Lunch with... Alex Challoner
PRCA director general Francis Ingham tucks in with Cavendish Communications MD Alex Challenor at Shepherd's restaurant.
My lunch with Alex Challoner begins with the usual question –did you call the election result? And Alex is rightly smug but absolutely honest in his answer:
"We said a narrow Conservative victory. I’ll be frank with you, it wasn’t based on a lot of empirical evidence. All of the opinion pollsters called it incorrectly, so unless you were privy to the private polling, which none of us were, you had to go with your gut. I was relatively lucky in having been in 25 or so marginal seats as Deputy Chairman of the Tory Reform Group, so I got a sense of things from that."
I’d completely forgotten that Challoner is a leading light of the TRG. So the next line of questioning was pretty obvious. Surely he must feel closer politically to, say, Jeremy Browne than, say, Bill Cash?
"I’m one of these Tories who naturally feels perfectly at home within the Conservative Party. I’m a red in tooth and claw capitalist, but I really do give a damn about social justice and welfare. The great thing now is that the Conservative Party can have a proper debate within itself, rather than relying on a minority partner."
"Within the 2015 intake of Conservative MPs, there are certainly more who are close who to TRG values than was the case with the 2010 intake. And that’s great for the one nation message within the Conservative Party."
And so to Europe. Does it concern him that it might be a Tory Prime Minister who presides over the UK’s departure from Europe? Emphasising that he’s speaking entirely personally, he says…
"Massively. I’m very clear that we are stronger as a country by being a member of the EU. You can see that the Chancellor and the PM are framing the debate very carefully. Despite all of the awful events happening throughout Europe, we are defining our red lines as to what will be important for Britain’s interest going forward. And a lot of that is economic. It’s important for us as a country that we keep that perspective."
So what does he think the result will be?
"I think it will be a narrow result in favour of staying in the European Union. We get distracted by a lot of the other stuff which frankly is annoying. We don’t want to be going down the ever stronger political union route. It’s very clear that’s not Britain’s destiny. But we benefit enormously from being part of the EU, and I don’t see that changing."
We’ve touched on change or the lack of it. And so I move on to how the Tory Party and the country have changed since 1997, not least in social attitudes.
"As a man married to my same sex partner, I’d say that I have David Cameron to thank for that. Leadership takes guts, and I really respect him for that. You can’t always respect a Government’s record right across the piece, but I certainly do in this particular area."
Is that what Cameron will be remembered for I ask?
"I think his greatest success will centre around the economy, and turning around the deficit. But we’re not there yet. It would have been very easy to take the foot off the accelerator, and not to have pursued a lot of the ambitious reforms he has. In fact, of course, we’ve probably got the second most difficult part of deficit reduction to come."
And who will succeed him?
"If Britain leaves the EU, then the all bets are off. The Mayor is currently taking an extraordinarily long time to decide exactly where he sits on this issue. If Britain stays in the EU, then the leadership will be for Osborne to lose. He would have won everything he’d set out to, and he’d be the continuity candidate."
And when Boris does dismount from his fence, which way will he jump?
"I think he will leave us guessing right to the last minute."
I try to tempt Challoner into an indiscretion: does he think it’s a matter of principle with him, or a matter of calculation? We both laugh as he answers tactfully.
"I think Boris is a very ambitious politician."
Finally, a few minutes about Cavendish. And as at the beginning, Challoner answers with disarming candour.
"I’m not going to get into 'best of this, best of that', because everybody says that. What I take pride in is that we really understand the new politics in this country. And there *is* a new politics. We take the business of understanding these new dynamics very seriously indeed. I want us to be seen as an agency that thoroughly understands the political climate, this Government, and this Opposition."
One thing that PAN readers might not know about him? His first offer about being "terrible at swimming" doesn’t impress. So he goes again.
"I had to take out Ivan Massow. The 2004 Norris race. People had to realise that it was a serious election."
On which assassinational note, we move to murdering food instead……
Monkfish cheeks and smoked haddock
Steamed mussels and venison and bacon pudding