Monday, April 12, 2010

Dead Man Walking

I remember being on holiday as a little girl in Scarborough. One of the tabloids had some prize whereby if you carried a copy of the paper and discovered their man out and about in a seaside resort and told him something like "To my delight, it's Chalkie White", you could win £5. He came to Scarborough when we were there and I spent a whole day looking for him. I didn't find him and I didn't get the fiver. I figure someone owes me a fiver today though, because I found Chris Grayling on the campaign trail.

Finding Grayling on the campaign trail is really hard because ever since he said Christian B&B owners should "have the right" to reject gay couples, the apparatchiks have kept him in a locked cupboard in Central Office and fed him pancakes they slide under the door. I only wanted a bit of colour for the blog. My "mummy blog" which is pink. I'd have been quite happy with a bit of a chat and carry-on-campaigning-Chris. But they weren't that happy to see me at Berwick Tories HQ. Not at all happy.

The first thing his minder did was start cross-examining me about who I was.
(Actually thinking about it, it was the second thing because the first thing was to ask me to leave the building on the grounds it was a private meeting and he presumably thought I might hear something Chris was saying to members which he wouldn't say in public. Something like "Gay-boys, don't you just hate them?")
After I'd left the building, the minder starts asking how I knew Grayling was in town and how many readers I have (not many I told him, which is true), and how disappointing it must be if nobody reads me (a slightly unnecessary remark but there you go.) I asked for two minutes with Chris before he started glad-handing, but No, I could put a few questions as we walked.

I liked Grayling as soon as I met him - he was charming, intelligent and pleasant. (He'd even read the blog.) He's slightly tall for my taste bearing in mind I'm 5ft 2" and he's about 8ft nothing. Bearing in mind he's tall and I'm short and we are walking, it wasn't easy. It got less easy when the North-East communications man promptly stuck his phone right in front of my face to record my recording. This is disconcerting but I'm willing to go with the flow. As I say, Grayling is a grown-up politician and I'm a blogger, so we're fine right?

After all hell broke loose after his comments, Grayling issued a statement saying he was sorry "if what I said gave the wrong impression" and assuring all and sundry that he had voted for gay rights. As we walked through the archway into the market town of Alnwick, (past a sign advertising a B&B,) I asked whether he was sorry for his words that B&B owners should have the right to reject gay couples.
He said: "I said everything I was planning to say about it last week. I said I didn't intend to cause any offence. I pointed out I actually voted for gay rights, I actually voted for this particular piece of legislation. I voted for a number of other pieces of legislation particularly the civil partnership ones, and these are difficult, sensitive issues as I said but the proof of the pudding is what you do and I voted with my conscience."
I said he had patently been talking off the top of his head (well, I didn't want to suggest he'd been talking out his arse) but was he sorry for the words? Would he like to take back what he said?
Grayling wouldn't. He said: "The important thing now is to focus on the rest of the campaign. What I don't want to do is get into a prolonged discussion. I think I have said what I'm planning to say."
But I made the point this was an opportunity to retract. (After all, an apology for creating the impression you have given, is not the same as an outright apology and admission what you said was beyond the pale.)
"I think I've said what I'm going to say, I said (it)on the BBC last week, explained my comments, made a number of statements. I think I want to now talk about the rest of the campaign."
I asked as an honourable man whether he had offered his resignation as Shadow Home Secretary.
"I think as I've said I want to talk about the rest of the campaign."
At this point, the Northern press guy who is so close to me on the narrow pavements of Alnwick that he is virtually in my handbag told me I could keep asking the same question, but I'd get the same answer so I might as well move on. (I love it when people give me blogging tips.)
I explained I had to ask the questions.
The press guy repeated I was going to get the same answer so I might as well move on to another question.
So I did as I was told.
I said: "The Daily Mail described you at the end of last week as Calamity Chris... The Sunday papers also said you weren't long for the world, you were going to lose your job. Can you actually go on?"
He told me: "We're in the middle of a general election campaign. Our goal is to win the general election and bring change to Britain. Nobody has got a job for the future anyway - we haven't won the election. We're not measuring curtains. We're not planning for the future. We're taking the Conservative message out onto the doorstep
to try and deliver the change people want."
We danced through the Dannatt issue, and with the North press guy insisting we keep moving and instructing me to ask "a local question on a local campaign please", I asked about reports that lawyers claimed there was a case to arrest the pope when he comes in September. (According to the frontpage of The Sunday Times, lawyers believe they can ask the Crown Prosecution Service to initiate criminal proceedings against the Pope, launch their own civil action against him or refer his case to the International Criminal Court over his role in the alleged cover-up of sex abuse against children in the catholic church.) Did he think the lawyers had a case against the pope, I said.
The North press guy intervened again to inform me I was here to talk about local issues.
No, I'm not I told him, and asked him not to tell me what I was there to do.
I turned to Grayling again. Was there a legal case?
"I've come to Alnwick to talk about local issues..." he said and sang the praises of candidate Anne-Marie Trevelyan and what a good MP she would make.(Which is true, she would work her socks off.)
I made the point he was the shadow home secretary and asked again "Do you think there is a legal case to arrest the pope if he comes in September."
Now the guy may be called "Calamity Chris" but I did not expect him to tell me "Fuck the Pope - they guy's got it coming" but I'd have liked some sort of answer to the question bearing in mind his front-bench responsibilities.
He repeated the fact he was in Alnwick to talk about Anne-Marie and the local campaign, and I didn't mind that so much. Politicians don't always answer questions, and at no time was Chris Grayling less than couteous and straight. He knew what I was doing and I knew what he was doing.

