With Duncan Brack I have edited several books of political counterfactuals including Prime Minister Michael Portillo & Other Things That Never Happened, Prime Minister Corbyn & Other Things That Never Happened, and in July this year Prime Minister Priti & Other Things That Never Happened will be published. I'm writing the title chapter for that.
One of our listeners to the For the Many podcast, Alex MacPherson, emailed me earlier this week and attached an essay he had written on 'What if Iain Dale Had Been Elected MP for Bracknell'. Wow, I thought. Unfortunately, when the email arrived I wasn't immediately able to read Alex's words but when I did it really did make me think what might have been. One thing I do know is that his ending would certainly never have happened, and if it had, God help the country! I won't give it away here.
I haven't changed this at all, beyond correcting one or two facts and adding a sentence of two of colour here and there.
By Alex MacPherson
It was the release of the video that sealed Andrew Mackay’s fate. After weeks of speculation around his, and his wife Julie Kirkbride's, expenses, there was a constituency meeting in Bracknell that turned ‘lively’ in the words of one of the attendees. When the video of this encounter was released, it gave David Cameron the excuse that he had been waiting for. He phoned Mackay to tell him to stand down.
As Iain Dale was waiting for the results of the selection contest, one of the first primary selections open to all voters, he wondered if this constituency party could be too much to handle. Everything had gone well in all interviews and Q&A sessions, but there was still a nagging doubt. He was up against a local GP, Philip Lee, who had cut his teeth in 2005 General Election in Blaenau Gwent, and also the mercurial Rory Stewart.
Iain felt that he had more to fear from Lee, a genial character, who clearly had many contacts, than Stewart; Bracknell did not feel the right constituency for Rory.
Bracknell was a relatively new town springing up in the 1950s and 60s and was typical of a Southern new town with a curate’s egg of pockets of low income but then areas of great wealth. Squeezed between the constituencies of Theresa May’s Maidenhead and John Redwood’s Wokingham, and only an hour by train to London, it was a highly attractive seat.
When the constituency chairman announced the results, it was clear that it was between Lee and Dale, with Iain Dale taking just over 45% of the vote to Lee’s 35%. It was at this point that Iain Dale realised he was very soon going to become a Conservative MP.
The General Election had to take place in less than a year, and Bracknell had a large Conservative majority of just over 12,000 in 2005.
(Pictured: The seven finalists in the final of the Bracknell selection - Margaret Doyle, Katy Lindsay, Rory Stewart, Philip Lee, Julian Manning, Ryan Robson & Iain Dale)
Always one to show his emotion, tears welling up before Iain realised his first speech as candidate could not have him blubbing! Jumping on to the stage, Iain delivered a barnstorming speech, ignoring the pre-prepared notes that he had in his pocket; he always felt that his best speeches were off the cuff rather than every word crafted in advance.
He spoke of how he wanted to serve the whole of Bracknell, and would be their advocate in parliament. He told of how he wanted a Conservative Government but would act as a candid friend and not be backwoodsman MP.
Now he was selected, and destined to win the seat, the question of where to live came to the fore. This had come up in some of the hustings and Iain gave the usual polite response about wanting to live and be part of the community. Iain, and his partner John, already had two homes (see Note 1) and when you added Bracknell into the mix, the three locations of Bracknell, Tunbridge Wells and Norfolk formed an equilateral triangle, with each side taking at least two hours to travel between, and even more on a Thursday evening. Soon Iain discovered that the Highways Agency could close J10 on the M4 with same abandon that they would close the A14 in Norfolk!
After much debate, Iain and John decided to sell the house in Tunbridge Wells – Iain could not bear to lose their bolt hole in Norfolk, and three homes could lead to headlines that would embarrass even Andrew Mackay. It was a big decision for John, who had never lived anywhere but the royal spa town.
A cottage with plenty of character in the nearby village of Binfield was to be their new Bracknell pied a terre.
Along with the housing reconfiguration, election planning was in full swing, and straight after the New Year into 2010, it felt like no-stop electioneering. The Bracknell constituency party was relatively well organised by the agent Mary Ballin and a close-knit team that had welcomed Iain. However, the result was never in any doubt. Being a safe seat meant that there was little opportunity to have any of the ‘Big Hitters’ visit during the campaign.
Despite this, Iain felt much more positive than 2005 in North Norfolk when he was soundly beaten by the incumbent Norman Lamb. Iain had known for many weeks prior to polling day that he was going to lose and motivating his dedicated team had been very hard for him.
