Andrew Williams meets influential Conservative blogger and commentator Iain Dale to discuss his political career, the Coalition government and why Ed Miliband fails the ‘Number 10 doorstep test’
For Iain Dale, my arrival at his Westminster office on a typically hectic Tuesday lunchtime is, bluntly, something of an inconvenience – though perfectly understandable, given his hectic schedule. Having achieved notoriety as the man behind one of the most prominent Conservative blogs on the internet, Iain Dale’s Diary, he now heads Britain’s leading political publishing company by day, and hosts a talk show on London radio station LBC by night – somehow finding the time to ply his trade as an in-demand political commentator when he is off air.
Apologetic, and slightly flustered, he directs me towards his office where I wait with his engaging assistant, Grant Tucker, for the best part of an hour. “Iain is great for lazy journalists,” Grant explains. “They know that they can phone him up about any given issue and he will tell them exactly what he thinks.” My fears that this will be a rushed, guarded interview are well and truly allayed.
Dale’s philosophy was formed against the backdrop of economic turmoil bearing comparison with the dire straits of the present day. “My teenage years were in the late 1970s when this country was more or less bankrupt… there were lots of public sector strikes, our reputation in Europe was trashed… I remember going to Germany when I was 14 on a school exchange, and they just treated us like a joke. It was embarrassing to say you were British”. Though Dale recalls “going into my parents’ bedroom and explaining to them why they should vote Labour” as his earliest political memory, he would soon change his tune; by the time he enrolled as a student at the University of East Anglia, he identified himself as a dyed-in-the-wool Conservative.
As with so many budding politicos, university was the making of Iain Dale. Being a Conservative student in Thatcher’s Britain was hardly fashionable, and he quickly found student politics to be dominated by the left. He vividly recalls his indignation at the one-sidedness of what he characterises as “a debate between the hard left and the soft left” over the Falklands War. “I remember sitting there becoming increasingly irritated by this, and in the end I couldn’t stand it any longer and I got up and I said “this is outrageous, this is some kind of lefty wank-athon” – well I didn’t say that, but that’s what it was”.
Having been astonished to discover that there was no Conservative Society at UEA, he and a friend promptly formed one at the start of their second year. “We got more members than the Labour Party had and we started doing Students’ Union debates, we’d get Cabinet ministers coming down to do speeches, and I absolutely had the time of my life. I became a bit of a ‘personality’ at university – everyone knew who I was. It was probably then that I thought, yeah, I’d quite like to go into politics”.
Young, charismatic and ambitious, Dale was determined that he wanted to go into Parliament, but was concerned that he might be hindered by his sexuality. “My problem was at that point, when I decided that I would like to be an MP, and I was gay in the 1980s… that wasn’t exactly a good thing to be if you wanted to go into politics, whether you were on the left or the right. So I decided that really that couldn’t really happen”. It was not until 2002, when he was 40, that Dale finally decided the time was right for him to make his bid for Westminster – becoming the first openly gay Conservative Parliamentary candidate.
“That really proved to be my undoing in many ways, because if you’re the first to do anything you get a certain degree of notoriety and press coverage… so I was never described as ‘Iain Dale, the Conservative candidate for North Norfolk’, I was described as ‘Iain Dale, the openly gay candidate for North Norfolk’”. Dale’s result at the 2005 general election was, by his own admission, “pretty horrendous”, as his Liberal Democrat opponent secured a majority of over 10,000.
Undeterred, Dale sought a second bite at the cherry, and began his search for a constituency to stand in at the 2010 general election. Once again, he was thwarted. “Bracknell was the one that I thought I really could get, and I nearly did, but obviously that Mail article didn’t really help”. (In 2009, Dale took the Daily Mail to the Press Complaints Commission over an article which described him as “overtly gay”, commenting, “isn’t it charming how homosexuals rally like-minded chaps to their cause”. Remarkably, he lost the case.) “I went for a couple of others – one of them I completely fluffed the speech, so it was my own fault – but when it came down to it I thought, call it quits here… don’t spend the next five years of your life hankering after something that isn’t going to happen”.
