Friday, April 09, 2010

A Right Herbert

There's two worlds isn't there? The real one which is all about work and whether you can give the kids fish fingers again, and the one on TV and in the press where politicians and pundits are hopping on and off endless planes and trains to supermarkets and business parks all to shake hands, twitter it, turn round and leave again.

The two worlds collided for me today. Nick Herbert, the Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs came up to campaign for the local Conservative-candidate-with-a-double-barrelled-name. Luckily, the double-barrel is Anne-Marie so she got away with keeping it, though for a moment, there was a chance she might have to change to 'Wor Annie. But 'Wor Annie (who is an immensely capable, confident, intelligent woman working her guts out trying to take the Berwick seat from Lib Dem veteran Alan Beith), was wasting her valuable time if she was hoping Herbert's magic dust would rub off on her. He hasn't got any, and having seen his Shadow Cabinet in action all I can say is David Cameron is quite right to make this election all about David Cameron.

Nick was up in Northumberland for a meeting. Anne-Marie turned up to the meeting with an earnest man-child who carried her handbag, and a clever-looking agent in a dark suit. Nick had his own text-busy aide and a bod who I'm guessing drove him up there. Other than that, there were 10 or so Tory farmer-types dressed in mustard cords, gilets, silk ties, three tweed jackets and a Barbour. They weren't asking for much.(Money from Europe obviously but that goes without saying.) They did want the odd firm opinion. On something. Looking in the wrong place guys.

A charming buffer accused a villainous, off-stage Beith of being responsible for the underfunding of hospitals and schools and the "potholed death trap" of the A1. (I think I can safely say, Beith would refute these charges.) All Nick could manage was: "I know Anne-Marie would be as good and as conscientious a Member of Parliament as Alan has been." Not "better than". "As good as". "Vote for her - she's as good as the last guy". According to the candidate's website she's taken one day off from electioneering since 2000. Since January, she's knocked on 20,000 doors (10,000 still to go). I bet that pat on the back from Nick Herbert made it all worth-while.

I didn't have great hopes for my own questions but in for a penny in for a pound. I can't cover the entire general election from underneath a red slanket on my sofa watching BBC News 24 and eating chocolate cake. (Or can I? Thinks hard.) Anyway, I am genuinely interested to see what access you get as a blogger. Will they treat us like journalists? Or stalkers? Or just particularly irritating voters? Potentially armed with recording equipment. To Nick's credit he gave me five minutes after the meeting, though I'm willing to bet he wished he hadn't.

He is out and proud. Good for him. In February, he said the Conservative party had seen a "definite change" in its attitudes to gay people. In a speech to a Washington think tank he said "it suits our opponents to argue that we haven't changed. But we self-evidently have changed." Yes. But has anyone told Chris Grayling?

I asked him what he thought of Grayling's comment that Christian Bed & Breakfast owners should be able to turn away gay couples.
He said: "Chris Grayling has made it clear he voted for the legislation in question and that he does not want to change the law - that's the statement he made."
I made the point I was asking him what he, Nick Herbert, thought.
Herbert said: "That's what Chris Grayling has said."
I repeated that I was asking what he thought.
Herbert said: "That's what Chris Grayling has said and that's what we've said about it."
He refused to say whether he had talked to the Shadow Home Secretary, or indeed bitchslapped him (- OK, I made the last bit up but frankly, I was disappointed in him).
He said: "That's all I'm going to say." At which point his aide dragged him away.