In terms of the wider election campaign, it was difficult for Iain to get a handle on how it was going nationwide from his corner of Berkshire. Voters were always positive about David Cameron but as a Berkshire boy who had been to Prep school just down the road at Heatherwood, this was fertile ground.
As the last week of the campaign approached in late April, Iain was out knocking on doors when he received an urgent message from his party agent to look at the news. With no clue to what had happened, he fumbled for his phone, fearing that some indiscretion or poorly worded comment had made it into the national media. However, this was bigger – following an encounter with a pensioner in Rochdale, Gillian Duffy who had made remarks about immigration levels, Gordon Brown had returned to his car and had left his microphone on.
He then remarked how Mrs Duffy was ‘a bigoted woman’ which seemed a harsh comment on a voter expressing opinions that many in the area felt. To add to the pain, the comments were broadcast back to Gordon Brown as he was filmed listening to them. Iain could not help feeling a slither of sympathy for Brown; this was a situation which we could all be caught doing in one form or another.
This incident had certainly put a spring in the step of the Tory campaign team and would this provide the momentum to sweep Cameron into Downing Street. Iain began to have his doubts in the last few days, though; there was no great wave behind the Conservatives as he had seen with Tony Blair in 1997. Brown may have not been hugely loved but he was respected and his ‘No Time for Novice’ had traction.
On the last Saturday of the campaign, it was bright and warm when Iain received an unexpected call from Ed Llewellyn, Cameron’s Chief of Staff. After a few moments of small talk, Ed quickly moved on to business: the polls were showing that Cameron was potentially going to fall short of majority but not by much. They needed the support of other parties; the SNP and Plaid Cymru were clearly a non-starter and the DUP was considered too difficult with the Northern Ireland Peace Process. Therefore, this only left the Liberal Democrats and Cameron wanted to start discussions with them.
Although Llewellyn had good links into the Lib Dems with his time as an aide to Paddy Ashdown in Bosnia, he wanted to have as many touch points in the Parliamentary Party as possible. Would the party stomach as a coalition with the Conservatives? How could they agree on key policy differences?
From his time in North Norfolk, Iain had kept in touch with Norman Lamb, someone that he respected highly, and Ed wanted him to reach out for Lamb’s views on a coalition. Could this be a true coalition or just ‘confidence and supply’? Norman soon got back to Iain, and the genial chat on how much Norman was going to increase his majority soon developed into predictions of the General Election result. They both held similar views – Cameron just short of a working majority. Lamb believed that a coalition was possible, particular if seen in the national interest at a time when the bond markets could spitefully turn on any country as they were on some of the Eurozone countries.
Loyally, Iain provided this feedback to Llewellyn as soon as he could and was appreciatively thanked but not further information was divulged. He understood that he was a small cog in a much bigger machine.
Not giving much more thought to his weekend conversations, polling day on 6th May was soon upon him. The ‘Get The Vote Out’ operation went seamlessly and Iain ferried as many supporters as possible in his fresh valeted Audi. However, one chatty pensioner joked that she hoped he wouldn’t crash. For Iain it brought back the memory of May 2nd 1985. It was the day before his finals at UEA, and he was a county council candidate in Norwich. He was taking three elderly ladies to vote in his yellow Ford Cortina and as he turned right into the polling station at the precise moment a motorbike tried to overtake him. It didn't end well for the motorcyclist. When Iain went to visit his parents later that day he found a Vote Labour poster in the window. He decided not to mention this to the chatty pensioner in Bracknell.
At 2.25am the next morning, Iain Dale was confirmed as a Conservative MP – he had increased the majority to mpre than 15,000 and taken over 50% share of the vote. It was surprising that the second placed party was now the Liberal Democrats, and Labour were pushed into third place. This reflected a Lib Dem surge across the UK, powered by Cleggmania early in the campaign.
After the speeches everything seemed to go flat – the result was almost predetermined and there had never been that nervous expectation for Iain. As it was approaching 3am, the national picture was beginning to break, and the one thing that Iain was missing was the results – shocks at loss and gains, always one big beast being thrown out, unexpected swings. Managing to find a television in the Bracknell Leisure Centre, he heard David Cameron’s acceptance in Witney. Clearly it had all the hallmarks of a holding speech, but it was apparent that a majority would be just outside the Conservatives’ grasp.
On returning back to the cottage in Binfield, Iain let the Gio, his Jack Russell out into the garden – trying to repair the guilt of ignoring him over the last few weeks. Slowly the sun was rising to offer the first orange light – it was extremely cheesy, but Iain could not help but say to Gio: “A new dawn has broken, has it not?” repeating Tony Blair’s famous remarks at the Royal Festival Hall after Labour’s landslide victory in 1997. When that was happening, Iain had actually parked his car after returning to London on the other side of the river, and heard the electric party, so he felt that he could get away with this.
