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Westlake Legal Group > Friday Diary

Iain Dale: Don’t mention the war, please. Why Johnson was wrong to suggest Hammond and company are collaborators.

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio, and is the author of the forthcoming book ‘Why can’t we all just get along’.

Last week at the Edinburgh Festival, John McDonnell told me that Labour would insist on Jeremy Corbyn leading any interim government of national unity, following any successful vote of no confidence in Boris Johnson’s administration.

I told him that this idea was delusional, since the Labour leader wouldn’t be able to command a majority in Parliament in such circumstance.  Yesterday, Corbyn confirmed that this is exactly his intention.  But since there are plenty even of his own MPs who don’t have confidence in him, one wonders how he thinks he could persuade those of other parties to row in behind him.

Jo Swinson has made it clear she wouldn’t. Anna Soubry is p**sed off that she wasn’t even cc’d on his letter. I have never thought a national unity government is a runner, and I think it’s even less likely now. Jeremy Corbyn really believes that defeating No Deal is the be all and end all, he wouldn’t be taking such an uncompromising stance. I wonder if his public aversion to it is as deep as he is making out.

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Corbyn says that he will call a Vote of Confidence when he thinks he can win it. Well, obviously.  But his rhetoric at the moment leads me to believe that he’s in danger of boxing himself in. The more he talks about it, the more pressure there will be on him to deliver it. And if he doesn’t, he’ll be painted as ‘frit’.

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The defection of Sarah Wollaston to the Liberal Democrats was among the least surprising news of the week. She will surely not be the last of the original Independent Group of MPs to travel that particular journey. I’d have thought there will be at least a couple more before their conference takes place.

And then, of course, there could well be one or two defections directly from the Conservative benches. Guto Bebb and Phillip Lee are the candidates most often mentioned. Both seem to be going through a bit of public agonising. I suspect if either of them, or indeed anyone else does the dirty deed, it will be at a moment of maximum impact. August is probably not that time.

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The Prime Minister was unwise to use the word ‘collaboration’ on his Facebook Live session earlier this week. He was rightly complaining that the actions and words of some Conservative MPs – and he clearly had Philip Hammond in mind – were persuading the EU to stick by its guns while they wait and see what havoc Parliament can wreak when it returns in early September.

His sentiment was right – but you can’t go throwing around words which have World War Two connotations and effectively accuse some of your Parliamentary colleagues of being quislings (another word with the same suggestion).

To so so debases the debate. I don’t know if it was a deliberate use of the word, or whether it just slipped out. If the latter, fine; but if it was a deliberate attempt to feed into the ‘People v Parliament’ narrative, well, there are better ways of doing it.

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On Monday, I returned from my two weeks appearing on the Edinburgh Fringe. In 24 shows, I interviewed Sir Nicholas Soames, Brandon Lewis and Eric Pickles (together), and Johnny Mercer, among many others. We’re releasing all the interviews on a new podcast, Iain Dale All Talk, which you can now subscribe to on whichever platform you get your podcasts from.

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Today is the first day of my first and only holiday of the year. It will last ten days and I intend to spend it in Norfolk doing precisely nothing. Apart from play golf. And binge-watch box sets. And write next week’s ConHome Diary, of course.

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Iain Dale: Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Cummings?

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio, and is the author of the forthcoming book ‘Why can’t we all just get along’.

Margaret Thatcher once famously said that “every Prime Minister needs a Willie”. She was right – but every Prime Minister also needs a lighting rod, someone who is able to soak up much of the criticism that would ordinarily be directed at the Prime Minister himself.

Margaret Thatcher had Norman Tebbit, Major had Chris Patten, Tony Blair had Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, Gordon Brown had Damian McBride (until it all went wrong) and David Cameron had Andy Coulson and Steve Hilton.

Theresa May didn’t really have anyone. I suppose Damian Green fulfilled that role for a time but, after he left, there was no one. Gavin Barwell and Robbie Gibb were often targets of criticism, but not in the same way as the others I have mentioned. Their roles were very different.

Dominic Cummings is clearly taking on the former mantle for Boris Johnson. He’s the bete noire of lefties everywhere and the media is really building him up into a voodoo doll figure for people to stick their pins in. I don’t know Cummings, although I’ve been aware of him ever since David Davis intervened to try to prevent Iain Duncan Smith sacking him from his Conservative Central Office role back in 2003.

I don’t think we’ve ever met, although I did make a vain attempt to try to persuade him to write a book after the referendum. Instead, he wrote several massively long and entertaining blog articles about the experience.

There’s no doubt that he engenders huge loyalty from people who work for him. He’s one of those unpredictable, quixotic characters who the media love to write lengthy profiles about without ever really getting to the core of who he is and what he’s about. He’s a bit like the royal family used to be, in that he is brilliant at cultivating an aura of mystique, though in this case with a slight whiff of menace.

He has a great strength which few have commented on so far. Mandelson and Campbell always wanted to be feared and respected in equal measure. Neither could understand why some people, especially on their own side, intensely disliked them. Cummings couldn’t give a toss. He couldn’t care less whether he’s liked, feared or respected. He’s got a job to do and will get on with it – and sod the consequences if anyone’s nose is put out of joint.

Cummings is a brilliant strategist, but he’ll need to be at the top of his game over the next three months. Labour will move heaven and earth to oust him. There are plenty of Tories who loathe and despise him, and who will happily feed any destructive morsels to an eagerly receptive press.

