This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph.
Back in the not-so-distant past, the job of Conservative Party Chairman was one that every single Conservative MP hankered after. In the Thatcher government it held the status in Cabinet of being almost on a par with the three great offices of state. Lord Thorneycroft, Cecil Parkinson, Norman Tebbit, Lord Young and Kenneth Baker – these were all big beasts of the political jungle.
They had two roles – first, to ensure the party machine was ready to fight an election, and secondly to act as a lightning rod for the Prime Minister on the media. The same role was performed by Chris Patten, Norman Fowler and Brian Mawhinney for John Major. Even under William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith, the same was true, with Cecil Parkinson (again), Michael Ancram, David Davis and Theresa May holding the fort.
Since Boris Johnson came to power, it’s seen by most observers as the least important job in Cabinet. The current holder of the office, Amanda Milling – MP for Cannock Chase, in case you’ve never heard of her – is the most anonymous party chairman in history. No one can quite work out what her role is. Like her predecessor, James Cleverly, she is largely cut out of party management issues, with her co-chairman – Boris’s chum Ben Elliot – deputed to cover that side of the job. Milling spends her time on the rubber chicken circuit, speaking to local associations, where she generally goes down well, but she largely avoids the media spotlight, which, given her lamentable weekend performances on the radio, is probably just as well.
Every Prime Minister has the perfect right to appoint a close political confidante as party chairman – Theresa May did this with Brandon Lewis, and David Cameron did it with Andrew Feldman. Feldman was not “front of house” and had two roles – to raise money and make sure the party could fight an election. Brandon Lewis was very much front and centre of the May government’s media operation, and barely a day went by without his dulcet tones gracing the nation’s airwaves, informing us that everything was going terribly well, thank you very much, and that Brexit meant Brexit.
Shouldn’t Amanda Milling be doing that right now? Shouldn’t she be everywhere, explaining the Government’s Covid response and approach to the Free Trade Deal negotiations? Generally, she’s nowhere to be seen, although on Friday she appeared on Radio 4’s Any Questions, spending an hour saying nothing at all. She refused to have an opinion on anything. She might as well not have been there.
CCHQ confirmed to me that in her eight months in the job not once has Milling ever appeared on the Today programme. I have never interviewed her on LBC, and, after this article, probably never will.
Milling might point to the fact that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and that it’s not appropriate for a party chairman to be “political’” She might also try to convince us that she’s so busy reorganising the party that there’s no time for media interviews. The trouble is, everyone knows that it’s Ben Elliot that has complete control of CCHQ, its funding and personnel. And anyone who thinks otherwise is deluding themselves.
There's still life in the literary festival
Over the last few months, we political pundits have all got used to using Zoom to take part in live events, whether they’re being hosted by think tanks, media organisations or political parties. To promote my book, I’ve had to be beamed into online literary festivals rather than appear in front of live audiences, who then hopefully buy the book. It’s a somewhat soulless experience.
I like to bounce off a live audience rather than stare into a camera and hope that I’m getting the tone right. However, some literary festivals have decided to adopt a policy of “bugger the pandemic” and lay on their usual literary fayre. Three weeks ago I took part in Britain’s first “Drive-in” literary festival in Appledore, in North Devon. I was interviewed in a field on a stage, with a massive video screen above it. 130 people watched, sitting in their cars, and honking their horns instead of applauding. Much to my surprise it worked brilliantly.
On Saturday I took part in the Cheltenham festival in person, in front of a socially distanced audience. It really can be done, and be enjoyable.
The future of party conferences
It’s a similar story for the political parties, who, over the last three weeks have been carrying out their party conferences online, to varying degrees of success. This week the Conservatives have had 20,000 people registered for their online conference – five times the normal level of uptake.
Many of the fringe meetings have had audiences of several thousand, compared to the hundred or so they would have got in Birmingham or Manchester. Yes, there were some teething problems, with people finding it impossible to log in on the first day, but overall it has proved to be a success, and while I doubt physical conferences will be abandoned, the parties have now learned that they have the ability to reach out beyond the core of geeks (like me, I hasten to add) who like to attend the conferences in person. Maybe they’ve seen the future. And it works.