Friday, 28 December 2018

The 2016 Conservative Party Leadership Campaign pt 3

Deja-vu - but grander. Another oak-panelled room packed with too many portly men sweating profusely in their suits, with Andrea's campaign team squashed at the back - three arses fighting for every two chairs. It was like the Cinnamon Club all over again, but this time it was the beginning of the end, not the end of the beginning

House of Commons Committee Room 14 was buzzing with excitement, booze and body odour as we nervously awaited the arrival of Sir Graham Brady with the final result. How and why was it taking them so long to count 329 votes?

Then he was there; a booming voice announcing that Andrea Leadsom and Theresa May would be going forward to the members' vote. Huge stamping and cheering all round. I was sitting with Tom Borwick, Helen Mayer and William Norton. We exchanged nervous glances; Andrea's vote had increased by 18 to 84, but she still only commanded 25% of the parliamentary party. If she went on to win the members' ballot, would she be able to command the party in parliament with so many voting against her?  It was something we had privately discussed several times; but that was someone else's problem for another time. "That's pissed on Nick Boles" I said. 

We all traipsed to another Committee Room for a meeting of the campaign team, and to hear an address from Andrea. There must have been 40-50 people in the room. And we waited, and waited...and waited, for almost an hour. Stewart Jackson MP was sitting next to me and turned his notepad to my eyeline, "I don't like this, I hope she isn't going to withdraw."  I suspect many of us were thinking the same. Helen Mayer and I were already thundering having been told we couldn't do any more work on the grid as Bill Clare wasn't available over the weekend and he had insisted on being present for any and every decision. Oh, the irony!

Finally Andrea arrived with her husband Ben and the core parliamentary team. For someone maybe ten weeks away from being Prime Minister, she didn't look or sound particularly enthused, though she spoke generously and with sincerity as she thanked her team "both within the parliamentary party and all those working so hard outside parliament, for their trust, loyalty and support."

It was then announced that we were to all have the three day weekend off to "recharge our batteries". This was when we knew something was very wrong. No campaign comes out of such a momentous day and then stalls for three crucial days, allowing the opposition to set the narrative and dominate the agenda. 

Before we all departed Andrea announced that she was returning to Northampton but was stopping en route for a major interview with one of the UK's most hard-hitting writers, Rachel Sylvester, which would be published in the Times on Saturday 9 July. It then transpired that the interview would be held without any support staff in attendance and in the cafeteria of Milton Keynes railway station. What could possibly go wrong?

(c) Rachel Sylvester / Times Newspapers

At this point any commentary becomes subjective. She was tired, even exhausted. She was distracted. The noisy and bustling surroundings of a coffee shop at Milton Keynes railway station was wholly unsuitable for such an important interview, it should never have been agreed. And it was wrong that a candidate who was in the final two for the leadership of the Conservative Party (and the final two to become Prime Minister of the UK) was not accompanied by a press officer. All of this is true.

Many others would argue that the above is immaterial. If Andrea had been elected leader and Prime Minister there would be many more occasions when she would be much more tired and the consequences of a mistake would be immeasurably higher. Therefore she had a duty to hold it together, and her inability to do so indicated she was not ready for the highest office. I can see there is truth in this too.

My view? We are all human, even politicians. We all make mistakes. Every day in almost every conversation someone will say "what I meant to say was..." and in doing so clarify a remark which had been misunderstood. I don't know if Andrea "mis-spoke", whether she made a dreadful error of judgement, whether her remarks were misconstrued or taken wholly and disproportionately out of context, but what I do know is the option to say "what I meant to say..." was not an option for Andrea. As soon as it was said, it was recorded, written and reported. 

The reason every  major celebrity, sportsperson, captain of industry and politician has a press /communications team by their side is to help ensure these human errors don't become the headlines. And at that moment, tired, distracted, exhausted - her press operation let her down. Allowing that interview in those circumstances ranks for me alongside the march on parliament as an act of folly and a poor reflection of those who were meant to support her.

Over the next three days her team continued to build the campaign infrastructure, but the energy had gone. And as the headlines from Saturday's Times began to circulate and the feeding frenzy began, any hope left started to turn into despair. 