He is worldly-wise enough to know they’re coming for him. I hope Johnson is able to resist any pressures to get rid, of him, because his track record of standing by advisers in a bit of media trouble is not, shall we say, exemplary.

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I’ve spent this week hosting shows at the Edinburgh Festival. One or two of my interlocutors have been busy ‘committing news’, as Ruth Davidson puts it.

My interview with Nicola Sturgeon got a lot of headlines because she was out of her normal zone and came across as a warm, entertaining human being, capable of laughing at herself. People hadn’t seen that side to her before, I think think.

With John McDonnell it was somewhat different. For someone with very hard left views, he is very skilled at coming across as the voice of sweet reason in interviews. This time, the mask slipped somewhat in his threats to imprison Conservative MPs for supporting austerity. “Under what law would you do that?” I asked. “I’ll have to invent one,” he said. I assumed he was joking, but the look on his face gave some people a different impression.

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It’s been ten days since I saw anything on television. The student accommodation I’m staying I doesn’t have one. OK, I’ve got my laptop but, generally, I’m completely out of touch with what’s going on in the world.

In other words, I’m probably in line with the majority of the country which generally gets on with their lives without worrying too much about what’s going on in the world of politics and current affairs.

I didn’t even know about the Whaley Bridge reservoir issue until two days after it had happened. Same with the El Paso and Dayton shootings. It’s amazing how quickly I’ve weaned myself off watching Sky News, or at least having it on in the background. There’s a lesson there somewhere. Sorry, Kay.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Iain Dale: There are good ministers left behind by the Government’s drastic shuffle

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio, and is the author of the forthcoming book ‘Why can’t we all just get along’.

The reshuffle is finally complete. Looking through the final line-up of ministers in each department it’s clear that this really wasn’t just a reshuffle, it was a clearing of the decks. The number of non-Boris supporters left in government is minimal, although the balance of Remainers versus Leavers is still uncomfortable for some. Some of the decisions, though, are quite baffling.

Why on earth would anyone think it a good idea to move Robin Walker from the Brexit department to be a minister in both the Scottish and Northern Irish offices? Why wasn’t keen Boris supporter and superb media performer Nadhim Zahawi promoted to Minister of State? He goes out to bat in the media where angels fear to tread, and whenever I see him I greet him by saying: “Ah, it’s the Minister for Sticky Wickets.” There are plenty more strange appointments and injustices I could mention.

Looking through all the different departments, I’d say the strongest ministerial line-ups are at Business, Education and the Home Office. There is strength in depth in all three departments.

There are a few names in the ministerial list, where you look at them and scratch your head in bewilderment. I’ll spare their blushes here…

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Two junior appointments caught the eye and, in a way, they reflect what I said about the Prime Minister recently – that he’ll be a shit or bust prime minister – either brilliant or utterly useless. The appointment of Zac Goldsmith as an Environment Minister and Nadine Dorries to the Department of Health will, in retrospect, be seen as inspired or whatever the opposite of inspired is. Both have the ability to really shine, but many will suspect they won’t have the self-discipline to curb their natural rebellious natures. We’ll soon see. Nadine has mental health under her policy remit. She has the personality to really make a difference here. I remember another junior minister hailing from Liverpool who was sent to the Department of Health in the late 1980s. We all remember what happened to Edwina Currie, but we forget the fact that until her resignation she had been doing a brilliant job in promoting public health.

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Some of the stories I have heard about the way the government was formed are hair-raising indeed. There were stand-up rows in Number Ten with ministers who had assumed they were going to be promoted to a higher rank than they were offered. Flounces were had. Tanties were experienced. I could name names, but apart from satisfying readers’ prurience I’m not sure what purpose it would serve.

One of the interesting things about this government will be to see how CCHQ operates. As I understand it, the new co-chairman Ben Elliott is in control of things day to day and is effectively the replacement for Sir Mick Davies, who departed last week as chief executive. James Cleverly will take on a much more front-facing role and become the Minister for the Today Programme. In some ways this is the more traditional role for the chairman. Going back to the 1980s and 1990s the chairman would effectively be the lightning rod for the Prime Minister. Being a co-chairman, though, is never quite the same as being Chairman on your own. I understand James wasn’t consulted about having a co-chairman and I do wonder how this relationship will pan out.

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I’m writing this in my rather inglorious student digs in Edinburgh, where I’m spending the next ten days hosting my ‘Iain Dale – All Talk’ show at the Fringe. Yesterday was the first day of previews and I hosted two shows featuring three ex Conservative Party Chairmen: Sayeeda Warsi, followed by Eric Pickles and Brandon Lewis. If James Cleverly is reading this, he now knows what lies in store for him! Both shows went well, with, I think, the right mix of light and shade. It was just a relief to get the first day done with. This evening I’ve got new Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer and Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey. It’ll be interesting to see how on message Johnny Mercer can stay. I do hope ministerial office doesn’t ruin his natural enthusiasm and sense of mischief. As regards Len McCluskey, one thing I do want to know is this. A friend of mine was in his office recently and noticed he has two chess sets on display. One I can understand, but two? It’s a bit like Boris writing two articles on Brexit before deciding which way to jump. Sort of.

