Rant

Let's Understand Less & Condemn More

13 Aug 2011 at 20:59

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the whole country is in a state of shock following the riots of the last seven days. The scenes we saw on our TV screens were ones I never thought I would see in this country. They threatened the very fabric of our society and showed just how fragile our normal way of life can be. The looting demonstrated that these were not riots with an underlying political message, they were riots motivated by pure greed, malice and avarice. Much has been written about the causes, but I think we need to understand less and condemn more.

Frankly, there is very little to understand. Most of the people involved were not impoverished. They did not live in poverty. Many of them were from good families and were clearly out for a kick. They got a buzz out of what they were doing. It became a drug. The only think we need to understand is that a generation of children have grown up without any of the normal moral values we expect parents and teachers to inculcate into them. They have little respect for anyone and there is a complete absence of fear. They don’t recognise the normal institutions of society like the church, parliament, the media or commerce. And they think the police are a joke.

Many of them haven’t had a male influence in their lives, and I don’t care what anyone says, that is one the major reasons why many young kids go off the rails. They don’t have fathers and there is an absence of male teachers in their schools. In some parts of London, 85% of families are single parent families. Don’t get me wrong. Many single parents do a fantastic job and this is not an attack on them. But our family unit has been diminished over the last few decades and this has, in part, led to a generation of almost feral youths growing up without the normal barriers in behaviour, which the rest of us respect. It is frightening that many primary school teachers say they are able to identify kids, who, at the age of seven, will probably go off the rails in their teenage years. But of course by then it is too late. The damage has been done.

SureStart was a brave attempt to attack this phenomenon but the parents who it was aimed at refuse to use it. Instead – and I know this is a generalisation – SureStart is populated by many mothers and children who don’t actually need it.

One solution, would be this. Instead of raising the school leaving age to 18, why not raise it to 17, and use the final year to take those who are not doing A Levels into a sort of boot camp. Youngsters would get the choice of a form of military service or community service. During the year they would be taught the value of community, respect for society, discipline etc. Yes, it would an expensive thing to do, and it probably wouldn’t rescue everyone, but it would bring people together from different backgrounds and allow them to discover themselves and the joys of working for the benefit of others. The government announced a small-scale scheme of community service volunteers a year ago. I suggest they should now think about massively expanding it.

  • This is part of my fortnightly column in today’s Eastern Daily Press

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Riot Response: Is This David Cameron's Katrina Moment?

10 Aug 2011 at 21:01

My honest view is that David Cameron’s initial response to the riots was rather pathetic. So far as I know no one, not even Denis MacShane, had called for the recall of Parliament. And yet that was the headline that came out of his Downing Street speech yesterday morning. I cannot see the point of it. All it will do is provide a platform for a lot of bluster and condemnation. If he wanted to amend the law, bring back the Riot Act, give the police emergency powers, I could understand it. But that’s not what’s being proposed. Announcing the recall of Parliament gave the impression of saying “Something must be done, but I am not sure what”.

He’s not quite there yet, but this threatens to be Cameron’s Katrina moment. The moment when the people decide that a politician doesn’t get it and is completely out of touch with their own views. It’s what both Cameron and Boris Johnson are being accused of. I interviewed Boris on LBC last night and deliberately gave him a hard time. Not because he didn’t come back until yesterday, but for not appearing to recognise that police tactics hadn’t worked and for failing to define (and he’s not alone in this) what a “robust response” means. Just increasing police numbers isn’t the solution. If you take away officers from other parts of the country, expect crime to soar there. No, it’s not quantity of policing which is the key, it’s the quality of the response. And we need to understand that it is the senior Met officers who are to blame for a complete failure to respond properly, not the politicians. Politicians don’t, and shouldn’t get involved in operational matters. But it can only have been orders from the top which ordered the softly softly response, and ordered police on the front line to stand back and watch people looting. In my book, if a crime is being committed it is the police’s job to intervene and stop it. Otherwise what’s the point of them being there at all? Scenes of police officers watching a crime scene rather than preventing it is why many people have lost confidence in the police. That’s what’s got to change.

A police officer texted my LBC show last night and tried to explain the tactic. He wrote “Property can be replaced”. Try telling that to the owner of the House of Reeves furniture store in Croydon – a family owned business which had served the people of Croydon for more than 120 years. Gone. Try telling that to the restaurant owners in West London whose businesses have been ruined. Try telling that to the butcher in Tottenham who told me last night that he has £25,000 of meat which has spoiled and isn’t covered by his insurance. Try telling that to the man who rang in to tell me that car insurance policies do not cover cars which have been burnt out.

That’s what Parliament could and should debate on Thursday – how the government can help those who through no fault of their own have had their lives ruined by the thuggery that has happened over the last few days. A compensation fund should be set up to help these people get back on their feet.

Margaret Thatcher’s first response after the Brixton (or was it Toxteth?) riots was “Those poor shopkeepers”. I wonder if David Cameron will think in the same way. He should. If not, he risks the public approbrium dished out to George W Bush after he failed to understand the scale of impact on New Orleans of Hurricane Katrina. You may think that is an exaggeration. I hope it is and that Cameron now responds to the crisis in the way I always expected him to.

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Tottenham Riots: The Shameful Comments of a Labour MP

7 Aug 2011 at 21:11

I’ve never heard of Derby North MP Chris Williamson. But tonight he’s made a dick of himself. Apparently the disturbances in Tottenham are the government’s fault. Yep, all David Cameron’s fault. Those wicked Tories are back, he says on Twitter.

