Going to Pizza Express is a very usual thing for me to do, unlike Prince Andrew. I grew up in the branch on Notting Hill Gate. Family lunches, children’s birthdays, first dates and political summits all took place around its tables. In 2005 David Cameron and I went there for dinner to take stock of his campaign for the Tory leadership. My phone went off. It was the chancellor, Gordon Brown. He wanted to know whether I, as his shadow, would skip a key vote as he couldn’t make it. I politely said we should let the whips arrange the pairing. I held the phone to David’s ear as Gordon shouted that he’d ‘never been treated with such disrespect’ in all his 22 years in parliament. Then he hung up on me. Tucking into our American Hots, the two of us chuckled and decided: we can definitely beat this guy.
David Cameron was called DC by his staff in private memos because ‘Prime Minister’ was too stuffy and ‘Dave’ was too casual. Prince Andrew is known by his office as ‘TD’, short for ‘the Duke’. We know that at the Evening Standard because this week we’ve been having a row with the palace, and by mistake they forwarded some internal emails to us. What I want to know is why does York get to be ‘the Duke’? What about Cambridge, Sussex and Edinburgh?
For the first time in my life I’m voting in a marginal seat, Kensington. It’s split three ways but I’ve had more leaflets through my door from the Lib Dems than the other two parties combined — which isn’t saying that much as the Tories haven’t delivered one at all. One of the yellow fliers brought home to me just how much has changed in politics since I left. First, this formerly rock-solid Conservative stronghold has a Labour MP. Second, the Lib Dem candidate is Sam Gyimah, who sat in meetings with me in Downing Street every day when he was a Tory MP and DC’s parliamentary private secretary. I like Sam. He’s bright and sensible. So do I vote for him, or for the party that — however wayward it’s become — gave me incredible opportunities for 20 years? We’ll see, but old habits die hard.
I’d have no such doubts if I lived in South West Hertfordshire. There, David Gauke is standing as an independent. David was my right-hand minister at the Treasury for six years. Come budget time, he always came up with new ideas to save money and cut tax rates for business. Those were the days… When I was in trouble my team would cry ‘uncork the Gauke’ and he would ride to the rescue. Every summer I’d have a barbecue for the Treasury team at Dorneywood, and David and his young boys would start an aggressive game of football on the croquet lawn. ‘Chopper’ Hancock joined in. John Prescott would have hated it. The fact the Tories kicked David out shows just how far they have strayed from the mainstream. If I were one of the good people of Chorleywood, I’d vote to keep the Gauke uncorked.
One thing I miss about taking part in a general election is the travel. Really. I loved it. In 2015, I criss-crossed the country every day for a month in a helicopter, getting an amazing view of our islands as we descended on the marginals. That included a visit to Chorley in Lancashire, to buy its famous black pudding in the market there. The sitting Labour MP, Lindsay Hoyle, wasn’t the least bit worried. As the future Speaker said to me a couple of weeks later, when we were both safely back in the Commons: ‘George, the moment I heard your chopper land I knew I was safe.’
Doing major media interviews was a given back then. Not any more. The broadcasters complain that they can’t get the big beasts on air. Frankly, I’m not surprised — too many presenters made it all about them, and then the internet came along and the politicians found that they had other ways to reach the voters directly. Why be interrogated, insulted and interrupted by a would-be Jeremy Paxman or John Humphrys, when you can post your video or send a tweet? Newspapers now risk the same fate, which is why it’s to his credit that Jeremy Corbyn agreed to be interviewed by the legendary Lynn Barber in this week’s ES Magazine. He was, it was reported back to me, in ‘magic grandpa mode’ — telling us all about making jam, cooking coddled eggs and his fears that El Gato (his cat) might not get on with Larry in No. 10. Good to hear he’s not reading the polls. It was when Lynn quizzed him about anti-Semitism that things got chilly. Were these the editor’s questions, he wanted to know: ‘George has had 20 years to ask me questions. I’ve got a few questions for him about the 2010 Budget.’ Fire away, Jezza.
An Evening Standard reader in Hendon sent me a handwritten letter this week entitled ‘Agreed Sum’ (underlined). Enclosed was a £5 note. The unknown reader explained that he’d had a bet with himself a year ago that I wouldn’t still be editing the paper by now. He’d lost. So he was paying up. I’ve put the money towards the appeal we’ve launched this Christmas to help homeless women in the capital. I’m sure Spectator readers will want to join him.
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