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As you read this, I might face an enormous logistical challenge. If the Liberal Democrats have won the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election, their new leader Jo Swinson will naturally want to visit to reflect in the glory. However, she’s due to be with me in Edinburgh at 6pm. I do hope the Lib Dem ops team are on form, otherwise I’ll be having a conversation with myself.

If you’re in Edinburgh between now and 11 August do pop along to see my show. The full guest line-up can be found here.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Iain Dale: This Cabinet is the most right-of-centre in modern times. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and is a commentator for CNN.

A reshuffle in which Penny Mordaunt is sacked and Priti Patel is given one of the top three jobs was always going to provoke negative comment. Patel has many talents.  But for her to re-enter the cabinet into one of the great offices of state after such a short time is eyebrow-raising to say the least.

It used to be the case that anyone who resigned ministerial office, or was sacked from it due to an impropriety would be expected to face the voters before being reincarnated into ministerial office. That was certainly the convention operated by previous Conservative Prime Ministers.

Having said that, it is truly a sign of the times when two British Asians now occupy two of the three great offices of state. There are now four British Asians in the cabinet now and two black/mixed race members. Ethnic minorities comprise around 13 per cent of the UK populations, but 18 per cent of the ministers sitting around the cabinet table. That’s real progress.

Rather more disappointingly, there are only six female members of the cabinet, yet women comprise 51 per cent of the population. Work to do.

This is without doubt the most right-of-centre Cabinet in modern times – and for the avoidance of doubt, I see nothing wrong with that at all. It is a cabinet designed with one aim in mind – to get us out of the EU by October 31.

But the view that this is a total Leave Cabinet is for the birds. By my reckoning, 13 of the people sitting around the cabinet table voted Leave and 20 voted Remain. Clearly many of those have pivoted towards Leave since, and have all had to sign up to the possibility of leaving with no deal if necessary. And quite right too.

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As you read this, there are only 97 days until October 31. Few people can see the pathway to leaving the EU without a deal. There are a few signs that Dublin is experiencing a squeaky bum, and may be willing to urge their EU colleagues to shift their position on the Backstop, albeit only marginally.

If we do leave with a deal, surely it would have to be alongside a slightly tweaked version of the Withdrawal Agreement. The question is: would a few tweaks be enough to get it through the Commons?

It seems difficult to imagine any document which would attract the support of both the Gaukeward Squad and the ERG. It may well be that this has been factored in by Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings. They will go through the motions – but that’s about it.

If the EU refuses to negotiate, they’re not going to lose too much sleep. Any such refusal will be seen by the public as typically unreasonable, and if it leads to us leaving under No Deal, the EU will be blamed, rather than the new Government.

One factor few are considering is that the EU 27 may become so enraged by what they will see as Johnson’s unreasonable stance that they themselves may decide that offering to extend Article 50 beyond October 31 is one step too far. It’s entirely possible that Emmanuel Macron may well decide to veto an extension, as he apparently nearly did in April.

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Tim Shipman must be licking his lips. He has become the country’s official chronicler of the whole Brexit process. His first two books have been best-selling corkers. I can hardly wait to read his account of the events of the last few days.

Forming a Cabinet is one of the trickiest things that a new Prime Minister has to get to grips with. Predicting who will be in or out of a new cabinet is one of the exercises that political journalists and commentators try to carry out – with mixed success.

Strangely they (we) are rarely held to account for our predictions, despite them being available for all to go back to. For myself, I predicted 18 of the May Cabinet would be out – I got it wrong by one. There were 17. I was the first to predict (in my Sunday Telegraph column) that Priti Patel would become Home Secretary and that Grant Shapps would become Transport Secretary.

I also reckoned that Jacob Rees-Mogg would join the Cabinet, although I got the job wrong. In retrospect, I should have worked out that Leader of the House would be a good fit for this devoted House of Commons man. Apart from that, I completely failed to see the removal of Penny Mordaunt, but then again, so did everyone else. I could go on…

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I have now written two long read profiles and interviews of politicians for the Sunday Times magazine. I profiled Gavin Williamson in December, and Penny Mordaunt last Sunday. Well, we know what happened next. I wouldn’t blame Ben Wallace if he declined to cooperate with any similar article I might be intending to write!

Of course, now that we have a new Prime Minister the betting markets are already turning their minds to who might be the next one. I asked David Williams from the Rank Organisation who was heading that market and was somewhat surprised when he told me it was Rory Stewart.

Given there were 17 sackings or resignations, we can expect some pretty tough jostling position over the next few months as to who would be the King or Queen over the water in the event of Johnson self-combusting. There are quite a few contenders.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Iain Dale: Expectation now is that Johnson will win big in this leadership contest. If he doesn’t, his room for manoeuvre will be further restricted.

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and is a commentator for CNN.

It’s over. And I’m sad. Believe it or not, I have found it a very enjoyable experience chairing ten of the 16 leadership hustings. It’s left me feeling far more positive about the Conservative Party than maybe I was before.

Take the London hustings, for example. The BBC estimated there were four thousand people at the Excel Centre on Wednesday evening. There really was standing room only.

As the host for the evening, this was a real challenge. Before I walked on stage, I was nervous in a way I hadn’t been at any of the previous hustings. There was a tremendous number of ways in which it could all have gone wrong.

In the end, the only real challenge of the evening came in the Q&A sessions, because the microphone runners seemed to find it very difficult to find the person I had pointed to give the microphone to. “The gentleman at the back waving both his arms above his head,” felt to me to be a pretty good indication of whom I had in mind.

