Francis Ingham: Prime predictions from two years of lobbying lunches
Shepherds restaurant has been the scene of a few interesting calls from some of the industry's finest...
In the summer of 2015, we began this series of PAN interviews, each of them conducted at Shepherd’s Restaurant. Two years on, and 22 interviews later, it’d be fair to say that rather a lot has changed in the political world. So, we thought that a little look back at some of the most (and more amusingly, the least) insightful interview predictions might be in order….
Europe was a source of some fantastically off-the-mark calls.
My first guest was (who else?) the legendary Peter Bingle. We lunched right after the 2015 general election - a contest where Peter had predicted the result absolutely correctly. As well as saying that Osborne would be the next PM (‘Yes. Yes. Yes’), he said of the then-Chancellor ‘he’ll deliver the referendum result the PM wants’. Can’t be right all of the time, eh?
My friend James Turgose was unequivocal ‘The Remain campaign will win quite decisively. The vote will be 60/40 to stay in’. Not exactly. However....the next PM ‘won’t be Osborne’. Spot on, James. Pete Digger was clear too ‘it’ll be an easy yes win’. And Carl Thomson went all in ‘60/40 or 65/35 Remain’. Alex Challoner was more circumspect ‘’it will be a narrow result in favour of staying in’. Liam Herbert thought we’d stay in, but correctly predicted Boris would ‘keep people waiting, and in the end, he will probably will come out for Brexit’.
William Walter was confident ‘without a shadow of a doubt, the country will vote to remain’ he told me ‘If I’m wrong, I’ll do a Dan Hodges. I’ll have to pledge to run naked down Whitehall’. We have yet to witness this event. But he got it right re Cameron’s replacement ‘I’d put my money on Theresa May’. Hope you nipped off to William Hill after lunch William -fully clothed, I presume?
Which all adds up to one thing -nobody I had a PAN lunch with called the referendum right….
We were better as an industry at predicting our own regulatory future. Cue Mr Bingle on the lobbying register ‘they’ll leave it alone’; Gill Morris ‘it will become inconsequential’; ‘if people in the sector expect to see the repeal of the Lobbying Act, they are going to have a long wait’ said Iain Anderson, who earlier in the lunch had described himself not as ‘a Scottish Tory. But as THE Scottish Tory’. Not anymore, Iain!
Labour’s leadership issues dominated plenty of lunchtimes.
By and large, my Tory friends could hardly stop laughing; while my Labour ones struggled manfully to say something positive on the record. For example, Labour Councillor and Law Society mover and shaker Robert Khan told me what lay in store at the next election ‘it would be difficult to predict the result with some certainty, so we shall have to see’. Actually of course, most people thought it was incredibly easy to predict the result. And most people were wrong.
But there were exceptions…. ‘never underestimate the likes of Corbyn. The Conservative Party should beware a Corbyn victory -his authenticity may well have a wider appeal than we think’ said Mark Gallagher late in 2015.
Carl Thomson offered the insight that Corbyn had ‘tapped into this idea that the public are fed up with overly-spun politicians who stick to the same script’. Mark Glover told me that ‘my ward membership has grown from 90 to 370’. That’s a lot of leafletting momentum….
Emily Wallace and I joked that maybe we should watch A Very British Coup. We didn’t know how right we (almost) were. Darren Caplan smirked as he told me that Labour MPs wouldn’t move against their Leader, and that he’d fight the next election. He seemed happy at that prospect (as was I). Something Rod Cartwright agreed with at the time that Owen Jones was mounting his kamikaze attack, telling me of Corbyn ‘he’s going to win by quite a margin’. You nailed it, Rod. Your other call ‘It’ll be Clinton. It’ll be close’ wasn’t quite such a good one.
In contrast to Tory cheer and Labour circumspection about Mr Corbyn stood George McGregor ‘I’m distraught. I’ve been a Labour Party member for 33 years, and for the first time ever I have contemplated leaving’. He was also one of the few people to sense that Mrs May might call an early election ‘if she ends up at 45% on the polls and Labour are tanking at 25%’. And responding to that very prospect, Stephen Pomeroy observed that ‘the country has election fatigue’, and said that an early election would be a mistake. If only Mrs May had possessed such prescience.
As for what would happen if and when the election came? Well, Mario Ambrosi predicted that the funding of social care would loom large - how right he was. Pretty much everybody agreed that the Lib Dems would make hardly any progress; and most people didn’t even bother mentioning UKIP once the Brexit vote had taken place. It’d be fair to say that nobody expected Labour to pick up seats overall, though Gill Morris had told me that the party was going to make strong gains in London.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the past two years has been the answers provided to my regular final question, asking my lunch guests to tell readers a personal fact that they might find surprising.
So now we know that one of Mark Glover’s university mates was Tim Farron; that Emily Wallace’s son insists on calling himself Bear; that Alex Challoner ‘took out Ivan Massow’ in 2004; that Darren Caplan wants to be an airline pilot when he ‘grows up’; and that Liam Herbert learned everything he knows about team management ‘from watching Godfather films’.
William Walter cycled from San Francisco to New York when he was twenty; Phil Hickley loves American Football, and has been to 20 of the 32 NFL US grounds; the ‘most terrifying experience’ of George McGregor’s life wasn’t Corbyn’s election, but instead nearly expiring on Ben Nevis when he was 10. Rod Cartwright served beer at Glastonbury for eight years; Stephen Pomeroy and Nikki da Costa both pack a punch -he likes to box to keep in shape, while she was a prize-winning kick boxer in her twenties. You’ve been warned -mess with either of them at your peril.
And my favourite revelation? It came from Robert Khan ‘my great-grandfather was a Nawab, the equivalent of a Maharaja. Which explains all the current airs and graces’.
On which elegant note, I’m off to lunch my next PAN lunch. Cheers!
Francis Ingham is director general of the PRCA.