Despite now being an elected MP, Iain was as much a bystander to the political situation as everyone else as the coalition talks proceeded. This was only interrupted by a call from Norman Lamb – they congratulated each other but Norman was very warm in his delight at Iain becoming an MP, and thought it was wonderful to have someone like Iain in the House, without having to lose his seat. They soon arrived at the subject that could affect both their political futures; Norman felt from his reading of the runes that the Lib Dems would be willing to go into full coalition. It had risks, and he quoted Angela Merkel’s belief that the smaller partner in a coalition always gets suffocated in the subsequent election.
When arriving at Westminister, it was like starting school for the new intake, but it didn't feel like that for Iain. He had been here so many times, including brief spells working in parliament, that he could guide some of the new MPs. At the new MPs parliamentary induction meeting, Iain was sat between Tracey Crouch and Priti Patel, both recently elected. He had heard of Priti, who had beaten him to the nomination in Witham a few years earlier. He liked her but they were never going to be political soulmates. With Tracey it was the beginning of a life long friendship.
When the new Coalition Government was finally announced, it was something which was well at suited to Iain's politics; he was as dry as dust on economics but socially liberal. Therefore, the Cameron government sat very easily with him. As someone who had a considerable profile before entering parliament, he decided to hit the ground running rather than wait and soak in the place. His old boss, David Davis said that the Public Accounts Select Committee could be a great start – it had certainly boasted David’s profile when he was Chairman during Tony Blair’s first term. Peter Hennessy had even described it as “the queen of the selected committees”.
A snatched coffee with the Chief Whip, Patrick McLoughlin, whom Iain got on with well, hinted that the indominable veteran Labour MP Margaret Hodge was going to be the chair. Somehow getting confused, Iain had approached Margaret Beckett over lunch and asked her about serving on the committee! Her face was a picture as she reminded Iain that she used to be Foreign Secretary and pointed him in Margaret Hodge’s direction.
Membership of the committee was a great way of ‘following the money’ as David Davis had pointed out. His media savvy persona also got him invited to several news programmes and Iain was a regular guest on Newsnight. Another show that he enjoyed doing was Any Questions which he had appeared in early autumn of 2010. It was hosted by Jonathan Dimbleby and he had gone out of his way to make Iain comfortable on the show as he was unexpectedly quite nervous.
A second invitation came in February 2011 for an edition recorded in Worcester, and as usual the panel all had dinner together before the recording. Sitting next to Iain at dinner was Jacqui Smith, the former Labour Home Secretary and first woman in this great office of state, who lived nearby in Malvern. Initially, Iain felt the nervousness of the first show return as he had been quite mean to Jacqui in some of his blog posts previously. Despite this, and her both remembering and reminding him of these posts, they got on like a house on fire.
Talking of cross-party collaborations, there was a radio show on a station called LBC on a Saturday morning with David Mellor and Ken Livingstone – an unlikely combination which worked remarkable well. In summer of 2011, David’s wife, Penny wanted to spend the weekend at Bayreuth at the opera which would mean missing the Saturday morning slot. When Ken approached Iain to see if he could fill the gap, he bit his hand off. The show was actually a great success, and Ken told Iain that he should taking up this radio gig “when your lot get thrown out at the next election” in the way that only Ken could. Iain had always fancied trying his hand at being a radio presenter but life had taken a different turn.
In March 2012, George Osborne delivered a budget that did not age well, within several days earning the moniker of the ‘Omnishambles’ budget. When asked on Newsnight if he thought the budget was deserving of the name, Iain, with refreshing honesty, said that it was difficult to disagree. Immediately he felt that this was a career ending mistake, but his supportive critique of the government’s economic policies were noted in No. 10 and No. 11.
During Easter of 2012, Iain and John managed to get away to Norfolk – they had only been there once since Christmas. On Easter Sunday, they were invited for lunch at their old friends' Keith and Pepi Simpson. Keith was the MP for Mid Norfork, and now the PPS to William Hague, the Foreign Secretary. Over lunch, Keith floated the possibility of Iain becoming a minister and which departments he would be interested in.
The conversation meandered through several government departments but Keith came back to two departments – Environment and Culture, Media and Sport. Keith tried to say that Environment would be perfect for a farmer’s son but Iain was less convinced. There were rumours that the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman would be sacked at the reshuffle and potentially replaced by Owen Paterson. This was a real red flag to Iain as he had crossed swords with Owen in the past and could not see that being a fruitful working relationship.