The mic was then given to a woman in a completely different area. This happened time after time – even when I felt I had been abundantly clear who I meant. Clearly not. When I flicked through Twitter the next morning, it became clear that what I thought was jocular joshing with the microphone runners had been interpreted as me being nasty and arrogant of me by some people. I’m told it came across far worse on the radio than it did elsewhere.

Well, let me apologise to the microphone runners and to anyone in the audience who felt I had overstepped the mark. Someone even complained that I had gestured to a woman and asked her to stand up when she was asking her question. I thought I was doing her a favour! Still, lesson learned.

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They say: never work with children and animals. We got to the last question to Boris Johnson on Wednesday, and I picked a lady near the front. Then it suddenly hit me. It wasn’t her wanting to ask a question – she was pointing to her son next to her. He couldn’t have been more than eight or nine years old.

“OMG,” I thought. “This could go terribly wrong.” But I needn’t have worried. He stood on his chair, grabbed the microphone and said: “Mr Johnson, if you become Prime Minister, what will you do about climate change?” I issued a silent sigh of relief.

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In five days’ time we will almost certainly have a new Prime Minister. Everyone seems to have written off Jeremy Hunt’s chances of pulling off a surprise victory, but I do think the result may – repeat, may – be somewhat closer than some of the surveys and polls suggest.

My gut feel is that if Johnson wins, it will be by a tighter margin than David Cameron won in 2005 (66 per cent to 33 per cent). If he wins by a greater margin, he will have more or less free rein to fashion his government in his own image. Anything less than a 60-40 victory, and carving the ministerial joint may be slightly more complex.

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Over the next few days, everyone will be pontificating about what a Johnson Cabinet will look like. The truth is no one knows, and those they pretend that they have some sort of inside knowledge are playing the political journalists who feed off every morsel.

A lot of people are expecting to be rewarded: Gavin Williamson and Grant Shapps to name but two. They were key members of his campaign team during the parliamentary stages of the contest. Jake Berry and Nigel Adams, two of Boris’s key lieutenants from 2016, both of whom who have stuck by him, can reasonably expect to get some sort of reward for their loyalty, along with Conor Burns, his former PPS.

The appointment of a new Chief Whip will send out all sorts of signals, depending on who takes up the cudgels. Gavin Williamson might be thought to be a hot tip to return to the job he loved and was good at, but the word on the street is that he has decided it would be a mistake. His sights are set rather higher, but a return to Defence surely has to be ruled out.

Indeed, there ought not to be a vacancy at all at Defence, given the job fits Penny Mordaunt like a hand in a glove. Just because she declared for Jeremy Hunt does not mean she shouldn’t keep her job.

It will be interesting to see if Johnson appoints a woman to one of the great offices of state. If so, will it be Amber Rudd, Liz Truss or Andrea Leadsom? Or maybe Mordaunt will be levered out of Defence and offered the Home Office.

That would probably mean Sajid Javid becoming Chancellor. Interestingly, there has been a bit of a ‘Stop Saj’ move within team Johnson. They wonder if he has the radical vision a new chancellor will need. If that were the criteria for the job, there would be only one candidate – Michael Gove. But the history between the two men…

Even more interesting than that will be to see whether Hunt keeps his role at the Foreign Office. It’s clear he expects to, but his attacks on Johnson during the ITV debate went down like a cup of cold sick with Team Johnson. Relations have been repaired, but it remains to be seen how elephant-like Boris’s memory is, and whether he can really forgive, even if he can’t forget.

It’s going to be an exciting week!

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Iain Dale: It’s shocking to see some Conservative MPs doing the Left’s work by slagging off the front-runner.

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and is a commentator for CNN.

The last few days have been remarkable, both for Kim Darroch and Boris Johnson, but in very different ways. Johnson has been blamed for causing Sir Kim to resign over the leaked memos. His lack of endorsement of Sir Kim in the ITV debate is claimed in some quarters to have tipped Sir Kim over the edge.

We now know that Sir Kim didn’t even watch the debate, and surely the tipping point was reached when Donald Trump issued his second batch of critical tweets. When you’re an Ambassador, and the President of the host country says he won’t deal with you, what alterative do you have but to fall on your sword?

Let me make it clear, I don’t believe that Sir Kim did anything wrong, and I don’t believe foreign heads of state should be able to dictate to this country who represents us. But we live in the real world, not the one we might like it to be.

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Yesterday morning I went on Euronews to talk about this affair. “This has been a dreadful week for Boris Johnson, hasn’t it?” I was asked. This question reflects the mood in much of the broadcast and print media. Right from the get-go, they want to bring down Johnson and will go to any means to do so.

It is true that he gave a bit of a weak answer on the Darroch affair in the ITV debate and, judging by his more recent comments, he realises that he could and should have been rather more supportive at the time. But in the first half of that debate he outwitted Jeremy Hunt and performed better than him. In the second half, Hunt edged it, partly because Johnson seemed unable to answer a direct question and fell back into trying to be too funny. It didn’t work.

So, overall, I felt it was a bit of a score draw, and confirmed the logic of the Johnson campaign not to do many head to heads. From a wider Conservative Party perspective, it could be seen as a bit of a disaster, given the amount of blue on blue action there was.

