John-Paul Flintoff: Why I became a Tory (seriously)

John-Paul Flintoff

Why I became a Tory (seriously)

From Left to Right in one step

On a summer night in 1987 just minutes after the Conservative party was confirmed as winner of that year’s general election, Dr David Owen of the Social Democrats stepped out before the TV cameras in Plymouth to acknowledge the unwelcome news.

As soon as he’d got the words the piping voice of an adolescent was heard to shout: “And it’s all your fault!” That voice belonged to me. My father had stood against Owen in Plymouth, attracting substantially more Labour support than previously; but failed to oust the politician who had done so much to split the anti-Tory vote.

Ian Flintoff at the results of the general election, Plymouth Devonport, 1987

My father, Ian Flintoff, on the night of the 1987 election

As this suggests, I grew up sympathetic to the Labour party and fiercely averse to its opponents. But times change, and I recently decided to join the Tories.

Some who know me will regard this as a betrayal, probably never speak to me again.

Others may diagnose a marginally premature case of middle-aged rightward drift. Or suspect it is some frolic, nothing but a “story” in many ways reminiscent of the article I wrote after a previous editor sent me scuba diving among sharks.

But there’s another way of looking at it. Britain’s political system restricts an individual’s participation to just one vote every five years or so a vote that can be used by the winning party to justify more or less anything. The only way to contribute more fully is by joining a party with a realistic chance of winning elections and helping to shape its policies.

Tony Blair is often described as a Tory who happens to lead the Labour party; this may be unfair, but one can readily imagine him crossing his fingers, over the years, while dutifully promoting socialist policies not entirely to his taste. In doing so, he got himself into a position where he could bring the party closer to his own views. Why shouldn’t I go the other way? After several years of glory, Blair’s “New” Labour now looks a bit washed up. Today’s wannabe politician is better off joining the Tories. As I did, online, on the day lain Duncan Smith was ousted. And when I heard that Michael Howard was taking over as leader, I congratulated myself: this, it seemed clear, was a party with oomph.

Naturally, I was anxious about how I could fit in.

I decided that so long as I never actually told a lie I would allow myself, when necessary, to keep back awkward truths. Where would I practice this time-honoured, political ethic? At as many events as I could manage to attend, of the variety published on the party website: an “evening at the dogs” in Essex; a debate on Iraq in Westminster; or the annual gala dinner of the Gay Conservative Association, where I kept quiet about the fact that I’m married with a baby daughter.

I went along because I was interested to know how this newly affiliated group squared the rights of homosexuals with a party not traditionally regarded as friendly towards them. I thought I could hide among the hundreds of guests, but was rather surprised to be one of just 35 seated around the single banqueting table. Even though I was stuck at an end, I was still only a few seats from the guest of honour, Theresa May.

Beforehand, in the bar, I chatted to an amiable doctor from Leicester; a sinister marketing manager from Cambridge who wants to be rich (“but not famous”); a businessman from Chichester who offered £1,000 if somebody could persuade the party to put together a formal gay policy; a former MP, and a local councillor from Westminster who is on the list of parliamentary candidates.

To fend off awkward questions that night I told people simply that I joined the party because I was impressed by the removal of Duncan Smith. The man from Chichester agreed, saying he has been lobbying for a year to get rid of IDS, writing letters and collaring influential people whenever he meets them. With a glint in his eye he said suddenly: “Come with me.” And he marched me towards a woman standing alone in a corner of the room.

This turned out to be a feature writer from the Independent. I briefly considered telling her I was just another reporter, but that would have been cowardly and anyway not the whole truth.

I was here because I wanted to be, I told myself. This is who I am, now.

So what happened? Here’s her account, as published in the Independent the following week: An elder statesman of the Gay Conservatives dragged over a stooge. “This man has just joined the party because he’s so pleased that Michael Howard is leader,” he announces, slapping his nervous young colleague on the back. “You should talk to him.” What made a young, gay-friendly man sign up to a party headed by Michael Howard? “Well, I thought lain Duncan Smith was rubbish, ” he offers. “You know, rubbish on TV, that sort of thing.” So, is he just hoping Howard will change his mind about gay rights? “Um, yes,” he begins, and then seems to sense that that’s not what he has been brought here to say. “I mean, I think he’s already changing it Politicians are quite nimble they change their minds as society changes.” Another pause. “But that doesn’t mean to say they’re hypocrites.” As we are seated, he looks grateful to be led away.

My first political interview: not the greatest-ever, but I’m hoping it’s only a small step from that kind of thing to a regular seat beside David Dimbleby on the BBC’s Question Time.

A few days later, my membership card finally turned up. Long delayed by the musical chairs at Central Office, and postal strikes, this came with a letter from Dr Liam Fox, co-chairman, welcoming me with thanks for my generous support and encouraging me to get in touch with my local association. No sooner did I feel the laminated card between thumb and forefinger than I started to feel like Frodo Baggins fingering his ring: forces of evil called to me with dreams of power. Why not stand for election as an MP? Perhaps I might even be leader of the Party one day.

