Ladies and Gentlemen, this must be the first time Wantage Conservatives have had two Guardian columnists speaking at a dinner.
I’m not sure this trend should be encouraged any further.
I was delighted to receive your invitation to this Valentine’s Day dinner, although I wasn’t quite sure why it was me that had been picked out for this particular honour. I would have thought Steve Norris would have been far more appropriate. But you probably thought the ladies would have been safer with me…
But I’m delighted to come and help raise a bit of money to help Ed fight his campaign, although, you know, I’m not sure it’s in my interests that he is too successful. After all, the Guardian has tipped either him or me to be the next leader of the Conservative Party but one. So I feel I should let my more Machiavellian side take over this evening and tell you what a terrible person Ed is and how you really should have selected me when you had the chance.
Because yes, ladies and gentlemen, your selection committee in its wisdom didn’t even give me an interview.
Perhaps someone - possibly Ed – had tipped you the wink that I was not a very good speaker. My paranoia was reinforced when I read the letter your chairman sent me inviting me here tonight. It finished with the words “We are delighted to offer you the opportunity to practice your public speaking”!
It reminds me of the time when I was introduced to a meeting in North Norfolk with the words: “Ladies and Gentlemen Iain Dale is our next speaker and he has many debateable qualities”.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, I plan to show you tonight what you’ve missed out on! I don’t know what it is – possibly a guilt complex – but this is the third constituency which rejected me as its candidate to invite me to speak. The fact that I even accept the invitations says something, although I’m not sure what!
So tonight you may be seeing our very own version on Tony Blair’s and Gordon brown’s Deal they made at the famous Granita Restaurant. If you see Ed & in a corner, talking conspiratorially, you’ll know what we’re up to. I should let you into a secret that I have found out that Ed thinks I would emulate my friend David Davis and stand down in his favour for the sake of party unity. He may think that, I couldn’t possibly comment. Anyway, we’re both getting slightly ahead of ourselves. Getting elected first might help.
I thought I’d start by telling you what it’s like to be a prospective candidate on the circuit trying to find a seat. I’ve started comparatively late in life. I decided to go for it when I turned 40 on the basis that it was now or never.
The first seat I applied for was Chipping Barnet. I shall never forget the moment when having made my second round speech, and thinking it had gone quite well, the chairman said: “And now Mr Dale would you speak for 4 minutes on the conflicts between Labour’s Macroeconomic strategy and their micro fiscal policy.” I think I managed 3 and a half minutes.
But you are asked some very odd questions. In Beverley I was asked “If you were reincarnated who or what would you come back as?” Quick as a flash I answered My Jack Russell Gio. I got through to the next round. Sadly the candidate who answered he would come back as Kylie Minogue’s bicycle saddle didn’t make it.
At least he didn’t have the question asked of a female friend of mine. A matronly voice boomed out: “Mrs Rix, what will your husband do for sex while you are at Westminster?” To her credit she fired back: “Madam, shouldn’t you be more worried about what I will do for sex while he’s at home?” Strangely she wasn’t selected.
And again in Beverley someone asked “Do you think the relationship between a candidate and an Association should be like that between a dog and a tree?” I said it depended on who was the dog, which rather lightened the atmosphere.
Indeed, Beverley turned out to be a very odd experience one way or another. On the way up to my first interview I felt rather drowsy at the wheel so I stopped on the M1 for a snooze. Having woken up I got out of the car to stretch my legs, took my jacket off and put it on the roof.
And, you guessed it, drove off, only realising 50 miles later what I had done. So when I got to Beverley I tried to find a suit shop. No luck. Eventually I found one which had a very nice suit but the legs were four inches too long. No problem, said the owner, there’s a lady on the market who can take them up now.
When I went for the interview I was the last one on out of 15. I could tell the interview panel needed waking up so when it came to questions I was asked how I would make myself known in the constituency. I said that Beverley market place was heaving on a Saturday morning and I knew this because…. They fell about laughing and it became the running joke. Driving licence
Where did you get the suit? Cost a bob or two
And on such vagiaries do candidates triumph.
I nearly came a cropper at the first round of interviews in North Norfolk on the issue of hunting. I had Ann Widdecombe as one of my referees so up came the first question: Mr Dale, I see you have an endorsement from Miss Widdecombe, do you share her views on hunting. Well I don’t, but I do often share a stage with her. Believe it or not I host a theatre show called A Night with Ann Widdecombe.