Yep, the Tories are back alright. Why is it the Tories never take responsibility for the consequences of their party’s disastrous policies. #tottenham

This came minutes after he retweeted this comment from someone he follows…

Riots. Protests. Cuts. Unemployment. Disaffected Youth. Strikes. Recession.Police Brutality.

Is that really the best he can do? Does he really think that it is the Conservatives who caused these riots? Because his colleague David Lammy, the local MP, thinks rather differently. Tonight he has made a statement on his website…

“The scenes currently taking place in our community are not representative of the vast majority of people in Tottenham. Those who remember the destructive conflicts of the past will be determined not to go back to them. We already have one grieving family in our community and further violence will not heal that pain. True justice can only follow a thorough investigation of the facts. The Tottenham community and Mark Duggan’s family and friends need to understand what happened on Thursday evening when Mark lost his life. To understand those facts, we must have calm.”

I don’t know the circumstances of the shooting. But what I do know is that politics weren’t involved. It was a police operation in which Mr Duggan was shot and killed. Chris Williamson should take a good look in the mirror tonight. I doubt whether he will like what he sees.

A second aspect of tonight’s events was the insatiable appetite of the media for immediate reaction and comment. Here’s a tweet from Guardian journalist Dave Hill, who blogs about London.

@bbc5live still unsuccessfully seeking comment from Boris & from local MP @DavidLammy. Same here. Beeb also chasing Livingstone #tottenham

YeGods, do these people not think the local MP, the Mayor of London and maybe even poor old Ken might want to gather their thoughts before saying anything? Politicians have a responsibility in these situations to say nothing until facts are known.

People have every right to protest against anything they want to, but they must do it lawfully. This protest turned into an unlawful riot. Full of violence. Full of looting. There can be no excuse for that, and no explanation.

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Why I Am Warming to Sam Allardyce

6 Aug 2011 at 21:14

If you haven’t seen the feature on West Ham and Sam Allardyce in the Evening Standard yesterday, please do click HERE and have a read. Initially, I was deeply sceptical of his appointment as West Ham manager – indeed, I was half of a mind not to renew my season ticket – but I can’t help warming to him. Everything I hear coming out of the club relating to him is positive. He seems to understand how to motivate players. They seem to relate to him. I may change my mind after Sunday, but I feel quite optimistic and positive about things at the moment. I’d still like us to sign a goalscorer and a centre back, but to my mind he has done as well as he could so far. Doesn’t this make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up?

Big Sam fills a room and he has a personality to match. If you really want to know how much of an impression he has made at Upton Park, ask some of the people who see him at work every day at the club’s training ground. Ask Shirley, who has been helping to prepare the lunches for the players ever since Trevor Brooking was in his prime. “The other day Sam walked into the restaurant when the young players were queing for their food. He shook their hands, one by one, and talked to them. It reminded me of John Lyall,” she says. Ask Jimmy, who has been helping out with the coaching as long as anyone can remember. “Sam reminds me of John,” he says. “He’s a football person, he has football values and he treats people the right way.”

Allardyce has also spoken about his reasons for leaving Bolton. At least it shows he is ambitious. And he’s done a very long interview with Jeremy Wilson in tomorrow’s Telegraph. Fantastic stuff. I know, I know, I’m weakening… And there’s another long interview in the Daily Mail. Big Sam sure knows how to give good interview.

And finally, the club have posted a transcript of Allardyce’s pre match Friday press conference. Well worth a scaz. For me, this was the most revealing answer…

Where are you going to sit? Not quite sure yet. I will eventually always sit in the stand but whether I consider that to be the best place on Sunday I haven’t quite got my gut feeling yet. Probably on Saturday I will sit and think about it and should I go there right from the start or on the bench and get a feel for it. There is a better feel on the bench but there is no tactical awareness that you can see. We can all pretend we can as managers but realistically when you sit above you see the whole plan of the game very comfortably and of course your emotions don’t run as high.

I have never understood why managers always sit in the dugout. It’s impossble to get a full perspective of the game, so if he wants to sit in the stand for the first half, we ought to welcome that.

  • This is an edited version of an article which first appeared on West Ham Till I Die.

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Thursday Diary: Notes From Norfolk

4 Aug 2011 at 21:32

SATURDAY

I am so looking forward to this week. We’re staying with friends, Keith & Pepi Simpson, in Reepham. It’s meant to be a bit of a holiday but seeing as we’re househunting in Norfolk and I also have to spend a day in the EDP archives researching my new book on Norwich City FC’s history, it will be more like a busman’s holiday. It will be fantastic to see lots of old friends and revisit some old North Norfolk haunts. Rarely does a week go by without me yearning for the day when I can move back to Norfolk permanently. You can take the boy out of Norfolk, but you can’t take Norfolk out of the boy.

Talking of which, we spent much of yesterday afternoon looking for properties in local estate agents in Cromer and North Walsham. To my utter delight and surprise we found a cottage for sale in the village of Swanton Abbott, the very same village I lived in from 2003-2005. And this cottage is only 100 yards away from my old one. I’d dearly love to buy back my old cottage but the new owners have ruined it by adding an extension on the back. Vandalism. We’re going to look at the new one on Tuesday. I just hope it lives up to expectations. The only drawback is the massive size of the garden. You won’t be surprised to know what my fingers are not very green.

