I thought about how to mark International Women's Day on this blog. I could have done something worthy about women in politics or lack of women on the radio, but in the end I've decided to do something personal and pay a bit of a tribute to some of the women in my life who've inspired me and influenced me, albeit in different ways. So, in no particular order...
My Grandmother - Constance Henrietta Dale
My grandmother, Constance Dale, would be 124 now if she hadn’t died in 1979 when I was 17. She was a huge influence on my life and I always think of her on her birthday. She sparked my interest in politics in my early teens. She was a rather regal figure and was known to some as the Queen Mother. She was born in 1894 and was a bit of a feminist. Had she been a teenager today she would have undoubtedly gone to university and had a glittering career. In her younger days she worked for the Post Office and then in 1922 she went to work at Wembley Stadium for a short time. She then married my grandfather, a much older man, who hailed from Ayrshire in Scotland and came down to East Anglia in the early 1920s having grown fed up of life working in the Consett steelworks. She lived with us throughout my childhood and was a massive influence on me. She persuaded me I should learn German at school on the basis that I might never know what it would lead to. She also largely inspired my interest in politics.
My Mother - Jane Elizabeth Dale
My mother was born Jane Elizabeth Orbell in 1931. She was the most gentle, kind person ever to walk this earth. I had the most wonderful relationship with her and when she died in June 2012 part of me died with her. Life has never been the same. Every day I wish upon wish that she was still here. She was the most unselfish person I have ever met. Whenever I know I'm being selfish or do something bad, the first thought that enters my mind is to ask myself what Mum would think of my behaviour. She provided unstinting support for everything I have ever done, but never pressurised me. It must have broken my parents' hearts when they realised I wouldn't go into farming, but they never tried to put any pressure on me to do anything other than follow my dreams. Perhaps because I know I had disappointed them in that way I always went out of my way to make them feel proud of me in whatever job I was in. When I started doing radio and TV I'd always ring up my mother and she would unfailingly tell me I was brilliant, even when we both knew I hadn't been. Shortly after she died, I remember going on Sky News and as soon as I got in the car home, I immediately went to phone her. I burst into tears when the awful truth dawned on me. I would give years off my life if I could spend one more day with her.
Jo Phillips & Louise Birt
I can honestly say that without Jo Phillips and Louise Birt, I wouldn't be doing what I do on LBC today. I first met Jo at Politico's, where she'd come to booklaunches. At the time she was producing Radio 5 Live's Sunday Service show. I was a massive fan of the show which was presented by Fi Glover, Charlie Whelan and Andrew Pierce. It was a mix of political interviews and political fun and satire. I was an avid listener. One day Jo came into the shop and asked if I fancied deputising for Andrew Pierce the following Sunday. I leapt at the chance. It may have taken me another ten years to secure my own show but Jo set me on that road and always encouraged me. And still does.
Louise Birt joined LBC from the BBC about a year after I joined LBC. I was still fairly raw and still had a massive sense of 'imposter syndrome'. I still have, for that matter! Louise went way beyond the call of duty in making me a much better presenter. She helped me develop my voice, which could be too monotone and sleep inducing. She showed me how to add pace to my delivery, and would shout down the gallery microphone just as I was about to introduce the show: "BIG BOLLOCKS!!!!" She was a huge motivator and I think we made my then Sunday morning show a real appointment to listen. It was at least in part to her influence that I was then offered the Drivetime show in March 2013. I suspect presenter or producer who has ever worked with Louise will echo my view, that she is a one woman juggernaut of inspiration.
Audrey Barker, Phyllis Reeve & Deborah Slattery
These three remarkable women were all Conservative Party agents in Norwich.
For those of a younger generation, in the 1980s many constituencies had a party agent. Safe constituencies invariably always did. They could afford them. In marginal seats like Norwich North and Norwich South money was always tight and it was rarer. But in the two Norwich constituencies - both of which had turned Conservative in 1983 - there were two redoubtable agents - Phyllis Reeve in Norwich South and Audrey in Norwich North. Phyllis was a dreadnought of an agent - chainsmoking, didn’t suffer fools (or politicians) gladly but with great political acumen. Audrey was similar, but didn’t smoke.
Being an agent was being part of a profession. Agents had to undergo rigorous training and they were a breed apart. They were all fairly contemptuous of the politicians they served, regarding political candidates as “a legal necessity”. There could be spectacular fallings out between candidate and agent, as I was later to discover in my North Norfolk campaign in 2005.
Both Audrey and Phyllis were prone to tell people exactly what they thought of them in no uncertain terms. They were of the view that there could only be one boss in a candidate-agent relationship and it certainly wasn’t the candidate. I can’t recall any big row between Audrey and Patrick, but I that wasn’t for the want of her gunning for one from time to time.
Norwich North was a marginal seat. Patrick had beaten David Ennals, the former Health Secretary in 1983, the campaign which gave me my political blooding. I took over the organisation of the campaign in the roughest and most anti Conservative ward in the constituency, the Mile Cross Estate. It was 95% council housing, with some tower blocks thrown in for good measure. We leafleted every single house four times and canvassed each house and I had a full ‘Get out the Vote’ operation on polling day. This had never been done before, but with Right to Buy, there were vote to be had in areas like that. When the Mile Cross ballot boxes were opened we couldn’t believe how many Tory votes poured out of them.