Basically I interview Ann for an hour about her life in politics and her career and then the audience ask questions. It’s hugely popular and people pay £15 a time to come and see her. But why is she so popular? It’s because she belongs to that small group of politicians of whom people say “I may not agree with her but at least she believes what she says”. We get lots of young people coming and lots of non Tories. Political theatre is replacing the political hustings.
I’ve known Ann for a few years now. I first met her at my bookshop, Politico’s, when we had made some badges saying Doris Karloff for Tory Leader. She found this hilarious and bought several dozen of them. Another Ann Widdecombe line in merchandise was a set of political knickers.
A nice black lacy pair with Something of the Night emblazoned across the front. The next time she came into the shop I presented her with a pair and to her credit roared with laughter. But she was just leaving the shop when I noticed she had left them on the counter. So I yelled after her “Ann, you’ve forgotten your knickers!” And there can’t be many men that have said that to Ann Widdecombe.
We've done about 30 of our theatre shows all around the country. Sometimes I drive, which it has to be said is not something Ann looks forward to. She's a very good backseat driver, if you get my drift. I remember one time, we had been to Porthcawl in South Wales and we'd had nothing to eat all day. After the show we stopped to get some petrol and stocked up on a bit of junk food - right in the middle of her diet.
I got onto the M4 and started opening the sandwich and packet of crisps and can of lilt. Ann nearly had a fit - OK I was driving with my knees but it was perfectly safe! "Do you not think you ought to have at least one hand on the steering wheel!" she screamed. So I got my own back. I made her listen to the Pet Shop Boys for the rest of the three hour journey back. She's never forgiven me.
I asked her one day if people reacted differently to her now she's gone blond. She said "people speak to me now, much m o r e s l o w w w w l l l y y y".
Perhaps my most memorable moment was when I was selected…
Fame Academy – getting the result.
And now I’m looking forward to getting my teeth stuck into the Liberals. In North Norfolk they have a wafer thin majority of 483. Their policies are as usual trying to be all things to all men. Peter Hain had it about right – there’s a first time for everything.
In an allusion to Mr Kennedy’s supposed drinking problem, he said: “In the shires the Liberals are to the right of us. In urban areas they are to the left of us. No one wonder they find it difficult to walk in a straight line”.
And my opponent, Norman Lamb, exemplifies this. He’s apparently in favour of hunting, yet his party’s policy is to ban it. He’s apparently against the euro, yet if the LibDems were in power their first move would be to abandon our currency. Typical LibDem – trying to be all things to all men.
A Conservative party worker who has worked his socks off for our party said to me recently: “I am fed up with being the political equivalent of an estate agent.”
It is people like him that we need to inspire and make them feel proud to be Conservatives again. Nationally it’s up to our leaders to show us the way to victory - but locally it is up to people like Ed and me to provide the leadership and vision which our party members both need and deserve.
We need to campaign every week on the streets, in the local community, in the local media and on the internet.
Local people want to know that the Conservative Party understands the issues which are important to them.
But we should also listen. Listening is what we Conservatives are always accused of not doing enough of.
We should listen to all those people who are concerned about the escalating cost of housing and how their kids are going to afford to stay in the area – to those who are worried about the performance of local hospitals and the funding of local schools.
We must listen to local farmers whose livelihoods have been decimated by this government. I know. My father’s one of them.
But nationally, our Party needs to send out a clear message - an unambiguous message and above all a united message - a message that can appeal to everyone in society, not just natural conservatives. The young, the old, the strong, the weak.
The message is that we are on their side. There must be no no-go areas for the Conservatives. Not nationally, not here.
But above all, we need national policies which show a clear difference to Labour.
I want a zero tolerance approach to violent crime.
I want to see us preach the virtues of low taxes.
I want to see real choice in education and health.
I want a parliament that is not a lapdog of the government.
I want to see politics cleansed of the parasites who have infected Downing Street in recent years.
I want to see a Britain which has the self respect and pride to say, yes, we’re the fourth largest economy in the world and under no circumstances will be give up our currency, our sovereignty and our history to become some fourth rate province in the Greater Belgian Empire.
But above all I want those thousands of people who deserted us in 1997 and 2001 to Come Home to the Conservatives. That ought to be a major campaign theme of ours nationally.