Saturday night was spent in the Ostrich pub in Castle Acre with Gillian Shephard, her husband Tom, Lord & Lady Hennessy and my colleague from Biteback Publishing, Sean Magee. We were celebrating the publication of Gillian’s book, KNAPTON (which you can read more about HERE.). The evening ended in a rather bizarre way with Peter Hennessy and I serenading the pub with our rather out of tune version of I’M FOREVER BLOWING BUBBLES’. You see, Hennessy is a fellow West Ham sufferer, I mean supporter.

SUNDAY

This afternoon we went to see our friends Bert and Sylvia in Overstrand, a small village a couple of miles along the coast from Cromer. They will always have a special place in my hearts as they were the ones who put me up for the first two months after I was selected as candidate in North Norfolk in 2003. They had a delightful house in Roughton (where I am told John Hurt now resides) and I loved living with them. Bert is suffering from bad health now, which is such a shame for such a wonderfully bombastic Texan. Sylvia is a real North Norfolk hero. She’s wonderfully vivacious, and has a very cheeky glint in her eye. John and I will always be in their debt for the wonderful support and friendship they gave us.

We then went to visit another old friend, Eve Collishaw, at her North Norfolk hideaway in Trimingham. She used to be both a Norfolk county councillor and a Norwich city councillor, but is now retired. She told us she’s selling up. The glint in Simmo’s eye had to be seen to be believed. It really is an amazing property. It’s a wooden structure, so totally unmortgageable, but its situation is astonishing, I reckon it has one of the best views in Norfolk. I wonder…

MONDAY

Well, we went to look at the Swanton Abbott house. Simmo loved it, I didn’t. The garden was huge, but the rooms were incredibly small. In any case, half an hour later we got a call from agent to tell us they had had four offers on it and it had no sold. And they say the housing market is static!

We really want to buy the place in Trimingham, but how can we finance it? We go back for another look. Eve wasn’t there but we have a mooch round the outbuildings and take some photos.

In the evening we went for a pub lunch at the Cross Keys in Smallburgh, near North Walsham, with James Carswell, my erstwhile campaign assistant inthe 2005 election. He’s now a county councillor and cabinet member for Culture, media and choirboys. At least, that’s what I think he said. Suffice to say we had a reet laff.

TUESDAY

We decided to go into Norwich to pick up a painting I had bought several weeks ago, having seen it in the EDP. It’s by a North Norfolk artist called Cornelia Fitzroy. In a way, I was dreading it. What if I didn’t like it ‘in the flesh’? I needn’t have worried. THe colours are less vivid than they were in the paper, but maybe that’s a good thing. On the way back to Reepham, we called in to see Deborah & Mike Slattery at their home on the outskirts of north Norwich. Deborah used to be a Conservative Party agent and she was my campaign manager in 2005. That evening we had dinner at the Kings Arms pub in the market square in Reepham with Keith Simpson. We sat outside as it was so hot. Anyone who knows the market square will know what a wonderful place it is. You can imagine you’re back in the 1940s or 1950s.

WEDNESDAY

I spent most of the day at the Eastern Daily Press researching my new book on Norwich City. I discovered some fabulous photos so it was time well spent. The book will appear next spring. We then paid a final visit to Eve to discuss the Trimingham house. It looks like she intends to put it in an auction, which will probably blow us out of the water. Oh well, it was a nice though while it lasted.

We decided to call in on my parents in Saffron Walden on the way home to Tunbridge Wells. My mum likes surprises. My father wasn’t hapy as his combine harvester had broken down. Again. And as soon as we arrived it poured with rain, along with some spectacular thunder and lightning.

We finally made it home around 11.30pm. To a very empty house, devoid of canine woofings. Not for much longer though.

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How Can You Be Pro Life & Be In Favour of the Death Penalty (Or Vice Versa)

4 Aug 2011 at 21:20

The death penalty is one of those rare issues I find it quite possibly to argue from either side. My conservative heart finds no problem in believing in ‘an eye for an eye’, but my more liberal head finds the barbarity of it repulsive. I do think it acts as a deterrent – just look at the murder figures in this country in the years either side of abolition. Unfortunately the category of ‘capital murder’ was abolished in the late 1960s so comparisons now are hard to make.

But the fact is, that occasionally, the wrong people are hung. Years later, it emerges that in fact the person who was hanged turned out to be innocent after all. But it’s too late. So I could never accept that the death penalty should be available to a judge for any murder, which is what many people seem to argue for. I can, however, see an argument for it being available for multiple murders, where the murderer’s DNA is used as proof that he or she is guilt on each occasion. I can also see an argument for the death penalty being used for terrorists or police murders.

But still I come back to the barbarity of it. And that’s why I couldn’t bring myself to vote for it.

I do find it slightly bizarre that as a general rule – and there are of course exceptions – that those who are most vociferous about the death penalty, tend to take the Right to Life side of the argument over abortion. And those who scream about the barbarity of the death penalty tend to be those who seem tto think little of terminating a 22 weeks old foetus.

Ironic, isn’t it? Either you believe in life or you don’t. It’s time people on either side of this argument looked at the consistency of their position.

This isn’t about left and right, as some people are trying to make it. I know plenty of people on the left who are pro life or in favour of the death penalty, just as there are plenty on the right who are pro choice or anti death penalty.

And I bet you do too.