I do however mind about political hacks like Bill Clare, (Grayling's minder) and Peter Bould (the Northern comms guy)acting in a way I found intimidating. And I speak as a former national TV and newspaper journalist so I'm not that fragile. As a press journalist, however, you have status, and as a TV journalist you have a camera recording everything. As a blogger, you're on your own, mate.
Clare interrupted us and told me they had "very courteously" asked on a number of occasions not to do any more questions. (This was not true. They hadn't asked me to stop.) While he hectored, I shook Grayling's hand and thanked him for his time. Other people had a reason to spend time with him, Clare went on. I kept the recorder going and showed him it. "If you think that's the way to conduct it, OK - you know better than that" he said like a disappointed father.
Bould then chipped in to tell me I'm supposed to have an accreditation pass to join them. Did I have it? (This was just to prove how they weren't brow-beating me.)
"You are supposed to have an accreditation pass to join us, have you got your pass with you."
I'm a voter, I told him.
"I know but you are supposed to have an accreditation pass to interview him which is what you wanted to do, and I'm wondering if you have your pass with you? Do you have your pass with you? " (Bear in mind, here I've already done the interview and we are way past this conversation.)
I told him I was doing what I did as a member of the public.
"No," he said. "You are interviewing him." This presumably means members of the public shouldn't ask questions.
(At this point, and just for good measure, I got thrown out of a shop the Tory posse had gone into on the grounds "the owner" didn't want me in there.)
"You are interviewing him," said Bould. "Members of the public don't come along with a dictaphone and record him. You're very much like a journalist to me."
I asked him to let me get on with it.
"I'm not being confrontational here," he assured me.
At which point, so unconfrontational was he being, I got out my camcorder and YouTube loomed.
I reminded Bould I had already done the interview, I was indeed there as a blogger and a member of the public. At which point with a camcorder pointed at the two of them, they started talking about the weather (which was lovely by the way).
Now I could have gone home at this point what with the fact none of them seemed to like me all that much. (Apart from Chris that is. I bet Chris thought I was OK really, and I'd return the compliment.) But if I'd have gone home, I'd have missed the electioneering proper. Trailing in the wake of Chris and Ann-Marie, I asked a good 30 Alnwick folk did they know who the tall man with the blue rosette was. One did (and he'd been introduced, but in all fairness he assured me he knew before. Honest.) When I asked another if he knew who Grayling was, he proferred: "A shadow muppet?"