Before we talked through his feelings re Grayling though, we dipped our toe into fox-hunting. Herbert (like Cameron) describes himself as a "country boy". Between 1990 and 1996, he worked for the British Field Sports Society and became its Director of Political Affairs. He also played a leading role in setting up the Countryside Movement which became the Countryside Alliance.
I asked him whether he hunted.
He used to, yes.
I asked him whether there would be legislation to repeal the hunting ban in the first Queen's Speech.
He said: "What we've said and we've always said is we will give Parliament an opportunity of a free vote on repeal with a government bill in government time. I have said that I believe that will be an early opportunity."
(In October, Herbert ruled out a backbench Bill and said the party had decided to bring forward government legislation.)
I asked if he was pushing for it to be an early opportunity.
Herbert said: "That's all I've said, and I have also said we have no intention of wasting parliamentary time as the government did. They devoted over 700 hours of parliamentary time to producing an unworkable piece of legislation and we are not going to make the same mistake. We have a series of priorities both for the country in terms of restoring the economy and so on, and for rural areas. While I believe the law is unworkable and that the new parliament will want the opportunity to vote on its repeal, we do not intend to waste time on this matter."
I asked whether he personally would like to see it in the first Queen's Speeech.
Herbert said: "What I have said is I believe there should be an early opportunity for repeal."
You get the picture.

Afterwards one of the faithful few who'd listened politely,labelled Herbert's reluctance to back his own candidate "feeble." This member of the faithful said: "I wish some of them were rich, then they might actually say what they believe instead of thinking about their own jobs all the time."

What gets me is this guy's clever. He set up a thinktank of his own and has one of those high shiny foreheads so he has to be clever right? And he must have impressed someone because his name was mooted as a possible Home Secretary after Grayling's catastrophic venture into the do's and dont's of the tourist industry. He's not just thinking of his job. He doesn't want to offend. Say nothing - it's safer that way. I bet there are things Nick Herbert believes in. I wonder if he can remember what they are?


billatbingley said...

Well done Wifie! You've done it again. Got to the essence of a politician, who with 100 words says absolutely nothing, and in so doing doesn't even answer your questions!

I've just returned from Gervaise Phinn's "An Evening With...." in which he makes comment on the English language. He would be amazed how politicans can make something so beautiful as the English Language so meaningless.

Anonymous said...

I am also election blogging and have already met both Gordon Brown and David Cameron... though I did not question them much as I was not given the the chance...

John Woodman said...

"...Beith would refute those charges (about hospitals/A1 etc)...".

I doubt if he could refute them - because of the grain of truth in them. He would perhaps disagree with them, or explain his inactions away. But he couldn't refute them.

Do you think you (not you personally alone, but as a representative of media hacks in general) are reaping what you have sown? That a generation of politicians have grown up unable to express themselves clearly or say what they believe in because a generation of journalists have portrayed internal disagreements and stresses as a sign of a damaged and incoherent party rather then perfectly normal behaviour?

It's sad - but I wonder if this is where we should at least partly blame the messenger not the message.

Sarah said...

Someone doesn't have to be rich to speak their mind' often, having nothing to lose is the most lberating state.

Anonymous said...

Well done to poke at him re the hunting ban, you can be sure that they will all turn mealy mouthed where that is concerned but we all know it's at the top of the agenda.But why when more than 75% of the population want the ban to stay?
Widow in the North East

Bloke in the North said...

You missed the opportunity to mention that Nick Herbert was the Conservative candidate for Berwick-upon-Tweed in 1997. I attended the selection meeting at Powburn where he assured us that Berwick was the only seat he had ever wanted to represent and would ever stand for. Yeah, right. It carried about as much conviction as the “fiancĂ©e” he felt it necessary to keep in tow in those unenlightened days. But then the only alternative presented to us was a rather pompous, retired Major-General whose answer to a question on the fishing and shipbuilding industries suggested that he had not grasped that his prospective constituency possessed a coastline.

Since I am currently laid up with pneumonia at my second home in the North West, it is most helpful to have daily reports on the progress of the campaign. Please keep up the good work. However since, as you acknowledge, the Conservatives are this time blessed with an exceptionally energetic and authentically local candidate, I hope we may look forward to some balancing knocking copy on visiting grandees from the Liberal Democrats and Labour. Or are they simply not bothering this time?