This article is from the August 2013 issue of Total Politics
“But I haven’t had a chance to do my hair.”
Two seconds in to my interview with Michael Fabricant, Tory campaign chief, and he’s already mentioned his signature hairstyle. A starched, yellow-feathered helmet of gold, it sits valiantly on his head, occasionally proposing pacts with UKIP and waywardly tweeting. A beanie of blond ambition. The man beneath has been subject to cruel cries across the Commons of “is it a wig or a Tory?” and searing press speculation over its seemingly independent variations in length.
It doesn’t seem fair to ask the vice-chairman of the Conservative Party outright about the origins of his confident coiffure, but it turns out I don’t need to. He brings it up about four times himself without being asked. But although he admits it is “very long for an MP” and refers to it as “strange”, he never hints at any wiggery-pokery. Yet he’s generously candid on other subjects, and so loquacious my dictaphone dies an undignified death 90 minutes in. This is Fabricant, uncut. Especially the hair.
The MP for Lichfield looks like a collaboration between Duran Duran and a hobbit, mussing his long locks and scampering around in an open-neck pink and white striped shirt and 501s, with a holster for his mobile hilariously attached. “When I send texts to David Cameron, I sign them off ‘Fab’, and he calls me ‘Fabs’”. Does he receive many LOLs from the PM, then? “I would not say what he says to me; usually to stop tweeting!”
He shows me various posters, flags and artefacts around his spacious office, which looks like a particularly lavish student’s quarters. There is a rumpled page from an old newspaper stuck up, screeching the headline ‘Bachelor had a fetish for ladies undies’ next to a picture of his face. They are two separate articles, but he finds it entertaining.
One wall sports an enormous world map with tiny red dots covering it, giving the effect of an army general’s war room. It marks the 48 countries where, prior to politics, he set up radio stations with his broadcasting company.
There is a microphone and some sort of transmitter on a separate desk, for him to pipe out his radio appearances from the comfort of his office. He even used to appear on Woman’s Hour. “When men were allowed, but now it’s been taken over by the female fascists!” he chortles.
And he is still quite the broadcaster. Having been lurking in the shadows as a whip for seven years, Fabricant has emerged blinking into the digital daylight – tweeting like a suddenly un-caged canary with political views and an iPad. No wonder the PM texts him telling him to stop. He caused controversy in February by asking the Twittersphere, “Why is it not called a Suck Job?”
Yet he admits it’s far easier to carry his meaning across via tweets: “Twitter has been more effective to me for my colleagues knowing where I come from than actually the last 23 years in the Commons have. I always remember the former chief whip Patrick McLoughlin saying, ‘if you want to keep a secret, speak in the House of Commons’”.
He reveals a conversation he’s had with the chancellor, who has very recently set up his own account, on Twitter strategy: “I was saying to George Osborne that, if tweets are always totally on-message, no one is going to read them. To get your message across, you’ve got to be amusing, and sometimes not be overtly political at all… No campaign should be boring, because you turn off.” I wonder now whether this advice led to Osborne tweeting a snap of his unfortunately upmarket burger…
Yet Twitter clearly isn’t for all his colleagues, what with Aiden Burley MP’s notorious “leftie multicultural crap” Olympics Opening Ceremony comment and other online gaffes.
He nods: “Oh, there are golden rules about tweeting. First of all, you need to be a lateral thinker, hopefully amusing, and most importantly sober,” he explains gravely. “We are all suited to different things; I’m not suited to haircuts, but I am to Twitter.”
His avatars (profile pictures) are now known as #Fabatars, so often do they switch between various images sent to him by his near-13,000 followers of hirsute cartoons, animals – “my cow avatar is known as the Fabrimoo” – and, at the time of writing, Matt Damon as Liberace’s mop-haired young lover from the film Behind the Candelabra.
Is he having an identity crisis?
“When I got in in 1992, nobody could place me in the Conservative Party, they used to think in regards of ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ – I am wet when it comes to socially liberal issues, yet quite dry when it comes to the European Union.
