Ransom Note Gets On It With A Tory – Shocker!
It was one of those ideas that seemed to make total sense after a few hours of solid drinking when someone else is paying for it… “Right lads,” I proclaimed to my R$N colleagues on our spring night out, “in a couple of weeks, shall we all reconvene in front of the general election, get absolutely twatted all night, and broadcast our thoughts?”
It was signed off immediately. So when the fateful night came, there we all were on our nominated table at The Social’s Election Night Special, broadcasting our increasingly nonsensical diatribe via a stunning array of devices (if ever there was a real-life example of Nathan Barley’s self-facilitating media node, this was it), and sitting at the bar I spot someone looking rather more pleased than the rest of the room with the latest Tory gain.
I marched over and accosted him, but there were more important matters to address than his obvious political leanings. First things first. “Didn’t you used to present Watchdog?,” I said.
And that he did. It was Doctor David Bull: the one who did the health features and who wasn’t as rude to his guests as Anne Robinson and Nicky Campbell – in fact, considering he was a Watchdog presenter, he always seemed quite sound… remember him?
It then transpired that he’d once stood as a Conservative MP, that he knew David Cameron quite well and that he’d flown in from LA, where his TV career is just beginning to take off, just to watch the election. It was not your average small talk, so as the night wore on to 5am and the R$N table slumped in despair at what was soon to become a Tory majority, I thought it would be more fun to defect – to try and corrupt a D-list celebrity (his words) sufficiently so he would divulge something scandalous about the Tory party, and hell, maybe even about Anne Robinson (who now looks like this, incidentally…).
What I hadn’t bargained for was just how much I’d already corrupted myself, so I forgot nearly all of the conversation, and sure as hell didn’t have the wherewithal to record it… I mean, I was only part of a bunch of journalists following a brief to broadcast observations during the general election; why on earth would someone in my position want to document a conversation with a wannabe politician, about politics, in the middle of election night? Such an absurd notion.
So I had to settle with meeting up with him a couple of weeks later when I was in a fit state to press record, but by then I felt there was a more serious point to this interview; that given the sheer volume of internet mourning I had been subject to in the aftermath of the election, this was a good opportunity to be a bit more positive and prove the point – albeit in an anecdotal way – that liberal thinking hasn’t suddenly been extinguished from politics just because a Tory government has won the most seats. And even if a lot of it has, in my own pious opinion, it’s a better use of time to try and find common ground with the party in power – even if you didn’t vote for them – than to keep moaning about how bad it all is that your side didn’t win. For every person who reads online tirades about the Tories that is inspired to do something proactive, I would venture there are more who become disengaged with the process. And no Russell Brand, that isn’t cool.
We begin with the concept of an election after party, before moving on to the decriminalisation of drugs, the EU, the NHS, tuition fees, ice creams with George Osborne, and David’s own time in politics…
So what do you remember of the night?
I can remember me and you did a lot of political jousting. I had actually flown back from LA for the election so it was very interesting being in that bar… there were a lot of people in woollen hats voting Labour…
And they were gutted!
And me and my mate Robin were the only Tories in that bar, but actually the atmosphere was really convivial. I think we left about 6am. We ended up going back to some guy’s house to watch the rest of it. After the election was decided, then I wanted to see Cameron ask the Queen etc… really there was no end point.
So what… you cracked on until tea time the next day?
Ah, so you did some proper partying on then. Liberal behaviour if you ask me…
Well as I was saying to you on the night, I’m a Conservative but a lot of stuff I say and do makes me sound like a liberal. In fact this morning on TV [he’s a regular panelist on The Wright Stuff] I called for the decriminalisation of all drugs, and some proper medical support to go with it. One of the problems we have, when it comes to people being treated, is they lie about what they’ve taken. It’s much easier if you know what people have taken because then you know what you can do about it, and also people don’t know what they’ve taken because they don’t have a safe supply of drugs. And of course you’d cut crime immediately.
Could you ever see a Tory government signing that off?
It’s one thing to say that you want to bring in legislation, but it’s quite another when you’re worried all the time what your electorate is going to say, as per what happened with professor David Nutt’s recommendations that were just ignored. So a progressive Tory party has a problem, because it has all the people like me who are pushing to say ‘look, come on, it’s time to get with it’, and then you’ve got all the older generation, but it’s important to not alienate them because you still need their votes.