Indeed, many people feel that by the end of the debate Jeremy Hunt had talked him out of his current job as Foreign Secretary and into the job of Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Pensions. I imagine the Labour Party, and indeed the Brexit Party, have already spliced up Hunt’s choicest of criticisms of Johnson, and that they will be replayed endlessly in a general election campaign if it comes soon.

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The vitriol poured over Johnson this week is a sign of things to come. It has been quite shocking to see the number of senior Conservative MPs willing to do the Left’s work for it by appearing on the media slagging him off in gratuitous terms.

Readers of this column may remember that I have not always written things in praise of him, but if he is indeed elected leader of the Party in two weeks’ time, the Conservative Party will have to unite behind him, whether it wants to or not. What’s the alternative?

Any new Prime Minister deserves a fair wind, and Johnson should be no different. The EU will be looking for chinks in his armour and party disunity could be the most obvious one. The Left will come for Boris in no uncertain terms. And the Right needs to be ready for that. The tribe will need to unite and wagons will need to be circled.

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Amber Rudd is already signalling that she is ready to put the past behind her. In an interview yesterday she made clear she now accepts that ‘no deal is part of the armoury and I have accepted that… the situation is we are leaving by the end of October, but it would be so much better to get a deal.”

This is quite a turn of events and is a signal that she will be willing to serve in a Johnson-led cabinet. For the last twelve years, there has always been a woman holding one of the four great offices of state – Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, Chancellor or Home Secretary. The new Prime Minister would do well to continue with this trend.

Could it be that Amber Rudd might return to her previous job in the Home Office? She’d like to be Chancellor, but if reports are to be believed, Sajid Javid is in line for that job. Many column inches will be expended over the next fortnight speculating who will or won’t be in a Johnson cabinet. I’ll leave that to others for now, but it’s already very difficult to see how he will be able to keep everyone happy.

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There are four hustings to go – Andrew Gimson reports yesterday eveing’s in Maidstone on this site today – and I’m chairing all of them. It’s so far been a wholly positive experience, and I think that the party members who have attended have really felt they have got something out of them.

The challenge for me and the two candidates is to keep things fresh and ensure that the audiences are both informed and entertained. One of the great things so far has been the diversity of the audiences – lots of young people, especially, and they have asked some brilliant and, at times, very challenging questions of both candidates.

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I wouldn’t blame Hunt if he feels that at every point in this contest events have conspired against him. When you’re down to the final two and you’re lagging behind, you just hope that something will turn up. I remember in 2005 how dispiriting it was spending two months feeling that everything was outside the Davis Campaign’s control and that a Cameron victory was inevitable.

Given that some ballot papers were sent out by Electoral Reform Services on July 4th, two days before we were told they were supposed to, and we’re now a week on from that, I suspect that, despite claims to the contrary, more than half of the electorate have already voted. That’s certainly what yesterday’s survey on this site suggested.

No one knows if that’s true, or how they’ve voted, but all the polls and surveys of party members show similar results. Someone said to me the other day that if Boris Johnson was found in bed with a dead goat – or even a live one – he’d still win.

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Iain Dale: The hustings. From Manchester to Belfast – and on to Nottingham.

Iain Dale is Presenter of LBC Drive, Managing Director of Biteback Publishing, a columnist and broadcaster and a former Conservative Parliamentary candidate.

‘Populist’ has replaced the phrase ‘Alt right’ as the lefty choice of word to insult politicians on the Right. Boris Johnson is often now described as a ‘populist’ politician. It’s meant to put him in the same class as Matteo Salvini, Viktor Orban and, of course, Donald Trump.

He is, of course, nothing like them if you actually look at what he believes. As I put it to him at one of the hustings, he’s actually very much on the liberal side of conservative thinking.

This is the man who once flirted with an amnesty for illegal immigrants. This is the man who has an exemplary record of supporting the adoption of pro-gay rights legislation. On that point, it’s always good to remind Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters that Johnson voted to repeal Section 28 in 2002. Corbyn did not.

Brexit blinkers those who just view Johnson through the ‘populist’ prism. They deliberately ignore the rest of his beliefs in a vain attempt to smear him as some sort of far-right ideologue. My suspicion is that if he goes on to win the leadership, we’ll see a government that is very far from what the Guardian and its ilk likes to imagine.

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Talking of the hustings, I’ve now compered five of them, with number six coming up tomorrow morning in Nottingham.

One of the challenges is to keep things fresh and to introduce new areas of questioning on each occasion. In Manchester on Saturday, I decided to devote my ten minutes with each candidate to Northern Powerhouse issues. Rather hilariously, just before we went on stage I got a text from Greater Manchester’s Mayor, Andy Burnham, with a couple of questions for the candidates – well, five actually.

I rather theatrically waved my phone at the 800 strong audience and asked them if I should ask Johnson a question from Mayor Burnham. “YEEEES”, they cried. So I did. The audience then clapped the question, and he then paid tribute to Burnham and agreed with the thrust of the question. Strange times.

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At the end of interviews with the candidates, I have taken to asking them a light-hearted question. The answers  often give people a very different insight into the candidates’ characters, and also demonstrate an ability (or lack thereof) to think quickly on their feet.

In Manchester, I had forgotten to prepare such a question, so I just asked something very simple: which place in the North West that they had visited had left the most memorable impression. OK – not very original and not exactly the most challenging question I have ever asked.