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Books

Knapton - 8 Miles From Cromer

31 Jul 2011 at 21:33

Last week my publishing company, Biteback, hosted a launch for Gillian Shephard’s new book KNAPTON, which is a social history of the village in North Norfolk in which she grew up. Our London offices have a fantastic view over the river to Parliament, which the coachload of North Norfolkers very much enjoyed. I was amused at how many of them knew me because of my fortnightly column in the Eastern Daily Press.

They had all read about the death of Gio, my Jack Russell, and were all keen to offer advice on how to get over it. One man at the launch was a face I instantly recognised from my youth. It was that of David Richardson who used to host the Anglia TV Sunday lunchtime farming programme. My Dad, who still farms in Essex, wouldn’t miss an episode and was a huge fan of the programme. How sad it is that such programmes are no longer made. Oh for the return of proper local television. Maybe one day it will happen – on the internet.

Anyway, back to Knapton. Yesterday lunchtime we held the Norfolk launch in Knapton Village Hall. It was the first speech I had made in North Norfolk since the one I made on election night in 2005, when I conceded defeat to Norman Lamb at Cromer High School. Well, I didn’t have much choice. He had beaten me by 10,000 vote. OK, 10,606, if you want to be pernickety. This time I carried it off without tears in my eyes!

Gillian’s book features anecdotes and memories of village life in Knapton stretching back many decades. It reminds me of the German TV series Heimat, which traced the history of a Knapton-like village from the first world war to the present day. It was very slow moving but wonderfully filmed. I wonder if we might see Knapton – The Movie. I wonder who would play a schoolgirl Gillian Shephard? A very naughty girl, I imagine.

We’ve been organising booksignings for Gillian all over the place, but have so far struck unlucky with Jarrolds in Cromer. “No, we don’t think it would work here,” said the shop events manager. “Knapton’s too far away from Cromer. No one would come,” he reckoned. Well, my North Norfolk geography may not be quite what it was, but I reckon it can’t be more than 8 miles. Sometimes there’s just no point in arguing. He might as well have said “computer says no”.

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Diary

Mr Dale's Diary: Six Places Higher Than Lord Sugar

24 Jul 2011 at 21:35

  • On Tuesday we hosted a launch for Gillian Shephard’s new book KNAPTON, which is a social history of the village in North Norfolk in which she grew up. Our offices have a fantastic view over the river to Parliament, which the coachload of North Norfolkers very much enjoyed. I was amused at how many of them knew me because of my fortnightly Eastern Daily Press column. They had all read about the death of Gio, my Jack Russell and were all keen to offer advice on how to get over it. Just for the record, we’re getting a mini Schnauzer in September as well as another Jack Russell puppy. We want to get them on the same day otherwise there might be some unfortunate long term consequences!
  • I’m so excited at the way Dale & Co has been received. Slightly to my surprise there hasn’t been much negative reaction at all. Traffic is already higher than for my old blog, so it’s been a good start. In the next 48 hours we’re reconfiguring the front page and adding a gizmo in place of the blurb and video box. The gizmo will allow you to scroll through the last twenty people who have written on the blog. So that should be an incentive to authors to contribute even more regularly than they are already doing! Also this week, we’re launching a daily diary column. Each day of the week one of my contributors will write a diary column and write about their previous seven days. I’ve encouraged them all to be as amusing and observational as possible. As well as gossipy.
  • I was in Portcullis House on Wednesday to have a gossip with my old friend Ian Collins from talkSPORT. It proved to be rather difficult. Hardly had we started our conspiratorial conversation when Simon Walters from the Mail on Sunday plonked himself down for a goss. And hardly had he gone when Denis MacShane replaced him. And by the time he had gone, it was almost time to move on to the next appointment! There’s a lesson there somewhere.
  • If you’ve never tuned into LBC before and heard my dulcet tones (every weekday from 7-10pm, by the way), tune in at 9am on Tuesday morning when Boris Johnson will be presenting the last hour of the Nick Ferrari show. Anything could happen. And probably will. I’ll be hosting an In Conversation with Boris on the Tuesday evening of the Tory conference, which will be broadcast on LBC as well. And don’t worry, I’ll also be doing an hour with Ken Livingstone at Labour and one with whoever the LibDems choose at theirs. Please, please let it be Lembit.
  • Last night we hosted a little gathering at our home near Tunbridge Wells. Simmo, my partner, celebrated his birthday yesterday, and mine was a week earlier. It wasn’t really meant to be a birthday party but I wryly noted how everyone brought presents and cards from His Simmoness, but for me? Not a sausage. A week is a long time in birthdays… We had done far too much food of course. Well, when I say ‘we’ I use the term rather loosely. I am not allowed in the kitchen, you see. I make a scene out of protesting, but of course, I am rather relieved. And so should our party guests have been.
  • I got a call from one of my staff at 6.30 this evening. As I picked up the phone I didn’t bother saying ‘hello’, I just said “well at 6.30 on a Sunday evening it can’t be good news”. It wasn’t. He had been attacked, beaten to a pulp and stabbed. I could hardly have been more shocked. I muttered inanities I think. ‘Take as much time off as you need’, and ‘if there’s anything we can do’ were just two of the clichés that escaped from my mouth. What a terrible thing to happen. Luckily he’s OK, but I suspect he was putting a brave face on it.
  • The week ends with The Guardian naming me as the 93rd most influential person in the British media. I can’t pretend I’m not a bit chuffed, especially when I see that I am six places ahead of Lord Sugar, who is number 99. But as the rest of the Top 100 are release during the course of the evening there are a few surprises. Is Alan Rusbridger, at 37 really more influential than the editors of the Times and Telegraph, whose circulations far outweigh that of The Guardian? And my friend Guido Fawkes is also placed above James Harding and Tony Gallagher. I’m pleased for Guido, but really…

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In Praise of Andrew Mitchell

22 Jul 2011 at 21:37

Last night I interviewed Andrew Mitchell on my LBC show about the growing crisis in Somalia. The response to the interview was immense. We got a shower of texts, emails and tweets saying what a good job he was doing. Even left of centre people reckon he’s performing well in a job which has traditionally been a political backwater and a bed of nails.

