"I vote sentimentally. James Callaghan waved at me in the 1970s"

From Samuel Johnson to <em>The King's Speech</em>: a few bits of my interview with Frank Skinner tha

If they sold shares in Frank Skinner, I'd buy some. Not only is he the only man in the world who could make me watch a show about football (Statto!) but he is perhaps the perfect interviewee. He's funny, provocative and has an opinion on just about everything. I interviewed him for the magazine (online here) but here are some of the best bits we didn't have room for . . .

Victoria Coren wrote a column last year saying that she was going to admit that she believed in God, although it was the kind of thing that makes people gasp at dinner parties.

There was a time when, if I said I was a Catholic, people would be quite interested -- a bit like if you said, "I play the percussive dulcimer." People would say, "Oh, what's that? That's really interesting." Whereas [now], if I say I'm a Catholic, it's much more negative and aggressive.

I'm very much in the God camp. Having said that, I have a lot of time for atheists who have properly pursued the topic of God. I prefer people who've read a few books, had some thoughts about it, considered their own experience and then arrived at the position that there is no God, rather than someone who, if you say, "Do you believe in God?", says, "Yeah, I think so."

If you entertain the possibility that there might be a God, would you not pursue that as an interesting and relevant topic to your life? I'd rather have Dawkins than just a dork.

Wasn't Thomas Aquinas the Catholic who was big on doubt?

I've always thought that there was a moment of doubt -- this is going to get quite theological -- when Jesus was on the cross, depending on which occurrence in the Bible you take. I can't remember the Aramaic but he said: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Then he dies. When I read that, I thought that was because he couldn't go back home and say, "I've been a human being," if he didn't have any doubt. Doubt is really important. That was the last brick in the wall. Once he'd experienced doubt, he could die. The job was done. You can't understand what it's like being a human being if you haven't experienced doubt of your most profound and fundamental belief.

Is your Catholicism something people fixate on -- something they you about?

I probably mention it quite a lot . . . I mean, you brought it up today! I do talk about it light-heartedly in conversation. I suppose I like the fact that it's sort of the antithesis of cool. What's really cool is to know about science and being an atheist at the moment, so I've sort of taken an anti-cool stance. Probably by needs must.

There was a time when you were quite "cool".

I don't think I've ever been cool. How dare you! That's it, the interview ends here!

In the Fantasy Football days.

I don't know if we were cool . . . I once drove to the West End and there was a very fat man being sick in the gutter. He hadn't even moved his feet, so he was being sick on his shoes. He had a Frank Skinner Fantasy Football T-shirt on. And I remember thinking: "That's my people." [Laughs] But what you mean is I used to be more popular than I am now!

You're definitely more refined now. With Opinionated, was it deliberately supposed to be a "nice" show, because it's quite friendly, with comics working together?

I'm slightly wary of saying this, because it could be misheard . . . but panel shows can be a bit like the January sales, when the biggest, strongest, most violent people get the best bargain. And I was very, very keen to have proper women comics on, who have the chance to be proper women comics. That was partly selfish -- I thought there's a whole area of comedy that's been slightly squandered on telly and I'm happy for them to come on the show because my name's on the door. If ultimately people think it's a funny show, I get the credit for it.

Do you think it's hard for female comics when they're seen as doing "women's jokes" -- about hairspray and wedding dresses and stuff like that?

That doesn't apply on Opinionated because we talk about whatever we talk about. I talk about it and the male comic talks about it and the female comic, too. And, obviously, when we get to the audience, we don't know who's gonna put their hand up. It could be a man or a woman and, in one case, even someone in the middle. So I don't know what a women's issue is, really. I mean, I did a column about dieting in the Times; it was about how, as I've got older, when I get ill now, in the gloom there's always a candle flickering saying, "Well, I am losing weight." I don't think men admit to that.

But, oddly enough, there's quite a few male comics who have lost a shed-load of weight.

Yeah, but they never talk about it.

They say: "Oh no, I walked a lot."

Yeah, but it's rubbish. I've always been skinny but there have been periods when I've been un-skinny -- and I was very glad to drop them off. But you know that pair of jeans that women are supposed to keep? I don't have those!

So things seen as being women issues or male issues, I think are slightly bogus. If blokes and women talk about them, you might get a feminine angle on it but it's not excluding it as a topic. I feel we could talk now about babies if you like, or something seen as a feminine thing.

I'm 27, I don't want to talk about babies!

Well, you know what I mean, we could talk about something profoundly feminine and I think I'd be able to have an angle on it.

Is that because you're a man and it's OK - like is it OK for straight actors to play gay roles because they don't get typecast?