On the other hand, Culture, Media and Sport was headed up by the rising star of the cabinet, Jeremy Hunt. Jeremy was someone that Iain had met a few times and they got on well. He had even solicited Iain's advice on his fights with the LibDems in his South West Surrey constituency. DCMS seemed more like a round peg in a round hole. However, it was clear that there was not going to be a reshuffle until after the London Olympics, so September looked on the cards. Keith’s advice to Iain was to get his head down on the Select Committee and not do or say anything stupid in the meantime!
It was soon after the Olympics concluded that reshuffle speculation picked up a few gears; clearly Jeremy Hunt was in line for promotion after a stellar summer. Instead of waiting until the autumn or early winter, Cameron decided to reshuffle his government in early September. David Cameron had always been critical of the ‘revolving doors’ of Government with Ministers only in departments for 12-24 months and not being given time to get to grips with their department. Therefore, this was not expected to be wholesale reform.
It was with anticipation that Iain waited for the telephone call, hoping for a Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (PUSS) position. It wasn't quite as bad as the sketch win the ‘Yes Minister’ TV comedy when Jim Hacker is awaiting the call from No. 10, but not far off as Iain paced around the Binfield cottage.
At 5.15pm, his mobile finally rang, and the relaxed, plummy tones of David Cameron were rushing into Iain’s ear. Following briefest of interludes, Cameron said that he always admired Iain’s skills and felt he was someone who could best serve from within Government. He was asked to serve in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport – the old dog Simpson had been right – but going straight in as a Minister of State. He was to be Minister of State for Media and Digital issues.
As the car whisked through Westminster to the DCMS just off Trafalgar Square, it felt quite strange with Iain’s imposter syndrome riding in the car with him. This was only heightened when he was welcomed at the entrance by his private secretary with a cheery ‘Good Morning Minister’.
After the initial tour of the building – it was only Secretary of States that were clapped into the building, he later realised – Iain was then briefed in the departmental areas for which he was responsible by the relevant senior civil servant. He knew that the British Civil Service were one of the best in the world but after a two hour briefing by the six departmental heads he thought that their knowledge and strategic thinking was taking it to another level. Was he already going native?
It was clear that one of the key focusses for his environ was the GDPR legalisation that was being proposed by the European Union for introduction in 2015, although this was subsequently delayed. This was a wholesale reform of data and privacy laws which could have some wide-ranging implications, although the UK were already leaders in this field, and it was other EU countries who had much to fear from this legalisation. The media area was always going to have challenges with the eruption of new digital channels and the BBC which seemed to be in ongoing Charter renewal discussion with the Government. The other areas seemed departmental backwaters that Iain hoped that he would not be swimming through: libraries, National Archives and Royal Collections. However, one of these was to provide a deep pool of the most unchartered of waters.
With his head still spinning from this briefing, it was time for lunch with his Ministerial colleagues and the Permanent Secretary. The Secretary of State was Maria Miller, someone that Iain had met a few times but didn’t really know that well. His contacts had told him that she had strong views on equalities but would a good Secretary of State. Also, in the Department was a clubbable Ed Vaizey – he was one of the out-riders for the Cameron project, so he had to be held close. Always smiling and joking, the Department almost seem build for him. Iain, was however, concerned that his nose had been put out of joint, given he had come in as a Minister of State, while Ed hadn't been promoted from the more junior parliamentary under secretary position.
Maria laid out what she thought were the key strategic objectives as the Permanent Secretary sagely nodded – Vaizey told Iain later that the Permanent Secretary had probably had that list prepared for Maria a week in advance. Now the hard work was to begin.
Iain did enjoy the wide-ranging brief, and the media was a natural banlieue for him to inhabit. The connection to sport also provided bright interludes although his private secretary had warned him that anything to do with his beloved West Ham was off limits; there was no chance to be any hob-nobbing in the Directors’ Box.
An opportunity for a departmental away-day came from the invitation from RFU to attend one of the Autumn Rugby internationals at Twickenham. England were playing New Zealand, who were clearly the best team in the world – even Iain knew that! As the ministerial team gradually arrived, the ubiquitous Matt Hancock (the other Minister of State in the department) entered the box, proudly displaying his England Rugby top. Iain could not help but turn to the Permanently Secretary and say ‘it’s all in the name with that one’; again the Permanent Secretary nodded sagely and smiled.
With a Champagne reception and a long lunch wine flowing lunch, the ministerial team were in high spirits, although being a tee-totaler, Iain was not quite at the same place. Sitting next to Maria Miller’s husband, also Iain, he could not help blurting out that he thought rugby was a game for latent homosexuals! At this point, the conversation at the table had lulled for a moment and no-one could have not heard this remark. Iain Miller burst out in bellow of laughter as Maria, sitting next to the RFU Chairman at the other end of table, scowled with a headmistressly look. Iain wasn’t sure if it was him or her husband that was going to receive the worse telling off!
After the Twickenham incident, Iain was determined to keep a low profile, and asked his private secretary to plan visits to the National Archives in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, which took him out of Maria’s way for a while. Soon the daily task of going his red boxes became a daily part of life and most evenings, and many weekends. One of the problems was that Iain’s attention would be taken by a particular subject or paper, and this would start a two hour trip down a rabbit hole and meant boxes were rarely completed before 1am.
One Saturday in early March 2013 proved to be the exception; the red boxes were all done by 11am so it was off for a long walk by the Thames to Windsor with the dogs. It was a beautiful early spring day, and now that he was more than six months into his new Ministerial role, Iain felt that he was really getting to grips with it.
They had just got back to the Binfield cottage, and Iain’s mobile phone went – it was the Department’s Permanent Secretary. It was never welcoming to have him phoning you, but on a Saturday afternoon immediately raised concerns in Iain’s mind. It had transpired that The Sunday Times was running a story about the Abdication of Edward VIII in 1936, which lead Iain to ask what that had to do with him in a humorous way. The Permanent Secretary was frosty in his response that Iain was responsible for the National Archives at Kew, and that as documents had been accessed from there, it was everything to do with him. Generally all Government records are released after 30 years, although there are exceptions for national security, and also all records relating to the Royal Family, which remain secure for 100 years. This is to ensure that there is no chance for those involved being still alive or indeed their descendants, however with the recent longevity of the Royal Family, this was under review.
It now transpired that a Professor from the University of Oxford, who had open republican tendencies, had been given a wrong level of clearance by the National Archive and could access all records involving the Abdication. This was bad enough but he had found records that outlined some of the sanctions that the British Government had floated for punishing Edward VIII including stripping him of his British citizenship, arresting him under treason charges, and even banishing him to British territory of Ascension Island. None of these proposals were ever given much consideration or became government policy, but the headlines would be highly embarrassing.
The Permanent Secretary said that he was in touch with the Palace and they were fully aware of the situation, as was the Prime Minister. Fearing the response, Iain asked the question that he could hardly get out: ‘Will I have to resign?’ After what seemed an infinite pause, the Permanent Secretary thought not; this had been a simple human error that had been not involved systematic failure in the department. Additionally No 10 were secretly happy at the headlines as it took away from the first serialisation of a biography called ‘Call Me Dave’ that Michael Ashcroft had written with Isabel Oakeshott on David Cameron. Some of the stories from his Oxford University days were a little embarrassing to say the least, so any deflection was welcomed.
One thing that had been made clear to Iain was that he would have to make a statement from the Despatch box on Monday afternoon. He realised that he had to clearly lay out all the facts, be accurate and answer as many questions as possible. His driver picked him up within the hour to take him back to the department, his civil service team waiting for him around the conference room table in the Ministerial suite. The facts were becoming clearer but Iain pushed his team to find out more.
After finishing close to midnight on Saturday, and working all of Sunday, Iain felt that he had mastered the brief. The splash on the front of The Sunday Times had creating some publicity but as many commentors had pointed out, this happened nearly 75 years ago and all the key players had been dead for decades.
The speech that Iain gave in the Commons was a masterclass – he laid out the timeline of events with clarity and openness, answered all questions for over an hour in a non-confrontational way, adding sparks of humour to a situation that was ‘cock up rather than conspiracy’ as the Father of House, Ken Clarke remarked.
Time seemed to move quickly and Iain was now completely in command of his brief, and felt sure that a promotion was assured in the next reshuffle. This feeling was rewarded in the April 2014 Reshuffle – Sajid Javid was moved from his position as Financial Secretary at the Treasury to become Secretary of State at DCMS after Maria Miller had to resign over expenses. In another signal that Iain was moving up the ladder, Cameron asked to see him at No 10 – often the sackings were done in the PM’s office in the House away from the cameras, and the job offers dished out in No 10, with the smiling walk up Downing Street to waiting press pack.
When he arrived, George Osborne, the Chancellor, was with Cameron, and both welcomed him warmly, confirming in Iain’s mind that he was not about to be sacked. The PM said that although the hard work for the 4 years of austerity was beginning to bloom, there was still a lot of hard work to be done.