Often, when you do a phone in on aid or disaster relief you get a stream of calls from people wondering why we’re not spending the money in this country rather than on far away economic basket cases. That didn’t really happen last night because I think most people with humane bones in their bodies recognise the seriousness of the situation in the Horn of Africa.

It often seems to be the case that politicians almost get religion when they take on the International Development brief. Andrew Mitchell is no different. Sometimes he’s been accused of going native, while showering African countries with British taxpayers’ money. It’s an unfair and simplistic accusation. He has transformed Dfid in his year in the post. He’s made aid far more dependent on accountability and stopped aid to countries like China and Russia, and is in the process of doing the same to India. Instead it is being far better targeted and far less money is being wasted. He’s also doing a good job of explaining the benefits to Britain of being seen as a development superpower.

There was a time when Mitchell, shall we say, wasn’t the most popular of MPs among his colleagues. He was considered a bit of a greaser. By that I mean someone who was determined to rise up the greasy pole come what may. It was always a source of amusement to us all in the David Davis leadership campaign the amount of time Andrew spent with his opposite number in the Cameron campaign, George Osborne. To be fair, they had always got on well before the campaign but there were many jokes made to Andrew’s face about his new best friend. He took them in good part.

Many of us think that the experience of the Davis campaign switched something in Andrew’s brain. He became more of a normal human being, something many politicians would do well to note. He developed a side to his character that not many had seen before. And the international development brief, which most of us had thought he would hate, suited him very well. I’m told that in opposition Cameron tried to move and promote him but he insisted he wanted to stay in the job. And I suspect there might be a similar reaction when a reshuffle comes.

Some months ago there were rumours that Andrew Mitchell was angling for William Hague’s job. The rumours were the usual type of manufacturered Westminster gossip. Hague is one Mitchell’s closest friends in politics and there is no way Mitchell would have been stirring up trouble for his good friend. But having said that, if Hague were to move on, there is now little doubt that Mitchell would be a strong candidate to replace him.

Whatever happens next in his career, I suspect Andrew Mitchell will look back on his years as International Development Secretary as the happiest of his career.

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A Political Counterfactual: Prime Minister Portillo...

22 Jul 2011 at 21:35

I wrote this political counterfactual back in 2004, as the lead chapter in the Prime Minister Portillo & Other Things That Never Happened book. I thought I’d resurrect it here for your delight and delectation, and as a taster for the forthcoming Prime Minister Boris & Other Things That May Yet Happen, which will be published in September by Biteback. I’ve just completed a chapter for it, titled “What if David Davis Had Won?”. Is your breath baited?!

“You do know you’re in trouble, Michael, don’t you?” whispered the particularly conspiratorial voice of Peter Mandelson as they left the BBC election night studios. “Well it’s certainly not going to be the majority I’m used to,” responded the outgoing Defence Secretary. As he got into his waiting car outside the TV Centre studios the last thing he wanted was to hear the excited babble of his loyal assistants as they argued with each other over the scale of the coming onslaught in the country. After all, it wasn’t exactly his fault, was it? For the first time Michael Portillo began to feel a sense of impending doom. Surely he couldn’t lose. Could he? After all, Enfield would usually return a donkey if it sported a blue rosette. His campaign team had berated him for not spending more time campaigning in the constituency, but just how could he manage that when he was expected up and down the country 24 hours a day? He wasn’t superman after all, no matter what his more zealous supporters thought.

It was already clear that Labour had won – and won big. Just how big was big, though? What kind of rump of a Conservative Parliamentary Party would be left? And would they be leadable? He was sure John Major would immediately step down, so now his moment had come. The crown had so nearly been his just two years earlier. Everything was in place, yet he, Michael Xavier Portillo, had hesitated. He who wields the sword rarely inherits the crown was the thought that had guided his decision. If Redwood wanted to risk it so be it, but he wasn’t being tainted as Major’s assassin. Sure, he’d talked to Redwood, and urged him to stand down in his favour if there was a second round, but Redwood was having none of it. Thank God he hadn’t got any further.

But Redwood was history. Portillo is the future. Or that’s the thought that was spinning in his mind as he got out of the car at Enfield Town Hall. He was immediately surrounded by the waiting media and a not inconsiderable throng of Labour Party supporters. “Mr Portillo, are you going to stand for the leadership?” shouted a blonde journalist he didn’t recognise from Sky News. “Fuck off Portillo” spat a callow youth. “Michael, have you considered the possibility of losing your seat?” shouted the man from ITN. Portillo ignored all of this and marched calmly into the town hall. He didn’t have long to wait before his agent spotted him. “Not looking good, Michael,” he whispered. “Twigg’s ahead in the bundles, but there’s two wards to go – both usually Ok for us.” So this is what it had come to. Thirteen years of service yet the voters might be giving him the bum’s rush. The bastards.

