Iain Dale’s Diary: Comic timing, cricketing glory, and what I learnt from chairing the Tory hustings

“Knock, knock.” “Who’s there?” “Rory.” “Rory who?” “That’s politics.”

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Over the past three weeks I’ve chaired ten of the 16 hustings in which the two Tory leadership candidates have participated. It’s been a weird but very positive experience, even if it did start off with my being booed by the 1,000-strong audience in Birmingham, when I had the temerity to ask questions about Boris Johnson’s private life. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the quality of questions put from the audience to the two candidates, and, much to my relief, most of them have been on subjects other than Brexit.

As the compere for these events I’ve tried to keep it fresh and really test out the candidates on some specialist issues. I remember in Manchester picking a question from Ajay, a 16-year-old British Asian, about his struggle with mental health. It’s the sort of question that can easily trip up a candidate, but Boris Johnson answered it well, and with a surprising amount of detail about what he would do to improve mental health services.

Jeremy Hunt will never out-Boris Boris in oratory, but the audiences took to his calm, measured approach and his clarity in answering questions. The final result may not bear out my anecdotal experiences, but when I talked to previously undecided Tory members after each of the hustings, the overwhelming majority of them had been persuaded to back Hunt.

The Johnson factor

The left is about to repeat the catastrophic mistake of misjudging the abilities and qualities of someone they perceive to be an extreme right-wing opponent. They’re already ramping up the rhetoric in describing Boris Johnson as a “populist” or as “alt-right”. They tried this tactic before the 2008 London mayoral election and failed dismally to puncture the Boris balloon. Johnson may be a Conservative, but he is about as far from being extreme right as you can get, unless of course you count supporting Brexit as “extreme”. This might come as news to 17.4 million people. It’s easy to forget that it was Boris Johnson who proposed an amnesty for illegal immigrants when he was London mayor. As a new MP he voted to repeal Section 28 – a vote Jeremy Corbyn was absent for. I could go on. The left would do well not to underestimate Johnson’s appeal across the electorate. Whatever “it” is, he’s got it in spades.

That’s not to say I am wholly confident he will succeed in getting us out of the EU on 31 October. If he doesn’t, he could end up being a very short-serving prime minister – the Lady Jane Grey de nos jours. For Boris Johnson, and maybe the country, it’s all or nothing. I suspect he may go down as either one of our greatest or one of our worst prime ministers. As with so much in modern-day society, there will be few shades of grey – Lady Jane or otherwise. 

Performance anxiety

In just two weeks’ time I start a 12-day run of 24 shows at the Edinburgh Fringe. To say I am anxious and nervous would be a great  understatement. First of all, Edinburgh is dominated by comedy. Despite my best efforts, I am no comedian. I find myself a lot funnier than other people generally do. Self-knowledge is a wonderful thing. So, what am I doing there? I’m seeking to capitalise on the considerable demand for live politics. If Jacob Rees-Mogg can fill the London Palladium, why shouldn’t I fill the Gilded Balloon?

The show is essentially an hour of me interviewing such luminaries as Nicola Sturgeon, John McDonnell, Sadiq Khan, Jo Swinson, Nicholas Soames, Johnny Mercer, Jess Phillips and Len McCluskey. However, I thought I’d spice it up a bit with the likes of David Starkey, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (best to keep them apart, I think) along with journalistic stars such as Christiane Amanpour, Kirsty Wark and Kate Adie. Can you see why I’m nervous?

I had thought about starting each show by telling a few political jokes, but given some people have bought tickets for several shows I can’t really do the same thing each time. And I have only a repertoire of about three jokes. “Knock, knock.” “Who’s there?” “Rory.” “Rory who?” “That’s politics.” See, you’ve creased up, haven’t you?

Sporting chance

In the 1970s and 1980s I was in love with the world of cricket. I even played for my Essex village team, Ashdon, at Fenner’s once, scoring 15 not out. I’d listen to Test Match Special on a transistor radio while stacking straw bales on my dad’s farm. I could tell you everything about Graham Gooch’s batting average or how many centuries Viv Richards scored for Somerset. So, when Sir Viv walked into the CNN green room and greeted me with: “Hello Iain, I watch you every morning on CNNTalk at home in the Caribbean,” you can imagine how I felt. He knew my name. Wow.

To be honest I’ve fallen out of love with cricket over the past 20 years. Before this year’s World Cup, I’d have struggled to name more than three of the England team, but the tournament has really sparked my interest in the game again. Accuse me of being a glory hunter if you like, but England’s nail-biting triumph over the New Zealanders will make the forthcoming Ashes Test series even tastier than it would have been.

Blue Sunday

Each Sunday Jacqui Smith and I record our weekly For the Many podcast. We may be political opposites, but we have become firm friends, and our rather unique style of constructive disagreement has attracted quite an audience. The trouble is, our listeners seem to enjoy our sometimes smutty chat even more than our learned discussions on Brexit, the Tory leadership or anti-Semitism. Our motto is that if our listeners want a double entendre, then it is surely our duty to give them one. Maybe I’ll use that in Edinburgh… On second thoughts, I’ll get my coat.

“Iain Dale: All Talk” is at the Gilded Balloon, Edinburgh from 31 July to 11 August

This article appears in the 19 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Facebook fixer