For that election Phyllis Reeve had been the agent for both seats, but each seat had a separate Tory association. Norwich North was an oddity in that half the voters were in wards within the City boundaries, while the other half came from the Broadland District Council area. After the election they decided to continue separately. I always thought it was ridiculous not to have a single Norwich Conservative Association. Even now, thirty years on, it’s the same to all intents and purposes.
Campaigning in the mid 1980s was very different. Audrey was old school agent. Organise hustings, candidate speaker meetings, write an election address and a couple of other leaflets, organise the candidate’s itinerary, canvassing teams and job done. On polling day organise ‘tellers’ (the people who ask for your polling number outside the polling station) and make sure the NCRs (No Carbon Required) were printed properly so we could tick off all the supporters who had turned out and then ‘knock up’ those who hadn’t later in the day. She taught me so much, often without realising it.
Just before the 1987 election I recruited Deborah Slattery and her husband Mike to the party in Norwich North and very quickly they became very committed and hard working activists. The 1987 election campaign was an absolute ball, and they played a huge part in it. Deborah obviously loved to see the work Audrey was doing as the party agent and decided to train as an agent herself, and when Audrey retired, Deborah replaced her. Their friendship lasted until Audrey died last year, and we all met up the year before for Audrey's 90th birthday. The local party treated Deborah appallingly and resented paying a salary to someone who had been a volunteer, and they made her life hell. Deborah ended up moving to the Norfolk Deaf Association where she massively raised their profile and fundraising power. Deborah has had many challenges in her life, not least losing her daughter, Georgina, to a brain tumour at the age of six. She's been a fantastic friend to me and is one of the few people that dares always to tell me the truth about what she thinks of my various antics. She and Mike now live in Spain but we stay in close touch and we've been out to visit them three times now.
Tracey & Sheena
Tracey and Sheena are my two sisters. They don't like it when I write about them usually, so I am going to keep this brief. Each of us has taken a very different path in our lives but the thing that unites us is our absolute devotion to the memory of our parents and the time we enjoyed with them. We've all gone through challenges in our lives and hopefully have provided support to each other when we've needed it. Between them they have three inspirational and talented daughters, to whom they are absolutely devoted. All five of them have given me different kinds of inspiration over the years, even though they probably don't know it.
I'm tempted to say 'no explanation necessary', but let me try. Looking back, although I didn't know it at the time, I became a Thatcherite in 1971. Margaret Thatcher became an instant heroine, when she abolished free school milk in primary schools. I hated the stuff. My first real memory of her came in February 1975 was when I rushed upstairs to tell my grandmother she had just been elected leader of the Conservative Party. She will ill in bed and burst into tears. She never thought she'd live to see the day a woman could lead a British political party. In October 1978 I remember watching her speech to the Tory party conference and thinking to myself that I agreed with everything she said. That was it. I never looked back. Her vision of a country free of the industrial strife that had bedevilled the nation for the best part of a decade was one I completely bought into. And still do.
My first tentative footstep into the political arena was to set up a Conservative organization in 1982 at the very left-wing University of East Anglia. Only a few months later followed my first encounter with Margaret Thatcher when she invited the chairmen of the various University Conservative Associations to a reception at Number Ten.
For a country boy like me, it was unbelievable to have been invited and it was something I had been looking forward to for months. Just to climb those stairs, with the portraits of all past Prime Ministers on the walls was worth the trip on its own. And there at the top of the stairs was the Prime Minister. She had obviously perfected the art of welcoming people to receptions and as she shook you by the hand and wished you a good evening, she moved you on into the room without you even knowing she was doing it. Most of the Cabinet were there – I remember discussing with Cecil Parkinson the number of free running shoes he had been sent after a recent profile had announced to the world that he was a keen runner. He offered me a pair but it turned out his feet were much smaller than mine! We were constantly plied with wine and I made a mental note to stop at two glasses. But after the second glass was emptied I felt rather self-conscious without a glass in my hand so grabbed another. Just as the Prime Minister walked by I took a sip. All I remember is my stomach heaving and me thinking that I was about to throw up at the Prime Minister’s feet, thus ending a glorious political career which had hardly got off the ground. Luckily I managed to control my stomach and all was well. It turned out that it was whisky in the glass, rather than white wine.
The last time I spoke to Lady Thatcher was in January 2009 when I went to the Carlton Club for a drinks party hosted by Liam Fox. I was delighted to see Lady Thatcher arrive and looking absolutely fantastic. For a woman of eighty-three and supposedly in frail health, she looked absolutely stunning. I had a couple of minutes talking to her and told her it was twenty-six years to the day that I first met her at a reception for Conservative students at 10 Downing Street. ‘I think I remember that,’ she said. ‘It was so nice to see so many young people in the building. That didn’t happen very often.’ We talked a little about newspapers and she said: ‘I never read them. I had Bernard to do it for me.’ Everyone needs a Bernard…
As I left the Carlton Club, a thought struck me. If Lady T were in her heyday and had to take over as Prime Minister now, what would she do? If I had asked her, I know exactly what her reply would have been. ‘Restore sound money, dear,’ she would have said. And you know what? She’d have been dead right. And she still would be.
To conclude, I still find it remarkable how many people still feel it appropriate to deny Margaret Thatcher's place in feminist history. She shattered the glass ceiling. The Labour Party has still not had a female leader, and it's 44 years ago since the Tories elected their first. This brings back a memory from 1988, when my cousin Nicola’s daughter Emma – then an infant – asked her mother: ‘Mummy, can a man be Prime Minister?’ She soon found out that the answer was no …