Johnson chose the Midland Hotel in Manchester…and I could almost sense the collective mind of the audience start to boggle. He then explained that, in 1906, Winston Churchill had held a very important meeting there, the details of which now escape me.

It then came to Jeremy Hunt’s turn. I’m pretty sure he hadn’t heard Johnson’s answer, but he too gave the Midland Hotel as his choice. He looked rather perplexed when the audience collapsed into fits of laughter. He then went on to explain that it was where Mr Rolls met Mr Royce. Who knew?

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On Tuesday morning, I got up at 5.30am to fly to Belfast from Heathrow. Apparently, I wasn’t deserving of a place on the private jet which flew the candidates and their entourages there!

Unusually for me, all the travel plans went smoothly, and I arrived at Belfast City Airport on time. I don’t pretend to be an expert on Northern Ireland politics, so I spent some time getting a briefing from someone who does. Always a good idea when you’re keen to avoid causing some sort of diplomatic incident.

I arrived at the venue quite early, and spent some time talking to audience members as they started trickling into the hall. Hunt varied his standard hustings speech rather more than Johnson did – and we were spared another rendition of the McHuntyface joke.

Praise be. I know it’s difficult when there are 16 different hustings to do a different speech at each, but both candidates would be well advised to shake it up for the final eight. If they don’t the media will lose interest.

I had been told by various people in advance of the Belfast hustings that Northern Ireland Conservatives were just like English Tories but about 20 years behind in terms of their social views. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the questions in Belfast were of a better quality and incisiveness than at any of the other hustings so far. And they were generally quite progressive, and not obsessed with issues which only related to Northern Ireland. It was also good to see so many under-30s in the audience.

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The styles of the two candidates are clearly very different. Hunt is never going to match Johnson for rhetorical flourish, but his great asset is his unflappability in his response to hostile questioning. And there’s been some pretty tough questions from each of the audiences.

He sits up, back ramrod straight, then leans into the audience and tries to reassure them. It’s part of the reason David Cameron appointed him Health Secretary. He has a nice, reassuring bedside manner and the audiences have liked it.

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Let me finish by paying tribute to a 16-year-old British Asian lad called Ajay who sent in a question to the Manchester hustings, and which I chose as one of those to ask Johnson.

His question was a challenging one, both to ask and for Johnson to answer. When I called Ajay to ask his question, he stumbled with his words a little. I willed him on.

He explained that he suffered from clinical depression and mental health issues and wanted to know what a Boris Johnson led government would do to help people like him. He used the phrase: “If you are elected…”. Some wag in the audience shouted out: “You mean when…”

That could have easily put Ajay off his stride, but it didn’t – and he completed his question. I really hoped the audience would applaud him, as it must have taken balls of steel to ask that question, especially given his age. The crowd didn’t let me down, and nor did Johnson, who gave a very detailed answer on what he would do to expand mental health services.

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You’ll have noticed that I’ve been scrupulously balanced in this column, and said positive things about both candidates. I’ll save any negative things for the memoirs! Actually, truth be told, that would be a short paragraph. I’ve actually been impressed by how both of them have done so far. I think the whole process has been handled well by both of them.

In addition, let me conclude (again!) by paying tribute to Brandon Lewis and the CCHQ team who have organised these hustings at very short notice. He leads a highly professional team and I can’t speak highly enough of everyone involved. A job well done, but it’s not finished yet.

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Iain Dale: If you’re coming to a hustings I’m chairing, draft an original question – and I’ll try to call you.

Iain Dale is Presenter of LBC Drive, Managing Director of Biteback Publishing, a columnist and broadcaster and a former Conservative Parliamentary candidate.

I’ve just finished reading ConservativeHome’s highly informative and entertaining interview with Boris Johnson. Put together with some of the other interviews he’s done this week, and you start to get the impression that the BoJo MoJo is returning.

I’ve always thought with big personalities like Johnson that things only start to wrong when their handlers try to muzzle them. He is like a big, loveable bear. Try to restrain him, and he becomes all sad and morose.

But give him the opportunity to show what he can do, and he will entertain the crowds and reap the rewards. The simple message is that sometimes you just have to let Boris be Boris, and accept the risks that come with that in terms of messaging.

In the ConHome interview, he reveals that he will expect every cabinet member to sign up to leaving the EU on  October 31st, come what may. It’s not quite the promise Esther McVey made in her short-lived leadership campaign, where she said she wouldn’t have any Remainers at all in her initial cabinet, but it’s quite something to reveal at this stage.

In theory, this might rule out Jeremy Hunt remaining in the cabinet. David Gauke has already said he wouldn’t serve, and it’s highly doubtful whether Amber Rudd or David Lidington could sign up for that. It’s clear that the composition of the next Cabinet will be very different to the current one.

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Some of you will have been at the Birmingham hustings last Saturday. It proved to be quite an event.

Given the story that dominated the news that day, I had no option but to ask Johnson about it, when it came to the 15 minute interview stage of the proceedings. I had planned my first question, but not what happened afterwards. I believed he might address the so-called elephant in the room during his speech, which I thought would have been the ideal way to deal with it. But that didn’t happen.

Without going into all the details of the exchange, I would genuinely have only spent a minute or two on it had he given any semblance of an answer. It was his prerogative not to, of course – and that’s the option he chose to take.