For the first time he considered what he would do if he lost. Not a pleasant thought. It wasn’t exactly as if he was qualified to do anything, having spent most of his working life as a researcher or as an MP. He thought he’d be bound to be taken on by one of the big City firms, but it wasn’t exactly a scintillating prospect for someone who in other circumstances wanted to stand for the leadership of the Conservative Party. He thought of the ignominies experienced by his friend Francis Maude when he lost his seat in 1992. He’d even had to take money from some God-awful lobbying company. Still, better to cross that bridge if and when it came to it, he thought.

Suddenly there was a commotion on the floor. Angry voices were hurling insults at each other. He thought he saw a punch being thrown but he couldn’t make out whose fist it was. But it was clear that the result was imminent. He steeled himself. The Labour candidate Stephen Twigg looked as nervous as he was feeling himself. Twigg had fought a good campaign. He looked the part – dashing, tall, well spoken. Should have been a Tory, thought Portillo, before he was rushed back to reality by the voice of the returning officer.

“I, being the returning officer for the constituency of Enfield Southgate do hereby give the result of the parliamentary election. Browne, Jeremy, Liberal Democrat, four thousand nine hundred and sixty six…”

The returning office was enjoying the moment and enunciating every syllable at inordinate length. For Christ’s sake get on with it, thought Portillo, as the returning officer made a valiant effort to make the next two candidates’ results last as long as he possibly could. And then he stiffened. “Portillo, Michael Denzil Xavier, Conservative, twenty thousand five hundred and seventy…”

Bloody Hell. The Liberals have halved their vote. I’m 8,000 down.

The returning officer took a deep breath. He puffed his chest out as far as he could – and it was quite a long way. “Twigg, Stephen, Labour, nineteen thousand one hundred and thirty seven. I hereby declare that Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo be duly elected."

The characteristic Portillo smirk was back. The press had still got him to kick around for a bit longer.

The following 24 hours disappeared like a blur into Portillo’s memory. He had been truly shocked at the narrowness of his result, but he had clearly been luckier than most. Tory MPs had been losing like ninepins in a bowling alley. 191 seats. YeGods. Even Kinnock had got more seats than that. Rifkind, Olga Maitland, Seb Coe, Marcus Fox, David Mellor, all gone. Who’d want to lead this rump of a Party? Truth was, many would. He knew that. But one thing was for sure, John Major was a gonner.

Three weeks later

Funnily enough the leadership contest hadn’t been particularly bruising. Apart from Ann Widdecombe’s successful assault on Michael Howard, the whole contest had happened with barely a whimper. The truth was that the press were so obsessed by Tony Blair and his bright, shiny new administration that they paid the Tories little attention. Portillo had predicted that many would stand, for the leadership, if only to put a marker down for the future. Indeed, some acted with what Portillo considered to be unseemly haste. Ken Clarke couldn’t wait to throw his Fedora into the ring and announced his candidature only a few hours after the last results were in. Michael Heseltine finally had to rip up his famous envelope when heart problems ruled him out. Serves him right, thought the many people who would never forgive him for the events of November 1990.

Stephen Dorrell raised many a belly laugh when he announced a short-lived candidacy. His lamentable performance in the Major Cabinet certainly did for him in the eyes of his colleagues. William Hague and John Redwood were thought to be big threats. Some thought Peter Lilley would stand but he soon declared for Portillo and ended up running his campaign, fuelling the scurrilous rumours which had been circulating in low life magazines for years about the truth behind his friendship with Portillo.

But the contest itself had been a virtual walkover for Portillo. Michael Howard, Hague and Redwood all withdrew after the first round, leaving Clarke and Portillo to slug it out. Michael knew he would win. And so did everyone else. The Portillo era had begun.

His first task was to form a Shadow Cabinet. No easy task with only 190 colleagues to choose from. Ken Clarke had made it clear that if he wasn’t leader he didn’t want to do anything else. Portillo didn’t blame him for that. His rivals for the leadership all accepted posts, rather to his surprise. Pundits had expected Peter Lilley to be appointed Shadow Chancellor but instead he became Deputy Leader and Director of Policy Development.

Portillo made it clear that he wished to emulate the Thatcher Opposition in developing radical, exciting new policies, which could appeal to a new generation of voters who had never considered voting Tory. Michael Howard agreed to shadow the Foreign Office, while William Hague became Shadow Home Secretary. In a difficult interview with John Redwood, Portillo offered him the Shadow Chancellorship, but Redwood made clear he would only accept if he – and he alone – had control over economic policy. “He thinks he’s Gordon Brown,” thought Portillo. This was high stakes gambling for both men. There had been a deep rift between them following the 1995 leadership election when Redwood failed to unseat John Major. But both men knew that in these dark days for the party, they needed each other. And so it was that Redwood finally accepted the offer of the Shadow Chancellorship – and with no preconditions. Portillo had him by the balls – and he knew it.

The most popular appointment both in the press and among party workers was Gillian Shephard as Party Chairman. She made it clear from the start that she looked to modernise the party structure and change the way parliamentary candidates were selected. Her summer tour of the constituencies did much to heal the wounds of the election defeat. The party workers loved her.

Other eyecatching promotions included the pugnacious Alan Duncan to International Development and former Foreign Office Minister David Davis as Chief Whip. A few eyebrows were raised at the deeply ironic appointment of the Chingford MP and Maastricht rebel Iain Duncan Smith as a junior whip.