And when they do come home, we need to make people feel welcome and inspired by the crusade which we are about to launch. Our work in our local associations can only continue if we constantly revitalise our membership, as today’s new members are tomorrow’s councillors and association officers.
Margaret Thatcher inspired me to get involved in politics. In her day we used to win general elections almost at will. I remember that feeling. I remember being so proud to stand on people’s doorsteps knowing that what I was doing was helping her stay in Downing Street.
I want everyone in our Party to feel that same way about our Party now and its leaders. I want you to feel that the hard work you are putting in is all worth it. That the people, like Ed and myself, who you are campaigning for are not only worth electing but will do good for the constituency and the country.
Ladies and Gentlemen We live in a country where...
The trains run more slowly than they did 100 years ago...
Where farmers are paid to grow nothing while children starve...
Where the more taxpayers money is spent on the health service the longer waiting lists get - yet the Government won't reform it...
Where it's almost impossible to fail an exam, yet kids leave school without basic literary skills...
Where the national lottery believes it is Ok to give £750,000 to fund court cases against the Government by illegal asylum seekers...
Where transport planners think that you solve traffic congestion by making traffic lights stay on red for longer...
It’s for those reasons and many more that we Conservatives now have to go on the attack, and who better to lead the charge than Michael Howard. We mustn’t leave any stone unturned in our campaigning and we can’t be satisfied until we win.
Because that must be our aim. Not only to retain seats like Wantage, but to win marginals like North Norfolk and get rid of that sorry excuse for a Prime Minister that Tony Blair has become.
They used to say you could always tell when Harold Wilson was lieing because his lips moved.
In Tony Blair Harold Wilson had an excellent pupil. But the trouble is that Tony Blair’s idea of being economical with the truth has brought the whole political process into disrepute. Not only does the electorate distrust Tony Blair, they also increasingly distrust us all. I have a great fear that the turnout at the European elections will be under 25% and that the turnout at the General Election will be even lower than last time.
So the task facing Ed and me is to demonstrate that we can not only be trusted, but we will be honest, straightforward and diligent. To demonstrate that we and my Party can be entrusted with the greatest gift the electorate can bestow – that of being allowed to represent and govern the British people.
Isn’t it wonderful that the words “the next Conservative Government” no longer provoke howls of derision from the media and the voters? It is almost incredible that after only three months of Michael Howard’s leadership we have reached a point where people who haven’t considered voting Conservative for a decade are now doing so. In only three months our party has recruited 10,000 new members nationally, many of them in this constituency.
I was at a dinner a few months ago when the speaker said that we needed to get more celebrities backing the Conservatives - people like Johnny Wilkinson. I was sitting next to Norman Tebbit and he leaned over and whispered in my ear: “At least he knows how to kick balls”.
Of course we have to be a caring Party, of course we have to be a nice Party, but on occasion we have to be able to kick the Opposition where it hurts. Mainly because they deserve it. They’ve hoodwinked the British people into thinking they are a paler version of us. A sort of Conservative-lite Party.
To the floating voter Tony Blair looks like a Conservative, sounds like a Conservative and therefore he doesn’t frighten them in the way that Kinnock did. But people are beginning to see through the glossy veneer. They are beginning to recognise him and the vain, lieing, shallow, hubristic, unprincipled hypocrite that we know him to be.
And I really think he could be losing the plot. A few years ago I had the idea of writing a political novel with the plot featuring a Prime Minister who slowly but surely goes mad. I got the idea because I really felt Blair had it in him to do just that. But now I’ve got the proof. A journalist friend of mine recently went to interview Tony Blair about tuition fees.
They spoke for half an hour and Blair was passionate about the subject – full of his usual irritating mannerisms. Have you noticed that when he’s in trouble he keeps saying “And I say to you” or “Look, you know, It’s important”.
So he spoke about the need for students to contribute to higher education, about the universities need for more money and then suddenly he stopped. He looked left, looked right, then looked the journalist straight in the eye and said “Do you know, since I’ve been in power I’ve toppled four regimes throughout the world?” And then continued about tuition fees. I see the men in white coats approaching already.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we as a party are in the business of winning elections and gaining the respect of the electorate. And respect is what counts. Respect leads to belief. Belief leads to commitment. Commitment leads to enthusiasm and that is our aim…
To make people feel enthusiastic about voting Conservative.
Because if we can do that, not only will Ed win in Wantage, but far more importantly, so will I!