At the third time of asking some in the audience started booing me, while some others were apparently shouting to him to “answer the question”. My first reaction when I heard the booing was to burst out laughing – but I didn’t. Frankly I had expected some sort of reaction like that, but I was only doing my job.

To CCHQ’s credit, no one tried to influence any of my questioning to either candidate. I totally get that if you’re supporting a candidate you want to protect them and their reputation by any means possible. I certainly wasn’t trying to do anything other than do my job – even though clearly some people thought I was grandstanding.

I didn’t look at Twitter until much later that evening, and it was quite something. A lot of people thought I shouldn’t have even asked one question, let alone five. Well, it’s a point of view I suppose, but we don’t live in a country where journalists are shackled from asking any question they like.

Just think of the fallout – not just for me, but for the party, or indeed Johnson himself – if I hadn’t asked a single question and just talked about Brexit or whatever other subject. It would have been written up as being something that might happen in North Korea. Move along, nothing to see here.

I would have rightly been seen as a complete patsy. No one would have emerged well from it. I totally get that Johnson himself, and his entire campaign team were probably pretty displeased by it, but a few days later, in the cold light of day, I’d be disappointed if they didn’t accept that I did the right thing.

– – – – – – – – – –

Today. I’ll be chairing the hustings in Exeter, then tomorrow it’s Carlisle and Manchester, followed on Tuesday by Belfast – and, next Friday, Gateshead and then next Saturday in Nottingham.

I had thought it would be great to spend so much time with the future Prime Minister of this country.  But I suspect whoever wins will be sick of the sight or me and the sound of my voice by the time we get to the last of the 16 hustings in London on July 17.

The challenge for me is to try to keep things fresh and not cover the same old, same old territory in each hustings. In a sense, I’m relying on the audience to do that, by coming up with some original questions.

I thought both candidates were very revealing when I asked them in Birmingham: “What’s the biggest personal crisis you’ve faced, and what did you learn from it?” We need more questions like that, rather than the hoary old chestnuts of “Will you definitely promise one hundred per cent to leave on October 31st?” or “Will you cancel HS2?” Been there, done that.

So that’s your challenge. If you’re coming to one of the other hustings, please do submit the most original question you can think of. No one from CCHQ interferes in the question selection process – so if it’s a corker, and I think it will elicit interesting answers, I’ll try to call you.

– – – – – – – – –

One other aspect of this week has fascinated me and it’s that people seem to think they know which candidate I favour. Some think it’s clear I support Johnson, others think it’s clear that I support Hunt.

Truth is – I don’t have a vote, and in all honesty I am genuinely undecided who I would vote for. I totally get Johnson’s argument that we must come out on October 31st, and the consequences for the Conservative Party and democracy would be catastrophic if we don’t.

But then again, Hunt’s argument that he’s best placed to negotiate a deal with the EU is also compelling. The truth is that, since I am uncharacteristically on the fence, I’m actually in a good position to give a voice to the ‘undecideds’ in these hustings.

The difference is that they have to come to a conclusion and put their X in a box. I do not.

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Iain Dale: Dark arts, Williamson – and how vote-lending stuffed Raab, Stewart…and Gove

Iain Dale is Presenter of LBC Drive, Managing Director of Biteback Publishing, a columnist and broadcaster and a former Conservative Parliamentary candidate.

So it’s to be Bozzer v Jezza. Will it be Tory Wars – or a campaign which can in some way bring the party together? One thing is for sure, it will be very different to the Parliamentary side of the campaign. There won’t be any vote-lending for a start.

Now we move on to the campaign in the country, where the final two candidates will speak at a series of hustings organised by CCHQ. Many of you will be attending them, and help put the two finalists through their paces.

I’ll be compering ten of these hustings, up and down the country, starting in the West Midlands tomorrow. It promises to be quite an experience.

We will never know how much ‘vote-lending’ went on in this election, but it’s a fair bet to assume that it happened far more than in any previous contest. In some ways, when there is a candidate whose vote total far outstrips any other, it is inevitable, especially when the campaign’s chief ‘whipper in’ is someone as skilled in the dark arts as Gavin Williamson.

At least, that is what many Tory MPs are assuming. Vote-lending has allowed Boris Johnson, in effect, to choose his opponent in the final round. The Raab campaign is convinced that their man was targeted in the second round of voting. They believe that at least eight Johnson supporters were encouraged to lend their votes to Sajid Javid, in the hope that he would get through to the next round at the expense of arch-Brexiteer Raab.

In that round, Raab’s vote went up from 27 to 30, while Javid’s soared from 23 to 33, therefore just squeezing across the line. Job done. Raab was out.

It is also suspected that the almost doubling of Rory Stewart’s vote from 19 to 37 was in part down to vote-lending too. Given that in the next ballot his vote plummeted by 10, it’s easy to see why. Keith Simpson is right. It really is the most duplicitous electorate in the world! Stewart’s campaign is understandably a bit vexed about this turn of events, but in the end, both he and Raab didn’t get through for the simple reason that they didn’t have enough votes.

Both Stewart and Raab may be out of this contest, but both have burnished their reputations. It’s inconceivable that Raab won’t be offered a major cabinet post by whoever emerges triumphant.

Stewart’s quixotic campaign was very effective in that he is now a major national name, even if it irritated many of his colleagues. He’s the new media darling, with such commentators as Robert Peston viewing him almost as the second coming. He became box office, because he knew how to play the media, and it was only too willing to dance to his maverick tune.