So I've got another blog rule for my Standards of Blog Conduct
Rule 2: Use a camcorder at all times.


Potty Mummy said...

Any chance we can see the footage? (Love your take on all this, btw. As a current expat I seem to have missed so much of the fun and games...)

miss half-baked said...

very funny....

billatbingley said...


alex said...

Loving the blog. I know a number of high level gay conservatives in central office. They're lovely people, with their hearts in the right place. And it should be said that the gay community shouldn't be making voting decisions based on their sexuality. There are so many big issues and decisions that have to be made in the near future for this country that voting on something that is so "personal" rather than "civil" doesn't really make sense. That said...if the Tories can't even rally around the idea that everyone should be treated with equal respect...they're not ready to make the other decisions...regardless of how they have tried to soften the edges of their fear of the gays. It's a vote getter in the Shires, so they'll play it. Sad really.

Abigail said...

Delicious! Go for it.

John Woodman said...

Disappointing behaviour (the minders, I mean, not yours).

But again - is it partly the messenger's fault that politicians have eveolved into being unable to give a straight answer?

Emma LP said...

Brilliant blog. V impressed that you kept going with your questions without being intimidated.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you rather wasted an opportunity. You were never going to get anything new on the B&B business, and anyone who claims to believe that the Pope is in danger of arrest while on a STATE visit to the UK (remember, the Queen invited him as a Head of State) is either moronically deluded or, like Dawkins, a lying self-publicist.

Looks like your interview was what The Youth Of Today call an 'epic fail'.

Rachel said...

Completely disagree on the fail. You have to read into how he handled or didn't handle it and how they are being manipulated in what they can or can't say to realise that what it told us what that even if he is any good he has to toe to party line or else so he isn't going to say boo to a goose, and if he can't who the heck can. SO I only see one F round here and its yours Mr/s/iss Anon

Anonymous said...

Go, girl!

Submariner said...

Excellent post and well done for keeping a cool head when the minder started pushing back.
It just goes to show that like most career politicians and party machines, Grayling and his minder find it almost impossible to get their head around the digital age and the breakdown in boundaries between "official", accredited, salaried and therefore manipulable media, and the citizen taking advantage of new media to report their own experiences to a large audience. They simply can't rely on working within a mutually self-serving political / media elite any more, and it's doing their heads in.

jack B said...

I think Grayling's refusal to retract his argument that it should be legal to say "no gays" at a B&B is quite remarkable and I think you have got a scoop there. This man is the Shadow Home Secretary. I'm married with kids but for me this is a litmus test of tolerance and, as a floating voter who was getting up the courage to vote Tory for the first time ever, that is not going to happen now.

Sarah said...

This is fascinating stuff, can't wait till your next blog.

ChrisB said...

Wow! Love it!!

billatbingley said...

I have just re visited and re read your blog, and a sudden thought struck me. Carry on in this vein and this could be the makings of your next best seller!

Eagerly awaiting your next posting!

freddo41 said...

". . . as a floating voter who was getting up the courage to vote Tory for the first time ever, that is not going to happen now."

Now where have I seen that form of words before?
Apart from everywhere.
I'm sorry, but I don't believe a word of it.

Christa said...

Gotta love elections. I'm really enjoying your writing and commentary. Not quite as good as being there, but almost!

Eats Wombats said...


You've done an important public service. This "gent" should be toxic to the brand. I will not be too surprised if they keep a tea cosy on his cage until after the election. Cameron needs to be put firmly on the spot before the election and invited to firmly repudiate this small-minded little bigot.

I've said all I'm going to say?