After this preamble, he was asked to fill the role that Sajid had vacated and become the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. This position was often seen as a barometer of ministers destined for cabinet with many of the holders moving straight to cabinet afterwards. This was definitely a promotion as heartily endorsed by David Davis as he downed his whisky in the Strangers’ Bar later that evening.
The Fixed Term Parliament Act dictated that the next General Election was in May 2015, and soon Iain was back on the campaign trial. As someone with a very safe seat and a high public profile, Iain was expected to be out on the road campaigning in marginal seats. One of the key strategies outlined by Lynton Crosby, the campaign mastermind that the Tories had hired again, was to suffocate the Lib Dems in the South West. This area was a rich source of seats for them with 10 seats that made the long peninsula seem a strange combination of blue and yellow with only 2 red spots in Exeter and Plymouth. Crosby’s strategy was to win most if not all of Lib Dems back to blue.
In terms of locations, the South West in early spring was definitely a good end of the bargain. Most days there would be a rally with a cabinet minister with Iain acting as the warm up act, however in some cases, he was more the star of the show. On a cloudy Thursday evening, the Home Secretary Theresa May was coming down for a set piece to the party faithful in Honiton. Being in next door constituencies, Theresa and Iain knew each other well, however he always felt he never really knew her. Well that night, Iain's skills at wowing the crowd were put to the test in no uncertain terms; Theresa was never a great platform speaker but tonight was dire. Driving back to his hotel, he thought that woman would be a disaster if she were ever to become Prime Minister.
In contrast to the 2010 General Election campaign, Iain had spent much more time on the road so had a good feel for the mood in the country. Cameron was genuinely respected and seemed more prime ministerial than the leader of the opposition Ed Miliband. Therefore, it was not really a surprise when Cameron won with a small but workable majority in 2015.
On returning to London, Iain was however sad that some of his Liberal Democrat colleagues had lost their seats in a wipeout of the their party, which Iain had contributed to very successfully in the South West, which was now a long finger of blue pointing into the Atlantic. This was particularly the case for Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, with whom he had a great working relationship, and apart from Europe, they were on the same political page on many issues.
In keeping with Cameron’s preference to keep Ministers in place for long periods, Iain returned to the Treasury in the same position. This suited Iain as he even he felt that he wasn't yet worthy of a cabinet position, or was it that imposter syndrome back again?
Having received a majority, Cameron was now faced with fulfilling one of his more ambitious promises: renegotiating British’s position within the European Union and putting this to the British people in a referendum.
In early autumn 2015, this process of entering discussions with the EU began in anger, well certainly from the UK side. The mood in Brussels seemed to be that they were happy with the current treaty arrangement so why the need for discussion. After meetings in all the key capitals, which was really Paris and Berlin, the Treasury were asked to start work on developing papers around the key aspects of how immigration was distorting the UK economy. George Osborne had asked Iain to lead this work, which he relished and became quite obsessed with. As a non-economist, Iain always worked hard to prove his economics skills to his officials, given they all knew he had only achieved Grade E at A Level Economics. He did not want to repeat the mistake of Alan Johnson several years previously who said that he was buying an economic primer on his appointment as Shadow Chancellor.
His lack of formal economics training was forgotten when he accompanied George on a trip to Berlin. They were meeting George’s opposite number, the formidable Wolfgang Schäuble, who had been very supportive to George in his austerity drive in the UK and had become a bogey-man figure throughout the Eurozone countries for his treatment of the Club Med economies. Whilst presenting a paper on the effect of pay rates for the bottom quartile of the labour market given by George, Schäuble leaned over his deputy and raised a point with him in German. Being fluent in German as he had studied it at University, Iain understood what Schäuble was saying and respectively pointed out that Schäuble was not making an equivalent comparison in his observation to his colleague and this is what George meant – all in German. On the flight home, George repeated the story for the first of many times on a call with Cameron as he chuckled into his large Gin and Tonic.
As the negotiation process came to a conclusion and Cameron stood outside Downing Street on a chilling Saturday in February to announce the Referendum on 23rd June 2016, Iain realised that he would have to make his mind up how to campaign. He had always been sceptical about the EU, but never strongly enough to feel that leaving outright was the correct approach. Being immersed in the Treasury process, he understood that there were significant economic downsides to leaving the EU, although sometimes the Treasury did overplay these.
Then there was the political dimension; George was a strong believer of EU membership and if Iain openly campaigned to leave then his relationship with George would be damaged beyond all repair. On the horns of this dilemma, he met with his old friend and boss, David Davis. He was going to campaign to leave the EU with every sinew in his body but recognized Iain’s problem. David did not believe Leave would win the Referendum. However, he did let slip that he thought that Boris Johnson would campaign for Leave. Iain liked Boris but was concerned about having him leading the campaign – everything about Boris was disorganised, always late, never prepared but he knew how to develop a strong team as he had done during his eight years in City Hall.
