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.
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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.
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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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