I've had my knuckles slapped and I daren't / am not allowed to say any more, but for that I would amplify my bigoted homophobic remarks.

wife in the north said...

re potty mummy: maybe next time
re alex: interesting. I'm sure there are. Maybe they will bring about change from within?
re John woodman: danny finkelstein writes on this at

wife in the north said...

re anonymous comments in general: I don't want to moderate. I reserve the right to delete anything that is outright offensive, hacks me off or is mean, mean, mean. I might make an exception if it's funny. Very funny. But generally speaking, anonymous commentators are dull and I will delete their contributions whenever I fancy. If a point is worth making, put your name to it.

wife in the north said...

re freddo41: do you think? you are a cynic. Welcome aboard.

bentonbag said...

And that Ceri Thomas says women aren't thick skinned enough to interview politicians on Today!
Keep it up wifey

Pam said...

Great stuff! Can't wait to keep reading

Mr S. Pill said...

This is the first time I've read your blog and I must say I'm impressed, very entertaining and informative (and not sneery, so rare in the blogosphere!)
Great stuff, have bookmarked, keep up the good reportage!

Mr S. Pill

freddo41 said...

I see from the Times piece that you link to that you ask why can't politicians be more honest when faced with difficult questions - although when you say be more honest, you seem to me to mean, "agree with me that you're an idiot."

Can't you see that it was an attempt to be honest that got Chris Grayling into trouble in the first place? He was trying to provide a balanced, fair-minded answer that took into account the feelings of both the minorities involved - Christians and gays - and got grotesquely and unscrupulously slammed for it by people like you.

So please stop wondering why politicians aren't more candid. People like you, brandishing your recorder and video camera and trying to irritate them into an unwise response, have made them so.

freddo41 said...

And on a wider note, you seemed to find him a decent enough bloke. And not, I assume, a foaming homophobe. Can't you see that by so enthusiastically joining in the witch hunt, as you did, that you make it less likely that reasonable folk like him will go into politics - and that will be a loss for all of us.

freddo41 said...

Oh, and by the way, as a floating voter who was getting up the courage to vote for you in this year's Bloggies for the first time ever, that is not going to happen now.
No way!

wife in the north said...

re Mr S Pill: thanku.Re the sneery thing, yes it's a thin line to tread isn't it? If you write it too straight it's dull and the sort of report you'd find in a newspaper and what is the point of that? And if you try to be funny, you can end up sounding sneery in an attempt to inject some humour into it. I

wife in the north said...

re freddo41:
1. by asking the questions, I was trying to elicit whether he was sticking or shifting in his opinion. That's not a witch hunt. And yes I do think there is a problem in the fact they are scared of giving their honest opinions because the media will jump up and down on them. But questions do still have to be asked, and they have to figure out how to answer them.
2. re the bloggies was it? thanku for the thought but deep, deep down, I don't give a damn, my dear.
(3. read for another post or two and if it's not to your taste, don't waste your time here go read something else.)

freddo41 said...

The Bloggies.
Looks like my little spot of subtle satire didn't work at all.

adam said...

re freddo41

What you accuse of the media and bloggers doing is that they deliberately try to create monster images for politicians. For Chris Grayling, it's the all-so-tory and civil-right-bashing homophobe.

But what I'd like to remind you of is, all this fuss was not and has not been fabricated, because Mr. Grayling has given the magical statement. I still faithfully broadsheets in the country have the dignity regardless of their stance. So it is in a journalist's nature to dig.

The core question is, does he mean what he said about Christian B&B owners should should "have the right" to reject gay couples?

In his own defence, Grayling avoided the question by saying he had "voted for the gay rights". Come on, it still doesn't justify the wrong-doing, because it could have easily been a case of party-line vote where he had no other choice. If he could vote solely on personal belief, well, god knows what that would be. And it wasn't of much use by repeatedly saying "not intent to offend". He was still ambiguous about his true personal feeling.

What Judith did was to offer him a great opportunity to come clean. Only way to do it is to answer the question in a most direct and honest manner. But he did no such thing.

If the members of the public had a chance to question Grayling face-to-face, that would be the way to do it. Get to the core question, and never back down until the most direct and honest answer.