosby had been seen coming in and out of Downing Street in recent weeks. I assumed it was all about devising a strategy to respond to the CPS decision on election expenses at the last election. How wrong can you be…
The decision of the prime minister not to take part in leaders debates is disappointing to say the least. I totally understand the logic of Lynton Crosby’s advice, but sometimes politicians have to see the wider picture. Of course, there is nothing for Theresa May to gain from doing debates, but I take the rather old fashioned view that debating your opponents about the future of the country is what election campaigns should be all about. You do it as a candidate at a local level, and so should party leaders at a national level. We live in an age when voters expect nothing less than to see their potential prime ministers debating each other. To fall back on the ridiculous defence that it is what she does every week at PMQs is frankly to insult the intelligence of the electorate. The last PMQs before the election will be next Wednesday, 30th April. That leaves six whole weeks where the PM and the Leader of the Opposition won’t lock horns. Of course the PM will do one to one sit down interviews, but in my humble opinion, that’s not quite going to cut it. I suppose no one will change their vote as a result of the decision not to take part in leaders’ debates, but I still think it’s the wrong call.
The latest YouGov poll shows the Tories on 48%, a lead of 24% over Labour. Landslide territory. However, Jeremy Corbyn isn’t having any of it and still genuinely thinks he will win. It would be a massive turnaround, it has to be said. My instant prediction is a Tory majority of 74. I’m going to repeat my seat by seat predictions, which I did at the last election. I did wonder whether to repeat the exercise given that my predictions were only marginally better than the pollsters, but hey, it’s a bit of fun. I do think that the performance of the Liberal Democrats is going to be key to these predictions and I firmly believe that this election offers Tim Farron a massive opportunity, given the state of the Labour Party. I had thought it would be UKIP which would be the recipient of a lot of ex Labour votes, especially in the North. That may still be the case, but it seems to me that Tim Farron has very skilfully made the LibDems the party of the 48%. Anecdotally virtually everyone I know on the left is going to vote LibDem. A straw in the wind maybe, and it may not ripple much outside London. But don’t bet against a very strong LibDem revivial…
I’m going to be on the radio six days a week during the election campaign. From this Saturday I’ll be hosting a weekly Saturday morning show on LBC from 10am-noon, in addition to my weekday Drivetime show. If I’m honest, this is the first time for many years where I’ve thought I’d like to be a candidate again. Who wouldn’t want to be in Parliament over the next five years? But it was a fleeting thought and I dismissed it almost as soon as I had had it. At the age of 54 my time in politics has been and gone, and why would I give up the best job I have ever had? I’m going to aim to give the best coverage of the election you will hear on UK radio, so I do hope you will tune in from time to time.