Having ruled out serving in a Johnson cabinet, and on the assumption that the latter wins, Stewart has placed himself firmly as the head of the leader of the internal Tory opposition.  And believe me, there’s quite some competition for that post. If everything goes wrong with a Johnson premiership, Stewart can emerge and say ‘told you so’, having kept his hands clean.

In the last two days of the campaign, however, he vastly overplayed his hand to the point where even some of his admirers were left wondering how much this was all about principle and how much it was about ego. The dramatic taking off of his tie two minutes into the BBC debate was a great act of symbolism. Was it spontaneous, or was it pre-planned? He hoped that it would demonstrate his man of the people credentials. All it did was make him look a bit odd.

A lot has been said about the direness of the BBC debate, so I won’t dwell on it for too long here. I couldn’t watch it as it was broadcast during my radio show. We had asked the BBC if we could simulcast it, but they refused. It’s the unique way they’re funded, you see.

As it turns out, we had a lucky escape. All we were allowed to broadcast was a total of four minutes afterwards. And believe me, my producers struggled to find four minutes worth putting out. Dreadful hardly covers it. The format was wrong, the set was wrong and the question selection was bizarre. It made the Channel Four debate look like a blockbuster event by comparison.

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This week I completed my interviews with 9 of the final 10 candidates in this leadership contest. The long form one hour format really worked, with me interviewing them all for half an hour followed by half an hour of listener calls. The final two interviews, with Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove on Wednesday were, I thought, perhaps the pick of the lot, but as the host, perhaps I am the wrong person to judge.

I felt these interviews got far more out of the candidates than any debate format ever could. I still remain in hope that I’ll be able to complete the set over the next couple of weeks and that Boris Johnson will grace the LBC studio with his presence.

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Iain Dale: Johnson – unstoppable now, unless he unstops himself

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and is a commentator for CNN.

I write this just after hearing the result of the first round of voting in the MPs section of the Conservative Party leadership contest. The Boris Johnson juggernaut is rolling, and many believe it is now unstoppable – unless he stops it himself, that is.

The next ballot is on Tuesday coming, and we know that Andrea Leadsom, Esther McVey and Mark Harper won’t be taking part, since they have been eliminated. The question is, will Matt Hancock, Sajid Javid, Rory Stewart or Dominic Raab decide that the game is up?

Hancock and Stewart may play ‘chicken’ with each other, as each is likely to gain most from the other’s departure. Both McVey’s and Leadsom’s 20 supporters (in all) may well transfer almost unanimously to Johnson. If Dominic Raab can’t snaffle most of them, you’d think he’d have to acknowledge that his game might be up.

In the published supporter lists, Sajid Javid has only four Brexiteer votes. So, the majority of his votes, if he drops out, are likely to edge towards Jeremy Hunt, I’d have thought.

Michael Gove is still in the race for second place, albeit clinging on by his fingertips. His vote didn’t evaporate, although it’s fair to say that if ‘Cocaine-gate’ hadn’t happened, I suspect he’d now be in second place. His campaignis saying everyone had written them off but it’s still all to play for. That may be beer goggles talking, but a lot of people will be hoping that Gove and Hunt duke it out in a constructive way for the right to take on the man who even his worst enemies would have to acknowledge is the clear winner from the week’s events.

– – – – – – – – – –

George Freeman has a book out this week, called Britain After Brexit, published by the Centre for Policy Studies (and about which he wrote on this site earlier this week).

It’s a collection of dozens of essays about the kind of policies that Britain should adopt in the post-Brexit world. Editing a book like this is a bit like herding cats, since most MPs don’t seem to understand the word ‘deadline’. So credit to him for that.

This week, however, some of those self-same MPs are seeing Freeman in a somewhat different light. Having been the only MP to defect from Michael Gove to a rival candidate over the cocaine allegations, he was described to me by one colleague (and not a Gove supporter) as “an utter tosspotty wanker.” Still – yet another Remainer to add to Matt Hancock’s merry band of supporters, who, thus far, count zero Leave supporters among their number.

– – – – – – – – – –

So far I have done hour long interviews with six of the ten original candidates over the last week. I’ve next got Dominic Raab on Monday, followed by Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove on Wednesday.

A lot of people have asked why Boris Johnson isn’t doing one. He’s been invited, and I remain hopeful that he will agree to a date but, were I advising him on his media appearances, I too would be telling him there’s little to gain by doing anything in the short term.

I doubt very much if he’ll do the Channel 4 debate on Sunday or the BBC debate next Tuesday. If he does, I’ll be battering down his door!

– – – – – – – – – –

A thought occurs to me on Dominic Raab. I suppose it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that the ERG may “lend” some Johnson votes to Raab in the next round. Something similar is reputed to have happened in 2005, when some of David Cameron’s supporters tried to boost Liam Fox’s vote in order that they could fight him, rather than David Davis in the country. It didn’t work, though.

– – – – – – – – – –

As the contest progresses, there will be countless articles (several written by me, I suspect) which speculate on who the new Prime Minister will pick for his cabinet. I won’t go into full speculation mode here, but one bit of advice I would dole out is this.

Ditch all the ministers who “attend cabinet”. Go back to having a cabinet of 22 people and no more. And start as you mean to go on. Reduce the number of ministers across the board. We do not need 95 ministers. We also don’t need so many departments. I might return to that in a future column.

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