“[But] Francis Maude said a great thing to me last year: ‘You know what Michael? With your long hair, and your strange views, we all thought you were mad, and do you know what? The Conservative Party has changed, and now we are all mad just like you.’ I took it as a great compliment and it’s true!”
Although he prides himself on his early Tory modernism – he supports equal marriage, and indeed 13 years ago voted in favour of lowering the age of consent for gay sex to 16 – he still has some reservations about Cameron’s leadership. This was revealed most prominently when he called for a pact with UKIP earlier this year, which would exchange an EU referendum promise with UKIP not standing against Tory candidates.
He leans forward conspiratorially. His hair comes with him. “I will now reveal exclusively to Total Politics that I never anticipated that there could ever be a pact. I did it that way for two reasons. One was that a lot of UKIP supporters are natural Conservatives, and we should try and get them back in the fold. And two, I was concerned the party was not taking UKIP seriously enough. The reason I did it as a pact was to gain a lot of publicity, which I succeeded in doing.
“I made the point and made it effectively because we do now have a strategy to deal with it.”
Fabricant won’t let me in on his party’s UKIP strategy, but says it “now takes all other parties including UKIP very seriously indeed”. He felt the threat keenly first-hand, being in charge of the Tories’ by-election strategies both at Corby and Eastleigh, where UKIP was seen to triumph at both, taking a large share of the votes.
UKIP aside, he does have some particularly strong views on EU membership himself. I’d say he is euro-hectic, helter-skeltering from talking about his time in radio, seeing how “we gave the English language around the world,” and concluding, “when an email takes a fraction of a second to reach New Zealand, when it’s cheaper to send a container of goods to New Jersey than it is to Hamburg, you have to ask yourself, what is this obsession with just Europe?
“We are a world trading power. If we can stay in just the single market, which is an up-market name for the common market,” he looks momentarily muddled, “free trade basically, with nothing else bolted on – fine. But I remember Malcolm Rifkind when foreign secretary had a vision for free trade around the world in 2020. So what then is the point of the European Union?”
He considers whether Cameron would be able to negotiate “the ‘common market’ and no more”. “I’m always optimistic – but it won’t be easy,” he admits. It’s clear he venerates America, with more than one star-spangled banner dangling around the office. But then I look closer; there are no stars on them. These are Grand Union Flags, with a partial Union Jack in the corner instead. Fabricant’s a thundering patriot, which adds perhaps more to the ‘dry’ side of his Tory persona.
He’s certainly not a classic Cameron loyalist, and he frankly puts some of his success electorally down to this.
“I held my seat with a tiny majority of 238, now it’s over 17,000. I don't want to insult David Cameron now, but last time I used a photo of the leader of the Tory Party and me was in the 1992 election, and it was John Major and me, when I was still just a candidate. As much as I love Cameron, I will not be using a photo of him in my campaign.”
Isn’t this a little odd for Tory HQ’s campaigns chief to assert? Particularly a former whip, who knows the value of loyalty? “I've never forgotten that my boss is not the chief whip, not the PM, but the people who elect me.”
It is a measure of Fabricant’s rather artful campness that, when asked what he believes to be the Tory Party’s biggest weakness currently, he somehow manages to reply: “‘Feelin’ Groovy’ was one of my hit picks when I was on pirate radio.”
“With hindsight, I would have done the gay marriage thing in that first year [of Cameron’s premiership]. Tony Blair gave DC some advice: ‘Do all your difficult stuff in the first year’. There’s no question that some Conservatives have had great difficulty with the equal marriage legislation… My own view is that it should have been done sooner rather than later.”
Something he strongly believes the Tories should look towards is breaking up the coalition in 2015.