Do you think it's OK for straight actors to play gay roles? I only ask that because I watched The King's Speech the other day and thought: "Is it OK for a non-stutterer to play this part?" Is he doing a stutterer out of a job? There isn't much acting work for a stutterer. Also, where is that cut-off point where you can't black up but you can stutter?

You're president of the Samuel Johnson Society. Do you have a Samuel Johnson joke? The only thing I could think of as material was I read that Boswell used to have sex with trees. But it's not necessarily a joke, so much as a horrifying observation*.

Did he used to have sex with trees? Because I understand his motivation. I was tree hugging once at two o'clock in the morning at, what is that festival? Latitude. I've got a bit of a thing about trees. Do you know what I've always thought about trees? If there were no trees and I made one and put it in an art exhibition, it would be considered the most incredible, beautiful thing. But you can walk past them all the time and not even notice them.

When I was at college, me and a mate used to do Johnson quotes all the time. We got obsessed with Johnson. We were with this student, who started telling us that his girlfriend had gone on holiday with an ex-boyfriend and he was worried about it but he trusted her. Except that he didn't trust her. My mate -- I knew he was going to say it -- said: "Sir, never accustom your mind to mingle vice and virtue. The woman's a whore and there's an end on't." As he was saying it, I was thinking, "Please don't say that." But he did.

How did it go down?

Not very well. He probably had a sense of it being a quote but he wouldn't have known the quote. You know, it had the word "whore" in it, for goodness sake.

Do you vote?

Yes. I probably vote sentimentally more than anything else. James Callaghan waved at me in the late 1970s outside Downing Street and I thought: "That's it." That was a factor. But I vote Labour because I have an emotional attachment to my working-class background and I like the idea of being someone who cares about the lowly more than my own tax rate. Obviously, that wavers but I feel like the moment I vote, I am seeing through that ideal of myself.

Do you get asked to do events for Labour?

I do occasionally, but I don't [do them]. I've been asked to do Tory things and Lib Dem things -- not so much since the Times column, where I'm fairly obviously Labour. I always think it's a bit embarrassing, celebrities. Even in the Times column, where I speak about politics to make jokes about it or in a sort of emotional, stylised [way], I don't really understand.

When I read about politics, I never read opinion columns. I want absolutely stark figures, I want to know about facts and figures and stuff like that. But I don't have the capability to write like that so I sort of poetise it. It can be entertaining but I don't know how informative it is.

Do you read newspapers then?

Yes, a lot.

But you stay away from opinion?

I don't read opinion unless it's someone who I feel is an expert or Matthew Parris, who I feel is an expert on everything.

I went to a debate about whether England should be Catholic again. He was brought up as a sort of token atheist but he didn't do an atheist speech -- he spoke on behalf of Anglicanism. He said: "If I did believe, I would be an Anglican and this is why . . ." Then, he did an assault on the Catholic Church, which was brilliant. Some of it, I agreed with and some of it, I didn't. I was with a Catholic friend who was outraged and there were Catholics in the audience booing but I thought it was brilliant.

It's more heroic, presumably, to take that stance?

It was a clever idea to not play the card we all thought he was going to play. If you see Will Self on Question Time, you think: if everyone who was on Question Time was like Will Self, you could watch it every week. You wouldn't need to read anything about politics that week: you would have all the important original thoughts. It's a worry that the people running the country seem much blander, less informed and less generally "on it" than someone who's a bit of a part-timer.

But isn't that our fault for ripping apart politicians every time they say anything vaguely interesting?

I used to think that, until I interviewed some politicians. I realised that I am quite confessional. On the radio, I have talked about my girlfriend; in stand-up over the years, I've talked about every aspect of my sex life. Then, if somebody writes something that I consider to be personal about me in the papers, I'm affronted -- something that's an intrusion into my privacy.

But my whole angle and my whole projection of myself into that world has been my personal life and my most secret thoughts. I'm very happy, as long as I'm in control of them.

Are you wary of making your personal life into a routine?

No, I talk about my personal life on my radio show, which is probably where I'm most "me". I talk about my home life a lot because I'm doing this show every week and it lasts for two hours: it's all grist to the mill. I've talked about big arguments [that my girlfriend and I have] had, whether I'm right or wrong. This week's phone-in was: "Was it right of me not to offer to pay her train fare, blah blah blah?"

How does she feel about that?

She seems fine with it. The second book I wrote, she's in it quite a lot. She was very cool about it but she did seem to ask for a lot of copies to give to her friends.

Frank Skinner's Opinionated returns to BBC Two on 25 March at 10pm. He hosts The Frank Skinner Show on Absolute Radio from 8am every Saturday.

* [Helen's note: I subsequently couldn't find a source for this, so -- worryingly -- I think I might have imagined it.]

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide