Last week I met Sarah Linney, a reporter with Kent on Sunday. This interview is the result. You can find it on their website HERE
At Portcullis House – a parliamentary building in Westminster just across the road from the House of Commons which bulges with the offices of MPs, civil servants and political advisors – I am about to meet Iain Dale.
A political commentator who appears regularly on national TV, a weekday radio presenter for talk station LBC, the owner of a publishing house and a former Tory prospective parliamentary candidate, he has become an influential voice at a fascinating moment in British politics.
His political blog has become essential reading to many and despite a somewhat rollercoaster career trying to make it into Westminister, he now has settled as an award-winning broadcaster, writer and publisher.
He lives in Pembury, near Tunbridge Wells. When he arrives, he’s tall, polite, articulate and talkative.
“I was going to be a German teacher,” the 52-year-old, who grew up in Essex and studied the language at the University of East Anglia, tells me.
“My parents are farmers, but I knew from the age of five I wasn’t cut out for farming.
“My life took a different course.”
That course began at the tender age of 11, when a young Iain, influenced by his grandmother, became interested in the 1974 general election.
“I remember writing a little manifesto and telling my parents why they should vote Labour. They told me to go back to bed,” he said.
A brief stint as a member of the Liberal Party was brought to a swift end by the influence of Margaret Thatcher.
“I heard her make a speech and I thought, I agree with all of that, and never looked back,” Mr Dale recalled.
“She inspired me to get involved properly in politics. She was an amazing leader, and a leader for that time – Britain needed a strong leader who was going to carry out some important surgery to the economy.
“She turned the economy round in a way that people now don’t seem to appreciate. She was the greatest prime minister this country has had since the war.”
In 2002, he would sit next to her during an event in London; “she was very good company” he recalled.
Mr Dale founded his university’s Conservative Association and worked as a research assistant to Tory MP for Norwich North, Patrick Thompson after graduation.
After spells working in financial journalism, public affairs and business – he founded a political bookstore and coffeehouse and a publishing company – he stood in the 2005 election in the marginal seat of North Norfolk.
Identified as one of the Tories’ top targets, he had the task of over turning a mere 483 Liberal Democrat majority. Instead, incumbent Norman Lamb demolished him, increasing his majority by more than 10,000.
“I had two ambitions in life,” Mr Dale reflects. “I wanted to be an MP or a radio presenter.
“But North Norfolk proved to be a big mistake as Norman Lamb was a good MP. A friend in the Lib Dems had warned me not to go for the seat.”
He went on to act as chief of staff to losing Tory leadership candidate David Davis in 2005, and the following year was added to the Conservatives’ ‘priority list’ of candidates to fight the next election.
But when he made a bid to stand for the seat in Maidstone and the Weald, vacated by Ann Widdecombe, he didn’t even get past the first interview stage. Helen Grant would eventually get the nod and win the seat.
In 2009, he attempted to be selected as the Tory candidate for Bracknell in the 2010 election but failed. Admitting candidly afterwards he thought the phrase ‘openly gay’ “appeared a little too often for my liking” in the local media.
Later that summer he announced on his popular political blog he would not seek to be a candidate for any future election.
Today, he admits he is not even a member of the Tory party.
But if the first of his ambitions had eluded him, within months he had achieved the second when he was hired as a presenter on London talk radio station LBC. Since then his media presence has grown, and is now a regular on Sky News too.
“The radio show gives me what politics used to give me. It’s exciting,” he said.
“You’ve no idea what’s going to happen. Incidents happen which you have no warning of, and that’s when you find out how good you are as a broadcaster.”
Dale had thought his show would focus on politics – but discovered a talent for and love of human interest stories and emotional topics instead. He was shortlisted in two categories in mental health charity Mind’s media awards in 2012.
“There are calls which stick in your mind. There was a man on the M25 who was on the phone for 20 minutes – he said he was going to kill himself that night,” Mr Dale recalled.
“He was very matter of fact about it. I asked him to stay on the line and talk to the producer. The next day he phoned back and said he had tried to kill himself, but had thought about what the producer and I had said to him and called an ambulance.
“The secret is not to judge, to let people tell their story and empathise with the situation they found themselves in. You are not a counsellor.”
As he tells me another tale – that of a caller in her 50s who said she had once been raped at a family wedding by a family member – he has tears in his eyes.
“She said she had never told anyone, and now she felt a weight had been lifted off her shoulders,” he said.
“The next day she phoned back and said she had told her husband. He had completely understood. She said: ‘I feel as if I can see the sky again.’
“Calls like that mean far more than interviewing the prime minister.”
His interest in politics remains undimmed, however.
His blog, Iain Dale’s Diary, is one of the most read political blogs in the country; his publishing company, Biteback, published Nigel Farage’s autobiography Flying Free and is publishing his forthcoming work The Purple Revolution; and he regularly appears on news and current affairs programmes to talk about politics.
He’s happy in his private life too.
Mr Dale moved to Tunbridge Wells in 1997 to live with his partner John. After 13 years together, they had a civil partnership ceremony at Wadhurst Castle in June 2008, a day he describes as “perfect”.
So what are his predictions for Kent at the general election? Rather tame, as it turns out – apart from Nigel Farage winning Thanet, and Rochester and Strood going back to the Tories (after Mark Reckless switched to Ukip mid-term), he thinks nothing will change.
“I don’t see Labour winning anything – they would only win the north Kent seats if they won a massive majority,” he said.
“I assume South Thanet will be a straight fight between the Tories and Ukip, and I think Farage will squeak a win, but it’s going to be very close.
“I think Farage has a very difficult election there, as he’s not going to be able to spend as much time there as he needs to. And people in Thanet may not want someone who’s going to be in the national spotlight – a party leader can only devote so much time to the constituency.
“But the devil in me wants him to win as I think he will make politics a lot more interesting.”
He is more confident in his prediction that Kent’s first Ukip MP, Mark Reckless, will not retain his seat.
“His majority at the by-election was not as large as people thought it would be,” Mr Dale said.
“A lot will depend on what happens to the Labour vote. The Ukip win was in large part because a lot of Labour voters voted for Reckless. If they go back to Labour, which they may do at a general election, he’s in trouble.”
Across the country, he predicts that Labour will win about 300 seats, Tories 280, and Liberal Democrats 24 … resulting in major instability.
“The likelihood is that there will be another hung parliament, and it will be for Ed Miliband to try to form a coalition with the SNP or the Lib Dems,” Mr Dale said.
“But I don’t think the SNP are going to get as many seats as everyone says. I think the Greens are going to struggle to keep the seat they have, and Ukip will get five or six seats.
“It is going to be messy; it could take some time to work out what’s going to happen.
“I think there could be a second election within six months.”
He believes it is important for politics that Ukip and the Greens do well.
“It sends a signal to the other parties that they need to change the way they do things,” he said.
And does he wish he was standing for election again himself?
“I would have loved to have been an MP and I think I would have been quite good,” he said.
“But I would also have been a nightmare – I think I would have run the risk of being the male equivalent of [out-spoken Tory MP] Nadine Dorries. I wouldn’t have toed the party line, and I wouldn’t have become a minister because I would have broken ranks too often.
“Most MPs I know who got in at the last election hate it. It’s not the job they expected; they are taken no notice of and treated like rubbish.
“I think politicians are unfairly traduced. I’d say around 95 per cent are in it for the right reasons and want to do a good job.
“But I’ve got a brilliant job which I love; I wouldn’t think of going back.”