This article is from the June 2012 issue of Total Politics
It’s fascinating to observe the political dynasties that spring up at Westminster. The Tory backbencher Charles Walker (he of the award-winning “If not now, when?” speech during the European referendum debate) is the stepson of Sir Christopher Chataway, Olympic runner, newsreader and Conservative minister under Macmillan, Douglas-Home and Heath. I spent a delightful few hours with them swapping notes about the party then and now for my Radio 4 programme The Westminster Hour. Sir Chris, now 81, is looking forward to the London Games and recalled his dramatic Olympics moment in 1952 when he came fifth in the 5,000m final after falling on the last bend. Charles was already delivering Tory leaflets at the age of seven before his mother, Carola, married Sir Chris. He describes growing up in a house full of politicos and debate. But it is not all harmony between them. Charles tells me: “We haven’t agreed on Europe for about 24 years. My stepfather despairs at my euroscepticism.” Sir Chris retorts that Charles is “hopelessly right-wing about quite a lot of things and Europe in particular. It’s extremely difficult to have a coherent conversation with him.
It’s happened again. On air. I’m adept at biting my tongue when interviewees, including MPs, get my name wrong. It’s Carolyn. It rhymes with Quinn. Not Caroline, rhyming with “fine” or “wine”. I haven’t corrected anyone on air – yet. But colleagues know it is probably the one thing that really winds me up (that, and the increasing tendency of people to misuse ‘sat’. ‘I am sat outside the court.’ Ugh). Chatting to Ed Balls, I gently mentioned he had called me Caroline more than once. Mortified, he admitted he had no excuse as his mother’s name is… Carolyn. Apology accepted.
I witness the ‘battle of the entourages’ at the home affairs select committee where Theresa May is to give evidence before Keith Vaz and his team. She has to wait while the flamboyant comedian Russell Brand (accompanied by a posse of 10) struts in to share his thoughts on drug policy. Frustratingly for the other very credible witnesses on the subject, it is Brand who steals the attention. Dressed in a black leather coat, black vest, torn jeans and cowboy hat, he issues a cheery “hello” to the MPs, addresses the chairman as “Keith” throughout and calls the committee members “mate”. He breezes out – lingering on a staircase, hugging passers-by, including a security guard who skips off, her day made. Meanwhile, Theresa May (grey skirt suit, with an entourage of six) makes her entrance, the Abu Qatada affair hanging in the air. She doesn’t call anyone “mate”.
The home secretary knows what it’s like to be in an unwelcome spotlight, given the Abu Qatada ‘what day is it?’ saga. So maybe it was with relief that the next day she took a back seat on the frontbench while Jeremy Hunt fought for his political life after the allegations about his “dealings” with the Murdochs. It was a classic Commons day – the gladiatorial atmosphere, the scent of a minister in trouble, opposition MPs demanding a scalp. I sat in the press gallery as Jeremy Hunt got to his feet, flanked by David Cameron and Nick Clegg. The Lib Dem leader made a swift exit after the statement but Cameron and George Osborne remained to the end, the chancellor enthusiastically slapping his colleague on the back as they left together via the door behind the Speaker’s Chair. Perhaps he was relieved that attention had been diverted from figures that morning showing Britain in double-dip recession. The news prompted some tweeters to joke about consignments of taramasalata and hummus being delivered to the Treasury.
Ken Livingstone comes to the press gallery lunch. Last year I was press gallery chairman (the first woman to hold the post in the 200-plus years of its existence. The wheels move slowly here…), and one of my guest speakers was Boris Johnson. This year we were keen to hear from his nemesis. Bizarrely, Livingstone discloses that he doesn’t really approve of the idea of directly-elected mayors, arguing that “it concentrates a lot of power in one person’s hands”. On 4 May, as the mayoral referendum results come in from across the country, most of them registering a definitive ‘no’ to the concept , it seems the public agree with him, but Londoners don’t want him. I see him again in City Hall during the protracted – and chaotic – finale to the London mayoral battle. Finally the declaration – just before midnight – marks the end of the Livingstone era and he pledges to spend more time with his garden plants.
Carolyn Quinn is the presenter of The Westminster Hour and PM on BBC Radio 4. She tweets as @CarolynQuinnCQ