With this in mind, I telephoned Dr Fox. He didn’t recognise my name, but then he’s probably signed lots of new membership letters recently. Hearing the words “Financial Times”, however, he reeled off many encouraging statistics to do with by-elections and membership of the Young Conservatives, or whatever they’re called these days.

“This does suggest,” he said, “that our advance is stopping the Liberal Democrat advance. And that is interesting” but at that point, either accidentally or for deep-seated reasons that Freud might have been able to explain, I hung up.

Not, thankfully, before he’d recommended that I speak to Trish Morris, the deputy chair responsible for candidates.

A teacher and stockbroker by background, Morris was also an honourable runner-up to the late Alan dark in the contest to represent Kensington and Chelsea. To become a candidate, she told me, I need to have been a member for three months. “You come in and see me, we give you a form and we take up references. Then you come to an assessment centre.”

As described in the FT by Theresa May, the assessment centre will consider six “core competences” required of an MP: communication skills; intellectual skills; the ability to relate to people; the ability to lead and motivate people; resilience and drive; and (“finally”) political conviction. In choosing candidates, May wrote, the party has historically placed “too much emphasis on long service to the party rather than on a person’s ability to do the job”.

Or as Morris puts it: “We are having people coming to us with not much of a political footprint. And that is not something we mind so much as we did. We are now telling people (with considerable political experience) to go away and get a life.” As it happens, I spent much of last year on council business: not as councillor, admittedly, but as an assiduous applicant for planning permission; and in my other full-time job as disputer of parking fines. I might add that in addition to working as a journalist, I have first-hand experience of work in the funeral industry, secretarial services, ice-cream sales, rubbish collection, waiting at tables, window cleaning and driving a minicab. Could I become a candidate? “I would not say that it’s impossible,” says Morris. “We have more than 900 people on the candidates list. And we have candidates in place in the majority of our target seats. But we still have some to fill.”

One that is available is Kensington and Chelsea, where the current MP, Michael Portillo, is standing down and the search for his replacement has already started. This would certainly be a convenient location, just a few stops on the Tube from the House of Commons. But I’m not the only person to think so: floods of candidates have already started schmoozing the local party chairman, who happens to be the mother of the film director Guy Ritchie (and therefore mother-in-law of Madonna). I phoned Mrs Ritchie shortly before Christmas, but once again my telephone technique was imperfect. The voice that answered was high pitched, but after I greeted Mrs Ritchie I discovered I was speaking to one of her adult male relations. This can hardly have helped my prospects. And when I did eventually get her on the phone Mrs Ritchie said she preferred not to describe what she is looking for in a candidate because that might prejudice fair competition.

Luckily for me, however, Morris was able to suggestan alternative constituency that others may not be targeting so avidly: Regents Park and Kensington North. This is currently represented by a Labour MP with a hefty majority, but happens to be where I grew up and the local association has likewise yet to select a candidate.

To give this my best shot, I ask for help from a spin doctor. The former newspaper editor Amanda Platell, who worked in that capacity with William Hague, kindly agrees

Conducting a swift audit of my background, she thinks it is an asset that I grew up a labour supporter and was educated in the state system. Moving on to my appearance, she says gratifyingly that the outfit I wear when I meet her “could be a blueprint” for a would be tory candidate: pinstriped jacket over a V-necked sweater with a pale blue shirt and not too cheap jeans. But she disapproved of my suede shoes (“too LibDem”) and she says my hair looks like I have just got out of bed. “That’s ok if you are visiting a farm, or a sink estate, but not otherwise.”

She congratulates me for having what she considers “good eye contact”, and says the creases on my face look happy, rather than expressive of defeat. Also, being tall is good. In summary, she notes the great advantage of looking normal. Is this an insult? “No. Not ordinary, normal. You know, your eyes don’t shoot off in odd directions.”

I’m not quite normal enough, though. She thinks I have a lisp, which nobody ever mentioned before. And I must change my name, which sounds both poncy and foreign. “Britain is not ready for a French prime minister.” I must choose between John and Paul, or use something else altogether.

Finally, she devises a media strategy: I must telephone various radio and cable TV stations pushing myself as a potential reviewer of the next-day’s papers, and a would-be parliamentary candidate. “You have to keep pestering them. Be a bit brazen.” She also suggests that I concentrate my fire on Tony Blair’s record of high tax and poor public service. “You have to say you believe you can create a fairer society. That is what this is about. It’s not about rich bastards.” Quite so. Over the past few weeks, I’ve moved gradually from jokey ambivalence to resolution, conceiving a surprisingly firm intention to become the rare Tory candidate that I wouldn’t, as a teenager, have considered altogether poisonous. At the time of writing, I haven’t been a member long enough to qualify for the official selection process for that I am waiting until next month.

Neither have I been quite brazen enough to review the papers on Five Live or Sky News, as Platell advised.

But I did manage to worm my way into a forthcoming documentary about education, presented by no less a figure than Fiona Millar, Cherie Booth’s former press minder and herself the wife of Alastair Campbell. Not much to go on, perhaps, but it’s a start. And I’m hoping that the sight of me on Channel Four, dishing it out to Millar as we stand outside my old school in north Kensington might just possibly focus the bright minds of committee members at the local Conservative association.

First published 12 January 04. © The Financial Times

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