The first six months of his leadership were quiet. As Tony Blair’s administration found its feet so did the Opposition. Portillo’s performances at Prime Minister’s Questions were considered moderately impressive, with him winning more times than he lost. His budget response had been described by Peter Riddell in The Times as “masterful in the detailed analysis and impressive in political rhetoric”.

His attacks on the Prime Ministers integrity over the Bernie Ecclestone affair did much to knock the glossy shine off New Labour and dented people’s trust in Tony Blair in particular. Portillo’s off the cuff reaction of “absolute bollocks” to Blair’s “I’m a pretty straight kinda guy” semi apology for Ecclestone might not have amused the blue rinses of Tunbridge Wells, but it demonstrated that here was an Opposition leader who knew what Opposition was all about. Taste and decency were side issues. People wanted to know that you were up for the battle, and anyone who wasn’t would be disposed of.

A few months later he proved he meant what he said. In a speech to Yorkshire Conservatives the new rising star of the Party William Hague maintained that the Conservatives must be judicious in their opposition as the “country no longer wanted to hear from them for a good while”. He said the Party should apologise for what it got wrong during the Major years. “We should concede and move on”, he said. Portillo conceded that it should indeed be William Hague who should move on and summarily sacked him. The newspapers had a field day, depicting Portillo as Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator. His 1995 conference speech had been littered with references to the SAS. This time, he dared to sack Hague and he won. He replaced him with Francis Maude.

In many ways this set the tone for the next two years. Portillo had demonstrated a toughness that few had realised was there. Any other member of his team who strayed out of line knew they would be for the chop.

The newly strengthened Conservative Research Department headed up by Peter Lilley and Danny Finkelstein was coming up with radical policies which even a sceptical media was admitting were eye-catching. Selling off housing association properties and introducing proportional representation for local government elections were proving popular on a local level, while plans to give teachers greater powers to discipline pupils put the teaching unions in a huge quandary.

Andrew Cooper and Michael Simmonds, the Party’s directors of campaigning were having considerable success with targeted direct mail campaigns in the Party’s top 100 marginal seats and the party had even begun recruiting hundreds of new members.

But it was in the CCO Press Office that the party was having problems. Portillo decided fairly early on that he needed a high profile press spokesman who could compete with Alastair Campbell on an equal footing. He broke with tradition and employed a firm of headhunters to identify the right person. After several months of discussion the former editor of the Sunday Express, Amanda Platell was appointed. Portillo liked a bit of glamour and Platell provided that in spades. She made an immediate impact, not just with the press, but with Portillo himself. She gradually began changing his appearance, persuading him to flatten a little, the trademark Portillo quiff. “It makes you look camp”, she said with typical Australian bluntness. If she hadn’t know better she would have sworn Portillo’s cheeks reddened.

Platell’s main contribution in her first six months was to persuade Lilley and Cooper that a campaign on honesty in politics should be launched. She felt that the perception of Tony Blair’s government being honest and straight was a lie which should be exposed. As part of the campaign Conservative MPs were urged to be open about their private lives. Shadow International Development Secretary Alan Duncan shocked many by coming out as a homosexual, something which those in the Westminster Village had known for years. His party leader praised him for his “courage, openness and honesty”. Some in his constituency were less forgiving. But an attempt to deselect him, which, due to some neat footwork by Amanda Platell, never made the papers, failed miserably after a ‘knocking heads together’ visit to Rutland & Melton by the thuggish chief whip David Davis.

Gradually Portillo began to make the press take notice of the party’s new style, approach and policies. Portillo admitted to himself that Hague had had a point when he said that no one wanted to hear from the party for a while, but rather than be defeatist, Portillo and his advisers decided they had to take the bull by the horns and make them take notice. Central Office made complaint after complaint about the time allocated to Labour and LibDem politicians and any example of media bias was ruthlessly exploited. A charm offensive with political editors and newspaper magnates helped the party make some headway and by the time the 1999 local elections and European elections came around even the most sceptical of political journalists was having to admit that maybe, just maybe, the Tories had turned the corner.

Since 1997 Portillo had instigated a full scale review of the Party’s approach towards Europe. He knew that the splits over Europe that had characterised the Major Government could not be allowed to continue. Major’s policy of ‘wait and see’ on the Euro had curiously been adopted by the Labour government, yet for the Conservatives it was no longer an option. Portillo’s aim was to develop a policy which was clearcut on the Euro and yet could not be interpreted as being small minded, xenophobic or little Englander. He therefore rang up his old mentor Lord Parkinson to ask him to chair a Commission on the Future of Europe. Their conclusions impressed Portillo and were to form the basis of party policy for the years ahead. The Euro was ruled out on principle on constitutional grounds, but the Party would press for enlargement of the EU and call a halt to the encroaching powers of the European Union. But the main change would be the language used in arguing the Party’s case over the European issue.

In local government things were beginning to turn around too. An aggressive campaign by the Party on Council tax rates had reaped local dividends and the Party’s councillors felt a degree of optimism they had not experienced since the late 1970s.

And the 1999 local election results justified that feeling. Portillo was cock a hoop. Despite a ludicrously low turnout the Conservatives had won a convincing victory. They were on their way back. And he, Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo, was convinced that it was only a matter of time before he and Carolyn would enter Number Ten.

And over the next two years everything Portillo did, said or thought, was geared towards that aim. He wasn’t a showman for nothing and the 2000 party conference was vital in providing the Party with a send off towards what everyone thought would be an election in the Spring of 2001.