Amongst the gloom there developed a sense of gallows humour, with the wonderful JP Floru unwittingly being the source of much of it. For over a week in anticipation of us getting into the final two, JP had been tasked with identifying a suitable house within the Division Bell for our HQ.  Various members of the team fed-in suggestions which JP would dutifully investigate, and having done so report back via WhatsApp. "Too much dust; would be havoc for asthmatics". "Oh my Lord, the stains were beyond what any normal person would consider acceptable" and my favourite, "The cat was so ugly it would frighten itself in the mirror". 

Finally a suitable property was offered in Cowley Street, a wonderful Georgian terrace which was the London home of Sir Neil and Lady Thorne; the same property used by John Major for his HQ during his "back me or sack me" leadership campaign in 1995. The Thorne's kindly offered use of the ground-floor dining room, an adjoining sitting room and the kitchen., on the understanding that the campaign would remove and store their antique furniture, pictures and silver. Cue another flurry from Floru: "can anyone lend me a spanner?"  "Where can I buy bubble wrap on a Sunday" and then, "This Georgian dining table weighs a ton, can anyone help me move it?" Several such pleas went unanswered; I have never been more grateful for being 35 miles away in Kent. Finally Tom Borwick took pity and offered assistance. WhatsApp fell silent for two hours and we all speculated what had gone wrong.  What a way to go, crushed to death in Cowley Street by Sir Neil Thorne's dining table. JPs wicked sense of humour and kindness kept us hopeful in those dark days and I wish to record how much I appreciated his company.

On the Friday night I had returned to Kent as I was hosting An Audience with Jacob Rees-Mogg, which had been in the diary for many months. At the time West Kent had around 5% of the Party's national membership - a significant block vote - and most of the local opinion formers would be present. 
I had already spoken to Jacob and he had confirmed that he was going to endorse Andrea, but he wanted a private chat before the event to discuss the mechanics. 

We agreed to meet privately in the margins for a quick chat but when he arrived there was nowhere to go; the lobby was bustling, the kitchen was packed with the catering team and the loos were busy. I saw a storeroom, opened the door and pushed him inside, before the crowds closed in. Unfortunately it was more a cupboard than a room, 3ft square with no light. Two mop buckets filled the floor space and low shelving prevented us from standing upright. So there we were, in the pitch black, with JR-M bent in double and me standing with one foot in a (fortunately empty) mop bucket, we agreed the plan. Rather than him just announcing his backing, I would arrange a suitable question which he would answer with a fulsome endorsement and I would then "live tweet" his position. 

Having agreed the plan we tried to leave the darkness of the cupboard with a degree of dignity, only to find a large and curious crowd had gathered outside, trying to hear what was going on. As the door opened they all started clapping. Quite what they thought we were doing in a small cupboard which was worthy of applause remains unsaid, but Jacob smiled graciously and started shaking hands as if it was a regular occurrence.    

That weekend the campaign was close to meltdown, with Rachel Sylvester's story running from Friday night through Saturday and Sunday and hints of further "revelations" to come. Andrea's political enemies briefed against her like fury to keep the story alive, then came rumours (subsequently found to be untrue) that she had falsified her CV. Talk about hitting a woman when she was down. However awful it was for us it must have been 100 times worse for her and her family. Even when she came out of her home to issue a statement, rather than reporting her words they criticised her fence panels and queried the value of her property. It was journalism at its worse and I wondered why anyone would wish to put themselves ans their families through such an ordeal.

For the sake of accuracy I must record that we all had wobbles that Sunday. During the course of the day, we spoke to each other about our personal positions. Could Andrea recover? Could the campaign continue? And were we each prepared to each sacrifice three months of our lives on what may well be a pointless endeavour? After much heart-searching, we all came to the same view; for as long as Andrea wanted to stay and fight, we would stand with her. My personal view was clear. Andrea had trusted me, and put her faith in me, I was not going to abandon her at the first whiff of grapeshot. It was, however, a difficult call. Some of the team were taking unpaid leave (me included) – if the campaign imploded, would our employers welcome us back? For others they had, or were about to, relinquish valuable contracts elsewhere. Still others had arranged childcare, and other domestic matters to make themselves available. The easiest thing that day would have been to walk away; none of us did.

And so, at 7.30am on Monday 11th July 2016 we all gathered in Cowley Street for the first day of the campaign proper. The mood was grim but, apart from a few furtive glances, the weekend’s events were not mentioned, as each of us focused on our tasks. Slowly the MPs started to arrive and fill the room, and we all waited for Andrea.