Despite the Prime Minister personally contacting him to try to persuade him otherwise, at 49 Iain Dale has let go of his almost lifelong ambition to become a Member of Parliament, but not for the want of trying. At times, his sexuality might have held him back, but in truth a whole range of factors conspired against him; nonetheless, he believes he still made an impact.
“Looking back I do think it was an achievement that I was able to make a bit of a landmark… the Tory Party has I think almost eradicated [homophobia] as an issue… I mean I can see there being a gay Prime Minister and people just not sort of caring. There will always be people who are homophobic, there will always be people who are bigoted, but it changes as the generations change”.
And so to the current government, of which Dale says he is “a great supporter”. Having championed the Coalition from the outset, “any criticism I make of the Coalition now is through the prism of having been a complete cheerleader for it right from the beginning”, he explains. “I’ve always taken the view that Lib Dems have more in common with the Conservatives than they do with Labour, even if they don’t realise it sometimes”.
Indeed, Dale backed Andrew Lansley’s controversial NHS reforms. “It’s quite clear to me that the Health Service needs radical reform. Unfortunately it’s got to the point in this country where if you utter one word of criticism against it, you’re accused of trying to privatise it. We’re the only country where private medicine is considered to be a dangerously subversive thing… when you see statistics that 21% of GPs wouldn’t send their own families to the local hospital, 16% won’t even send their patients to the hospital, you have to think that there is something wrong with the system.”
Ultimately, though, Dale is unequivocal that the sole priority for this government must be the economy. “Absolutely, it’s the economy, stupid… if Ed Miliband believes that he can win an election on the NHS, he’s delusional. In the end, people at the next election are going to… look ahead and say, what is this government going to do for me over the next five years, and how much money have I got in my pocket?”
As for the beleaguered Labour leader, Dale is at first reluctant to put the boot in. “In some ways I’m quite a fan of Ed Miliband. I interviewed him four years ago and in one of the few predictions I’ve ever got right – I interviewed him and his brother in a feature for GQ comparing the two – the conclusion was that Ed had what it took to be leader and maybe David didn’t. At that point I got slightly derided for it, so when Ed won I thought well, fuck you!”
Why is he failing so abjectly to connect with the public, then? “His problem is that he looks twelve. I won’t say it’s purely an appearance thing, but I always give politicians the Number 10 doorstep test – can you imagine them on the doorstep of Number 10 after an election, waving to the crowds, doing their ‘where there is discord, may we bring harmony’ speech, and the answer is with Ed Miliband I can’t – people can’t imagine him as Prime Minister in the same way that people couldn’t imagine Neil Kinnock as Prime Minister”.
On the whole, Dale is quite satisfied with the course that the Prime Minister is taking, almost two years into his time in office. Whilst he is somewhat dismissive of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ – seemingly his pet project, yet “frankly, just a reflection of what society has done for donkey’s years” – he is convinced that there are fundamental, endemic problems at the very root of British society. “When there are council estates with 80% unemployment, where you have successive generations without a job, where you have successive generations of families going to prison, clearly that part of society is broken. Now at least this government is actually trying to do something about it”.
As our time together draws to a close, I return to the subject of Dale’s own career. Just as his breathtaking Westminster workplace is political at every turn – his office is plastered with monuments to Thatcher, from the imposing ten-foot-high portrait of The Iron Lady that adorns one wall, to the framed letter from her thanking him for hosting a dinner – Iain Dale is, unashamedly, political to his fingertips. Despite everything he has achieved, does he not harbour some regret about his failure to achieve the political ambitions he harboured for so long?
On the one hand, he is malcontent. “I can’t actually affect change doing what I do, or very rarely…. you can have a bit of influence at the margins, but I’m not sure how you can quantify that”. However, he reflects that his lifestyle is far preferable to that of the politician. “As I sit here today, I’ve got a radio show where I can speak to several hundred thousand people a day, I’ve got a business which I enjoy running, I look at the lives that my friends who are MPs lead – most of them hate it, they feel they have no influence at all, they’re just used as lobby fodder. I mean, I don’t know what influence I have but I can certainly talk to more people about what I think about something doing what I do now than I ever could if I were a politician”.