The press had been warned to expect something special in the Leader’s speech. And for once no one leaked. The week had gone well. A raft of new policies had been announced, including on the spot fines for the possession of cannabis. Francis Maude had been worried this might be interpreted as decriminalisation so the policy was successfully spun by Amanda Platell as “zero tolerance on drugs”. John Redwood announced the proposed abolition of inheritance tax and a reversal of Gordon Brown’s dramatic increases in stamp duty on house purchases. He also promised to reverse Brown’s raid on pension funds which, he said, threatened a pensions crisis “the like of which we have never seen”.

But it was the leader’s speech everyone was waiting for. The first twenty minutes of the speech were laced with humour and cracks at Blair and his government but somehow no one was listening. They were all waiting for whatever dramatic announcement Portillo had to make. Platell had spun it as being a “deeply personal moment”. Speculation was rife – indeed it was threatening to get out of control. Finally the moment came.

Portillo paused for what seemed like an age. He continued:-

“My friends, for too long the Conservative Party has given the appearance of being split – divided. Over the last three years I have made it my business to lead from the front but also to listen to all parts of the party on all sorts of issues. I firmly believe the Party is now more united than it has been for years. United with a purpose. United in our march towards victory at the next election. I want to lead a party of all the talents. Full of people whose only aim is to do good. Good for our country, good for our people and good for our party. If we are to achieve our aim of despatching this sleazy, miserable Labour government to the dustbin of history I want the most powerful team at my disposal. That’s why I am delighted to announce today that Ken Clarke has agreed to rejoin the Shadow Cabinet. Ken Clarke, come on down!”

Music blasted out. Balloons fell from the ceiling, and Ken Clarke appeared at the back of the cavernous Bournemouth Conference Centre Hall, trotted down the stairs, gurgling with delight and waving to the assembled masses, most of whom were standing and clapping.

The symbolic message this sent out to the watching voters was clear and hardly needed to be articulated by the professional political pundits. "Masterstroke"and “A Conservative Coup” were just two of the headlines in the next day’s papers.

Everyone, it seemed, was happy. There was no doubt about it, Portillo was seen as a lucky politician. He had been perceived as a little too smug and pleased with himself, but his leadership of the Party had changed all that. He looked the part. He looked like a Prime Minister in waiting, which was exactly how he saw himself.

Meanwhile, the Blair Government lurched from crisis to crisis, some self inflicted, some outside their control.

And then came the foot and mouth crisis. Even their most ardent supporters felt it was handled badly from beginning to end. At one stage it even threatened to ensure that Tony Blair would have to delay calling an election. But the advice he received from the Ministry of Agriculture was that “no new cases are now expected”. Unfortunately, an incompetent official had failed to include the returns from both Wales and Cumbria in his prognosis. Two days after the beginning of the campaign dozens of new cases of foot and mouth appeared in the Brecon Beacons and Cumbria. A few days later more cases appeared in Northumberland and Somerset. The crisis was real and the Government was in total chaos.

Michael Portillo came into his own, calling for a State of National Emergency to be declared. He proposed sending in troops and announced an imaginative compensation scheme for the affected farmers. Tony Blair continue to fiddle, while the sheep continued to burn. Blair’s sole contribution was to suggest calling off the election. “In your dreams, Mr Blair,” said Portillo, as he continued to make good political capital out of a farming nightmare.

All other issues paled into insignificance, and on polling day the country exacted its revenge.

But a majority of more than 170 was not going to be easy to overcome, no matter how bad the government’s performance over foot and mouth had been. But seat after seat fell. At 12.03am Bob Dunn won back Dartford, 64th on the Tories’ target list. Malcolm Rifkind narrowly won back Edinburgh Pentlands and became one of five Tory MPs north of the border. But it wasn’t until 1.30am that it became clear that a Tory victory was a distinct possibility. The weathervane seat of Basildon fell and from then on the faces at Millbank became gloomier and gloomier.

At 4.30am Michael Portillo became Prime Minister. He had a majority of three seats, making serving a full term an almost impossible task. The pundits likened it to Harold Wilson’s narrow wins in 1964 and February 1974. A further election within a year looked a dead cert.

How had it happened? The pundits had been confounded but most of them agreed that Labour voters had stayed at home in their droves, while the Conservatives had managed to get their vote out. The turnout was pitiful – the lowest ever – but the Conservatives’ once powerful electoral machine had proved it had some life in it yet.

Having kissed hands at Buckingham Palace Prime Minister Portillo returned to the cheering throngs in Downing Street. They weren’t quite the seething crowds who had welcomed the Blair’s in 1997, but he enjoyed the moment nonetheless.

As he prepared to make his statement of intent on the doorstep of Number Ten – his Francis of Assisi moment – Amanda Platell peered out of one of the upstairs windows. She wondered what the future would hold in store for them all. At that very moment one of her junior staff came rushing into the room, almost breathless. “Amanda, I think you ought to take this call,” he said. “Who is it,” asked Platell? Mazeer Mahmood from the News of the World, came the reply. Platell experienced one of those moments when your stomach seems to hollow itself out. “What the fuck does he want?” muttered Platell, almost to herself. “Amanda, you really don’t want to know,” said the flunky. She took the phone.

“Hi Maz, Amanda here,” said Platell in her most sweet and innocent tone.

“Amanda, we’ve had six researchers who for the last six months have been looking at your leader’s private life going back to his time at Cambridge. And they’ve come up with some rather interesting conclusions. We’re running them on Sunday.”

And the rest, as they say, was history.

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