At the same time, an interesting invitation came from Theresa May for him to come over to her house in Sonning for dinner. Theresa said that she shared many of Iain’s concerns about the EU and would desperately love to be free of some of the constraints in her role as Home Secretary, but on balance EU membership was preferable. Iain could not help but wonder if the senior cabinet ministers had all been given a list of waiverers, and he was being ticked off Theresa’s list.
Iain decided to be a subdued Remainer; he spoke at a couple of events being candid in thoughts and using the ‘on balance’ argument that Theresa had deployed. Generally the Association in Bracknell was supportive of his position. It was only in the last week of the campaign when he heard George Osborne talk about a punishment budget if the UK voted to leave did he begin to feel the ground was moving away from Remain.
On the results evening of the Referendum, there were no exit polls. Iain watched the coverage until just after midnight and suspected that Remainer were going to win this 54-46. Just as he reached over to switch off the television, the Newcastle result came in and there was clearly an earthquake about to happen. It was daybreak by the time the BBC and David Dimbleby declared it for Leave. Iain, shattered by the combination of no sleep and the result that would shake the Government to the core, knew that Cameron sadly had to go. He could not help but shed a silent tear as David and Samantha Cameron stood in Downing Street on a beautiful June morning, sunlight already dappling through the lime tree leaves, to confirm that Dave was leaving.
By this time, he was already in the Treasury, as the Governor of the Bank of England and George were making statements to shore up the markets. If Iain thought Cameron looked shell shocked, George was magnitudes worse – the look of a man who realised that his political career was over.
The leadership campaign felt like private grief for the Conservative Party at first, full of recriminations and revenge. Iain was unsure of who to align with: Boris was interesting but was not a man of detail when the next two years would require intense focus; Theresa’s performance that night in Honiton in 2015 haunted him. The other candidates that were Liam Fox, Andrea Leadsom and Michael Gove. Andrea was very different from her public profile of a Thatcherite right winger, and Michael had the intellectual vim with the reforming vigour – but Iain felt that neither could win. And Liam Fox had failed to realise that his time had come and gone. And Stephen Crabb, well, bless...
Again adopting a low profile for official support, Iain threw his weight behind Andrea, voting for her in the two ballots when it was clear that she would face a galloping front runner in Theresa May. However, Andrea knew where the G Spot of the Tory membership was, as Iain rather loosely said to Rachel Sylvester who was writing an article for The Times that weekend. This was the article that sank Andrea as she claimed that she was a better politician because she was a mother.
The following Monday, Andrea withdrew and Theresa had her coronation, 48 hours later arriving back at No 10 after kissing hands at the Palace. It was back to the ‘Yes Minister’ sketch again as Iain looked for diversions. George had been unceremoniously sacked as Chancellor and telling anyone who listen what he would like to do to the new First Lord of Treasury.
Then the call came asking Iain to come over to No 10 – many of the cabinet positions had been given out but not all. After being kept waiting for 30 minutes, he was guided into the PM’s study. Already the room felt very different even though the Camerons had only departed only three hours earlier. Theresa was very business-like but still relaxed for her, and asked Iain if he was be her Secretary of State of Transport. If Iain was ever asked which cabinet position, he would have wanted, it was this one. Ever since his time in 1980s working for the British Ports Federation and then working on road, rail and aviation issues, this was a burning desire, much to the amusement of all his colleagues.
There was a sting in the tail – Theresa said that before he accepted, there was something she had to tell him. She felt that Brexit was going to force the UK look outwards beyond Europe and be that Global Britain. One of the first steps to this was the approval and legalisation for the Third Runaway at Heathrow, and would Iain be happy to full accept this?
Both Iain and Theresa’s constituencies were close enough to Heathrow to have many well-paid voters that worked at the airport but were sufficiently far away to be unaffected by noise or congestion. This was not a vote loser for them. Iain cared for environmental policies but could see the economic necessities of the Heathrow Third Runaway project, and happily accepted the challenge that the Prime Minister had given him. Truth be told, he had always been a proponent of extra runway capacity and had been in favour of the Boris Island project.
On arrival at the Department in Horseferry Road not far from Parliament, this time Iain was clapped in by the awaiting staff. In his brief speech, he could sense that the civil servants were delighted to have someone who really wanted to be here rather than the continuous revolving door of the last 20 years.