Needing distraction, I popped to the kitchen to make tea, and was joined by Lady Thorne:

“What are you chaps doing for lunch?”, she asked.
“I don’t think we’ve thought that far ahead!”
“When Mr Major was here in the 90s, I organised a rota of ministerial wives who each provided food. One day it was hotpot, then a casserole or a game pie”. She then
giggled: “I remember that every fifth day a Rolls-Royce would pull up and two liveried footmen would deliver a Fortnum’s hamper.”
“I suspect there will be no Cabinet wives or Fortnum’s hampers for us”, I said. “More likely a trip to Tesco Express for their “Meal Deal”!

Lady Thorne smiled diplomatically – I suspect she had no idea what a Tesco Meal Deal was.

By now, Andrea had arrived, and it was clear that all was not well. After wishing us all good morning, she disappeared into the drawing room with her closest advisers. 

Andrea Leadsom with MPs Steve Baker, Tom Pursglove and William Wragg, drafting her statement
announcing that she would be withdrawing from the leadership contest. Photo courtesy of JP Floru.  

The mood darkened. Half an hour later Tim Loughton called us to attention, and invited Andrea to speak. To a silent, and crestfallen, team she confirmed what we already suspected – that she would be withdrawing from the leadership contest with immediate effect. She informed us that, whilst the weekend press had been a factor, her main concern was the damage a ten week campaign would do to Britain’s economy. The Stock Market and the Pound were already in freefall following the referendum, and she simply did not believe that the economy would stand 70 days of the country having no leadership or clear sense of direction. This, together with her fears about uniting the Parliamentary Party, had left her with no choice but to withdraw. She apologised profusely for letting us down and thanked us for our dedication and loyalty. She then returned to the sitting room with her advisers to draft her resignation statement.

Photograph taken from Tim Shipman's book "All Out War".
The "Three Musketeers" Helen Mayer, Tom Borwick and me can be seen around the top left hand corner of the table. 

Later that same morning, on the other side of London, Angela Eagle MP was launching her bid for the leadership of the Labour Party. Conscious not to clash, and determined to get our story out first, the press statement was hurriedly drafted and emailed to the Press Association for 11am. Unfortunately, an angry senior MP, who had not been consulted on Andrea’s withdrawal, had accidentally stamped on the router, and broken it. JP was dispatched upstairs to borrow a screwdriver from Sir Neil Thorne, and we all stood around impatiently as JP attempted to repair it. By this time we had missed the deadline, and the statement had to be twice rewritten putting back the press conference. 

Despite JP’s best endeavours, the little green light of the internet refused to flicker and the final indignity was having to send Shane Frith down Cowley Street, with a laptop, to borrow access to a neighbour's WiFi connection.

Andrea Leadsom announces her withdrawal. Photo courtesy of JP Floru. 

And so, nine short days after I was offered the job of Campaign Manager, while I was standing in a muddy field in Eynsham, it was all over.

The one joy of an otherwise bleak day was to see Angela Eagle floundering at her press conference, as Britain’s media bandwagon stood up and walked out half way through her launch to record the bigger event in Westminster.

“What do we do now?”, asked Tom Borwick. “Let’s go to Rules for lunch!”, I said, “The Champagne’s on me!” On the way to Rules, in a taxi, a friend at the CCHQ Press Office sent me a text, “Well, at least you upstaged Angela Eagle…you guys did one thing right”

I never admitted that even that was an accident – thanks to a broken router – I was determined to bank one small, albeit Pyrrhic, victory.

A week after the campaign finished I received a call from Andrea’s office. There was a letter for me, and a bottle of Champagne – could I come to collect it? I was not planning to be in Parliament for some weeks, so I arranged for a friend from the TPA to collect them for me, and to keep them safe until we next met. The Champagne was welcome, and the hand-written letter was a nice touch; but enclosed with the letter was a cheque covering a substantial portion of what I would have been paid for the whole 3 month campaign. Others on the team received similar. Andrea was under no contractual or moral obligation to do this; none of us asked for, or expected, payment. The fact that she gave it so freely is a mark of her sincerity and decency, which I have never forgotten.

In the 4th and final instalment, I will review the lessons we should learn from this campaign, and how I believe the Conservative Party can heal its divisions, post-Brexit.  

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