The Daily Telegraph

There’s a hole at the heart of the Gov­ern­ment

- iain dale note­book Iain Dale’s new book is Why Can’t We All Just Get Along. Signed copies from politi­cos.co.uk read more at tele­graph.co.uk/opinion UK News · Politics · Elections · Conservative Party of New York · Norman Tebbit · Chris Patten · Norman Fowler · John Major · William Hague · Hague · Iain Duncan Smith · David Davis · Theresa May · Boris Johnson · Cannock Chase · Brandon Lewis · Sinclair Lewis · David Cameron · United Kingdom · Cheltenham · Conservative Party (UK) · Manchester · Cecil Parkinson · David Young, Baron Young of Graffham · Brian Mawhinney, Baron Mawhinney · Michael Ancram · BBC Radio 4 · Appledore · North Devon · Appledore · Devon

Back in the not-so-dis­tant past, the job of Con­ser­va­tive Party chair­man was one that ev­ery sin­gle Con­ser­va­tive MP han­kered af­ter. In the Thatcher gov­ern­ment it held the sta­tus in Cabi­net of be­ing al­most on a par with the three great of­fices of state. Lord Thor­n­ey­croft, Ce­cil Parkin­son, Nor­man Teb­bit, Lord Young and Ken­neth Baker – these were all big beasts of the po­lit­i­cal jun­gle.

They had two roles: first, to en­sure the party ma­chine was ready to fight an elec­tion; and, se­condly, to act as a light­ning rod for the prime min­is­ter in the me­dia. The same role was per­formed by Chris Pat­ten, Nor­man Fowler and Brian Mawhin­ney for John Ma­jor. Even un­der Wil­liam Hague and Iain Dun­can Smith, the same was true, with Ce­cil Parkin­son (again), Michael An­cram, David Davis and Theresa May hold­ing the fort.

But since Boris John­son came to power, it’s seen by most ob­servers as the least im­por­tant job in Cabi­net.

The cur­rent holder of the of­fice, Amanda Milling – MP for Can­nock Chase, in case you’ve never heard of her – is the most anony­mous party chair­man in his­tory. No one can quite work out what her role is. Like her pre­de­ces­sor, James Clev­erly, she is largely cut out of party man­age­ment is­sues, with her co-chair­man – Boris’s chum Ben El­liot – de­puted to cover that side of the job. Milling spends her time on the rub­ber chicken cir­cuit, speak­ing to lo­cal as­so­ci­a­tions, where she gen­er­ally goes down well, but she largely avoids the me­dia spot­light, which, given her lam­en­ta­ble week­end per­for­mances on the ra­dio, is prob­a­bly just as well.

Ev­ery prime min­is­ter has the per­fect right to ap­point a close po­lit­i­cal con­fi­dant as party chair­man – Theresa May did this with Bran­don Lewis, and David Cameron did it with An­drew Feld­man. Feld­man was not “front of house” and had two roles – to raise money and make sure the party could fight an elec­tion.

Bran­don Lewis was very much front and cen­tre of the May gov­ern­ment’s me­dia op­er­a­tion, and barely a day went by with­out his dul­cet tones grac­ing the na­tion’s air­waves, in­form­ing us that ev­ery­thing was go­ing ter­ri­bly well, thank you very much, and that Brexit meant Brexit.

Shouldn’t Amanda Milling be do­ing that right now? Shouldn’t she be ev­ery­where, ex­plain­ing the Gov­ern­ment’s Covid re­sponse and ap­proach to the free trade deal ne­go­ti­a­tions? Gen­er­ally, she’s nowhere to be seen, al­though on Fri­day she ap­peared on Ra­dio 4’s Any Ques­tions, spend­ing an hour say­ing noth­ing at all. She re­fused to have an opinion on any­thing. She might as well not have been there.

CCHQ con­firmed to me that, in her eight months in the job, not once has

Milling ever ap­peared on the To­day pro­gramme. I have never in­ter­viewed her on LBC, and, af­ter this ar­ti­cle, prob­a­bly never will.

Milling might point to the fact that we’re in the mid­dle of a pan­demic, and that it’s not ap­pro­pri­ate for a party chair­man to be “po­lit­i­cal”. She might also try to con­vince us that she’s so busy re­or­gan­is­ing the party that there’s no time for me­dia in­ter­views.

The trou­ble is, ev­ery­one knows that it’s Ben El­liot who has com­plete con­trol of CCHQ, its fund­ing and per­son­nel. And any­one who thinks oth­er­wise is de­lud­ing them­selves.

Over the last few months, we po­lit­i­cal pun­dits have all got used to us­ing Zoom to take part in live events, whether they’re be­ing hosted by think tanks, me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tions or po­lit­i­cal par­ties. To pro­mote my book, I’ve had to be beamed into on­line lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals rather than ap­pear in front of live au­di­ences, who then hope­fully buy the book. It’s a some­what soul­less ex­pe­ri­ence.

I like to bounce off a live au­di­ence rather than stare into a cam­era and hope that I’m get­ting the tone right. How­ever, some lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals have de­cided to adopt a pol­icy of “sod the pan­demic” and lay on their usual lit­er­ary fayre.

Three weeks ago I took part in Bri­tain’s first “drive-in” lit­er­ary fes­ti­val in Ap­ple­dore, North Devon. I was in­ter­viewed in a field on a stage, with a mas­sive video screen above it. Some 130 peo­ple watched, sit­ting in their cars, and honk­ing their horns in­stead of ap­plaud­ing. Much to my sur­prise it worked bril­liantly.

On Satur­day I took part in the Chel­tenham fes­ti­val in per­son, in front of a so­cially dis­tanced au­di­ence. It re­ally can be done, and be en­joy­able.

It’s a sim­i­lar story for the po­lit­i­cal par­ties, who, over the past three weeks have been car­ry­ing out their party con­fer­ences on­line, to vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess. This week the Con­ser­va­tives have had 20,000 peo­ple reg­is­tered for their on­line con­fer­ence – five times the nor­mal level of up­take. Many of the fringe meet­ings have had au­di­ences of sev­eral thou­sand, com­pared with the hun­dred or so they would have got in Birm­ing­ham or Manch­ester.

Yes, there were some teething prob­lems, with peo­ple find­ing it im­pos­si­ble to log on the first day, but over­all it has proved to be a suc­cess. While I doubt phys­i­cal con­fer­ences will be aban­doned, the par­ties have now learnt that they have the abil­ity to reach out be­yond the core of geeks (like me, I has­ten to add) who like to at­tend the con­fer­ences in per­son. Maybe they’ve seen the fu­ture. And it works.

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