So the answer is ‘yes’ – I do think it’s possible – but in the passage of time. At least another ten years from now.
How does one end up standing as a Tory MP?
My story is so ridiculous that it could only happen to me. I was at a drinks party – in fact, many of my best stories start with this – and I was berating this chap about the state of the health service. I then said to him, ‘what do you do?’ And he said ‘I’m a Conservative MP’, and I just went off on one. I said ‘you should be ashamed of yourself about the NHS etc. etc.’, and then he said to me, ‘well if you think you’re so clever – you do it’.
That’s how it all started. The party I’m most affiliated with was the Conservative Party so I applied to be on the list. At the time you may remember David Cameron ran something called an A-List.
So was it because of your standing as a known face in the public eye? That would have surely helped?
I don’t think it hindered!
Not that I’m judging, but some might…
Well my concern about politics… you get people who go in and they become researchers in the house of commons, they work their way up the house of commons, they become PPS… they’ve never had a real job!
Yes, I mean, how well can they actually connect with anyone?
They can’t! They’ve got no idea.
Ed Miliband, that means you! Pragmatic fella, stood for some commendable stuff, but…
Exactly. Ed Miliband is a good case in point. You know, actually, I have done a few things… I’m a doctor, I started a business, I became a TV presenter… done 20 years of that… I’ve become very involved in property investment… so at least I’ve had some world experience. So I came to it from that point, and I didn’t realise just what a bruising fight I was in for. I was the candidate for Brighton Pavillion, which like the whole of Brighton used to always be Conservative, and then it became Labour, and when I was standing it was a fight between Labour, the Greens and Conservative, and it was a nasty nasty fight.
It looks savage. When you look back at people like Simon Hughes giving out leaflets saying he was ‘the straight choice’ in that 1983 by-election where he was standing against Peter Tatchell in Bermondsey… he turned out to be bisexual anyway! Says it all about the pressure of a campaign really. So on that theme, did you make it obvious that you were gay during the campaign then?
I have always said that I think sexuality is irrelevant – it’s about people.
So your PR people didn’t ever advise you to play to it?
Haha… what PR people?!? My campaign was basically me and a dog called Colin! I didn’t have anyone. There was no money, nothing. When I first got down there I was so appalled when I would knock on doors, and these gay men would answer and say ‘I won’t vote Tory even though really I am a Tory, but I won’t vote Tory because I’m gay’. And I was like ‘this is a nonsense!’, so in response to that I decided I’d do something more out there. So I did the first ever Conservative float at Brighton Gay Pride. I got a 40-foot articulated lorry, filled it with about 100 of my closest and most beautiful friends, and had all these T-shirts made saying ‘I’ve come out… I’m a Tory’, and it had enormous resonance – it made every national newspaper – and we could see it turning the vote.
The point I was trying to make was ‘no one really cares’; your sexuality is irrelevant, and that actually, the Conservative party is full of gay men. Even under Margaret Thatcher, many of her own advisers were gay. The hatred was all over Section 28 – it was a very small clause – it was a badly written clause… anyway, we are way past that!
I think I’d have done pretty well in that election but unfortunately my Dad became terminally ill, so I didn’t have much option, so I went back to Suffolk and I was with my family. As it turned out, Caroline Lucas won for the Greens. The central party still feels that had I stayed, I may well have won, but probably by about two votes or something!
So given you represent the more progressive wing of the Tory party, aren’t you a bit annoyed at the old-fashioned policies they’ve led with recently, in response to UKIP?
Leaving the EU. There’s no way Cameron would have wanted to do this were it not for UKIP.
There’s a piece of work that needs to be done to say to everyone that there are some really good advantages to being a part of it, and yes there are some things that don’t work too of course. From my perspective, Europe’s like a family. We like each other, we get on, but we don’t want to sleep with each other. There has to be some give and take… we are different countries. There should be a way that each country can implement things differently.
The referendum has come about because people were unhappy, and yes, a response to UKIP. I can imagine that Cameron wishes he’d never said anything about a referendum. I think, when it is called, people will vote to stay.
I do think that. I think it’ll be similar to Scotland. When people bother to spell out to the electorate what they get from Europe, I think they will vote for it. Why do you think that it’ll be ‘no’ though?
I think that there are a lot of people with primitive and ill-informed views. Not every single person who wants to leave Europe is primitive and ill-informed obviously – there are arguments for it – but I think a lot of the most angry people will make the effort to vote ’no’, and people who just want things to stay as they are simply won’t have the same passion to go out and vote for it.
I take your point. But let me level something at you as you are meant to be Labour… your lead candidate for the leadership, Andy Burnham… he wants a referendum on the EU!
Yes, he’s keeping up with the Joneses, just like Cameron kept up with the ‘UKIP Joneses’ if you like; but Cameron’s reaction is what started the… and here’s another cliche… ‘domino effect’ in the first place.
It doesn’t show much character of the Labour party does it?
Agreed. But let me level something back at you. I feel Cameron is acting in as primitive a way as the government did in the 1950s, by letting a domestic minority skew a far bigger equation.
When the precursor of what was to become the EEC was put to Herbert Morrison – the Deputy Prime Minister of the time who incidentally was also Peter Mandelson’s grandfather – he famously kiboshed the idea of the UK joining up because ‘the Durham miners would never wear it’. Cameron is doing a modern-day version of this. Does it worry you that he’s bowed to UKIP like that?
No, it doesn’t. I think he was caught between a rock and a hard place. He was in a coalition which was very problematic in lots of ways, and he had a really serious threat from UKIP. Given that Scotland wants to have more devolution, and given that power will be devolved to the various assemblies, including England, but all within the framework of the United Kingdom – and by the way English votes for English laws is the right thing to do – but it is therefore only right that we also have a say on what goes on in Europe. Now, I don’t want to leave – I think we need to renegotiate – but even Angela Merkel agrees that there is room for renegotiation. So I think this will all sort itself out.
So what about cuts? We hear about £12 billion of cuts from Welfare. Already they’ve said that they’re not going to cut anything to do with pensions and pensioners, so from your £250 billion-ish Welfare spend, that’s half of it ruled out, so you’ve got £125 billion left for things like unemployment benefit, social services etc. Do you agree that this should be cut in this way?
Without being horribly emotive about it, we inherited a complete shit show from the last Labour government where we were up to our eyeballs in debt. You have to pay off that debt. The one thing that no one seems to agree on is the speed you pay it back. Have you seen the amount of interest we’re paying on the debt? So you’ve got to find savings. When you look at how much we spend as a country… I have to admit I don’t know quite where these savings are coming from yet… I don’t think anyone does… I don’t think they’ve actually been identified.
But do you agree that sum of money is worth cutting from those areas?
I do agree that the deficit has to be got under control. So if you’re the treasury you either cut or you grow the economy [using public money/services], or you do both. What is interesting is that we’ve got the fastest-growing economy in Europe, and we’ve retained our triple A rating, and that’s all to do with confidence in the markets.
I suspect that a majority Labour government last time around would have retained the triple A rating. I think it was only when George Osborne changed tack and made the cuts less extreme that things started to pick up.
The reason Labour lost that election is for one simple reason: they never once said it was their fault that they got the country into such a mess. And I think people are very forgiving – we’re all human. All they needed to say is ‘we got it wrong, we spent too much, the deficit went through the roof etc.’
I don’t recall Nigel Lawson and Margaret Thatcher taking the blame for the recession they presided over. As much as it would be refreshing for there to be total honesty in public office, I think it’s a bit of a red herring… it surely transcends the whole lot of it, whatever party?
I don’t recall Nigel Lawson and Margaret Thatcher standing in the election we’re talking about! But with my PR hat on [he has his own PR and marketing firm], and actually, from when I was on Watchdog… if you’ve got a complaint against you as a company, the best way to diffuse it is to say ‘I’m so sorry, it’s our fault, we will do everything we can to get this right’… the interviewer has nowhere else to go with that argument.
I still question just how well the Conservatives did with the economy during the last cycle.
When that exit poll came out, sterling rocketed against the dollar, and that speaks volumes.
Or does it just mean that they preferred the fact that it wasn’t a coalition, rather than it being a matter of Tory or Labour?
What it meant was the markets were happy with what they saw as stability.
Agreed on that. And as unpopular as this is with most of my contemporaries, I admire both Nick Clegg and David Cameron for rolling up their sleeves, compromising, and getting on with it in pursuit of stability. Without that, the economy could easily have got worse.
I agree. I actually think the coalition government did pretty well, because there were checks and balances. Where I think the Lib Dems messed up is that Nick Clegg wouldn’t take responsibility for anything that they’d done in government… you can’t do that! ‘…well we didn’t have anything to do with it’… you were the Deputy Prime Minister man! What were you doing? Playing Ludo? The public aren’t stupid. And also tuition fees… he never really recovered from that. And by the way, I’d abolish them. I don’t know how you do it. But you don’t need 50% of people going to university.
So what percentage should it be then?
I don’t think you need to say one publicly. But let’s say a third – if you look back historically it’s been a third. Do we really want to go down the route of the States where my friends who are now physicians owe $250,000 before they start work?
We’re not quite there yet!
The problem is, it should be about equality of access. Coming from a rich family doesn’t make you a good doctor. The problem in America is that pretty much the only people who are becoming doctors are rich families and that’s appalling because actually, you need to have empathy, you need to understand what it’s like to be socially deprived… you need to know where the morbidity and mortality comes from.
So given your experience as a doctor, what about the NHS seven-day week that the Tories are talking about?
I actually think that we run a pretty terrible health service currently. What? People get sick five days a week? I can tell you from my own experience, the staffing levels at the weekend are pretty diabolical. I remember when I used to go in on a Monday morning, the first thing that would happen would be my pager going off and it would be the mortuary telling me how many people had died over the weekend and I had to go and certify them.
The other thing that no one has picked up on is all those expensive bits of equipment; CT, MRI etc… none of it’s used at the weekend. So suddenly you can free up two sevenths of your capacity, just like that. All those waiting lists from people who haven’t had an MRI who are waiting for a new hip or whatever… you can get rid of them in a few months! But no one’s talking about that. If I was running an airline, I wouldn’t park the planes for two days a week. All airlines will tell you, the cost of running the airline is all the hours the planes are on the ground.
Why did you leave the profession?
I didn’t leave the profession, I’d say I went sideways. And what I mean is, if I can keep people out of hospital by talking on TV about health issues, then that’s a good utilisation of my time. And I guess I’ve always loved TV as well and I’m a bit of a showoff!
What’s David Cameron actually like then… you must know him?
I do know David. He is a conviction politician. He is very passionate about what he believes. He used to come down to Brighton and support me. Actually George Osborne used to come down as well – he was the funnier of the two. He always used to insist that I would buy him an ice cream on the seafront before he’d do any work.
Anyway, I think Cameron hasn’t got everything right by any means, but he detoxified the brand, which in my marketing speak is what you have to do. And that’s pretty much what Labour has to do now.
The moment Ed Miliband won the leadership election because he had the backing of the trade unions it did make me wonder how electable he would be, given that it isn’t 1983…
They elected the wrong Miliband!
The only Miller band worth bothering about.
It worries me when you see Len McCluskey trotting around making it look like he controls the Labour party. I think most people, even if you’re a Labour voter, don’t like that very much.
One of Tony Blair’s greatest moves in terms of political success was to distance himself from the hard left…
I remember when Blair won the election, and there was all that Cool Britannia stuff… it did feel like a new dawn. How the mighty have fallen!
There was some economic progress in his time though – Blair’s era is not all to be dismissed.
Well Blair was a fiscal Tory. I think he always has been a Tory because he knew he’d be more likely to be the leader of the Labour party than the leader of the Conservative party. Because again, the right wing of the Labour party and the left wing of the Tory party are not far apart.
Yes, agreed, as per the whole point of this discussion, but the economic policy of Blair’s Labour party is a fair bit off the current one from the Tories. I think what Osborne has come out with has been old-fashioned Tory theory, i.e. the recession gives a bloody good excuse to shrink the state. Not that I’m saying a big state is the answer to everything either, but…
It’ll be interesting to see what they actually do. What we’re reading about and what they actually do could be two entirely different things.
Interview: Mike Boorman, follow him on Twitter.