After the briefest of honeymoons, Iain was ready to make a statement to the Commons on 8th September laying out the Government’s plans. He would publish a White Paper followed by a public consultation that would happen in the autumn, with the White Paper being published before Christmas with legalisation in the New Year. Theresa was keen to use this window during the Brexit talks to push through the legalisation before the EU legalisation came to the House. Following his statement, the scenes in the Commons turned quite ugly as Caroline Lucas, the only Green MP, picked up the Mace and accused Iain of committing a crime against the British people.
Following the statement, there was a legal challenge to the Government’s proposals – this had already been thrown out by the High Court so the only avenue left for a group lead by Greenpeace was the Supreme Court. The Department still went ahead with the public consultation and received over 100,000 submissions from the public and several petitions.
It was the week before Christmas when the Supreme Court finally published its ruling that the building of a Third Runway was indeed legal subject to Parliamentary approval. This was a huge hurdle for Iain to get over and certainly added to joviality at the DfT Christmas Party on the day that the Green Paper was published.
When the Commons returned in mid-January, Iain had to wait until after some legalisation on Modern Day Slavery was passed before introducing his Bill. This was an area that Theresa was very keen on so wait he must. Following another spurious legal challenge, the legalisation was finally brought before the House in early March. As expected there were a huge number of amendments and progress was slow with Chief Whip Gavin Williamson putting huge amounts of pressure to Tory backbenchers.
It was clear that the parliamentary hurdles would not be cleared by Easter when suddenly Iain was summoned to an emergency cabinet meeting. Theresa had decided to call a snap election, which she had said all alon that she would not do. This would mean the legalisation would have to start all over again if the Conservatives were returned to power.
The General Election campaign provided all the evidence that was needed to confirm Iain’s thoughts on Theresa on the drive from Honiton in 2010. Strong and stable became weak and wobbly, and when the exit polls announced the result, Iain knew that difficult times were ahead. After several days of uncertainty, Iain was relieved to be re-appointed as Secretary of State for Transport, and the work on the Heathrow Bill started afresh.
Gavin Williamson had previously told Iain that with a slim majority he was confident of getting legalisation through, but with no majority, it was going to be highly problematic. This was highlighted when the Second Reading only passed by 3 votes, and only achieved by strong closing speech by Iain to wind up the debate.
Passing by the Chief Whip's office, Williamson told Iain that he heard rumours of local MPs to Heathrow conspiring against the Bill. Iain already knew that several local MPs were unhappy and they had even discussed letting them abstain. However when he heard the Zac Goldsmith, MP for Richmond Park, had arranged a meeting that involved John McDonnell and the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, he was furious. Fortunately there was a cabinet meeting in the morning and Iain was determined to raise this. However, before he could, the new Foreign Secretary Tom Tugendhat – one of Theresa’s surprising and better appointments – raised it.
Philip Hammond was very defensive and played down the meeting, but Theresa was incandescent asking how a senior minister could possibly conspire against Government policy. This was not just a single meeting but a sustained campaign and had involved sharing of Government tactics on getting the Bill through both Houses. She asked him to see her after cabinet and although weakened by the failed election and stalling Brexit talks, she asked for his resignation. Hammond was fired.
In the heat of this situation, there had not been the usual opportunity to have the 3D chess board of ministerial positions and who to move where. There were several potential candidates – Sajid Javid, David Lidington, David Gauke – but none seemed right for the position of new chancellor.
Back at his department, Iain heard that the pieces were beginning to be moved, and this included the rumour that Chris Grayling was destined for Transport. He could not believe that Theresa would sack him after everything he had done for her but you never knew with her. After all, he hadn't backed her in the leadership election.
Iain pressed all of his contacts, including Williamson, who was very slow at coming back to him – a worrying sign. David Davis was in the dark as much as anyone and speculation mounted who could be the next Chancellor. Iain thought that Davis could himself be in with a shout. Unless someone was appointed soon, the markets would be sure to show the usual signs of nervousness.
On being summoned to May’s office in the House of Commons, Iain felt sick and this was heightened when his Permanent Secretary bade him a warm farewell as he left his office at te DfT.
If Iain felt bad then Theresa looked worse, Sterling was taking a hammering and the markets were sliding despite all Mark Carney’s interventions as Governor of the Bank of England.
Theresa said that this was all froth and would soon be calmed down, especially when a sound hand was at the tiller again. Iain tried to convince himself that would be the case but remained uncertain. Then Theresa looked over her glasses and slowly said ‘Especially when that sound hand is yours, Iain’…
Note 1: In 2009 we didn't actually own two homes. Our Norfolk house was bought in 2013!