“It is in their [the Lib Dems’] interest and our interest that the coalition continues, and I have no doubt that it will… The only thing I do believe is very important, and lots of Conservative MPs do, is that we get to a stage prior to the general election where we can state very clearly what we want to achieve and – this will be a decision for No 10 – whether or not we break up the coalition a month or two before the election. That will be a tactical thing to do. But it’ll be their decision.
“We need to make clear our own views and we are already beginning to do that.
“Clegg has been doing this for some time, and we have been at a higher level quite indulgent of him, because we’re well aware that the Lib Dems have a far less structured process in dumping their leader.”
He’s also having some trouble with that frequently interrupted train of thought, HS2. Although he agrees “in principle” with needing the line, he’s outraged by its proposed route not being tied to “an existing transport corridor” – something he calls “extraordinary”.
The Lichfield MP is torn between a wish to uphold government policy and a gooey love for his constituency, which he says is, “just lovely! I always think it’s like Trumpton – you know, ‘Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and Grub!’
“I feel a bit like the French under German occupation. On the one hand, we want liberation from the British and the Americans, and the analogy to that is I want a completely different route, because it’s going right through my constituency. While on the other, I’m afraid I’m about to be tarred and feathered because at the same time I have to collaborate with the Germans – the coal-scuttled German Patrick McLoughlin – and say ‘how can we mitigate this route’s effect and get the best compensation we can?’
“The route is as environmentally damaging as it could possibly be, going through virgin countryside… and I must say for a Conservative Party not to conserve the environment is a great shame.”
Opposing his party’s policy seems to pain him, as someone who learnt the importance of obedience from years as a whip, first in opposition, and then for 18 months as the ‘pairing whip’, a tough floor management job spent keeping tabs on the whereabouts and intentions of all your MPs.
One fellow Tory MP tells me, “He couldn’t handle being the pairing whip. He crashed and burned. He became hysterical and shouted at people. You need someone calm for that job. That changed him – he wanted out of the whips’ office.”
Fabricant explains that he “genuinely quit because of exhaustion and not being able to speak out… I had to apply self-discipline in the whips’ office, I knew when to apply it… I never tweeted when I was [there],” he adds incredulously.
Yet other frustrations are clear. “It was very difficult in the first year [as pairing whip], because half the party who were new intake didn't have a clue they needed to be available for votes, and the other half had got in in opposition, where it doesn’t matter too much about losing a vote. Quite extraordinary how experienced MPs didn't know how to adapt.”
So what were his tactics? He’s not exactly a swooping, intimidating machiavel. “You shouldn’t bully. It should be gentle persuasion… It worked with most, still one or two were completely uncontrollable.” He launches into a camp luvvie drawl, “‘oh but dahhling, I need to go to the operah!’
“I have no respect for some MPs who rebel on everything… I think you might as well not get elected as a Conservative.”
However, he points out that loyalty is changing in all parties, and rebellion is becoming more of a norm. “It’s complete fantasy that the whipping of the ‘80s and before can be done nowadays. It involved physical arm-twisting, bullying, and enticements to go on committees. It doesn't work anymore.
“The independence of MPs is a growing thing in the UK, as it already is in the US Congress. In the ‘80s, many had served in the army, under national service, and knew discipline and structure. People are more questioning nowadays. There are no baubles to give out anymore; select committees are now elected, not a gift of the whips. If anybody tried to shove someone to vote, it would get tweeted. I can think of several whips from ‘92-‘97 who would be done for assault nowadays.”
Yet he is buoyant about his whipping days; his colleagues used to joke that they were his “Custard Years”, as he was well-known for liking custard at lunches with the whips.
He suggests that these days he’s in his “Wilderness Years”. He almost seems to view himself as a character in a book or drama at times. Is being ‘a character’ necessarily a good thing though?
A Tory MP suggests, “Fab is schizophrenic, in that on one side he is a public personality and says outrageous things – a ‘flasher’ politician, desperate for publicity, but that’s balanced with a very serious politician – an effective campaigner, a very good constituency MP.”
What does he make of being an eccentric figure? “During the last election, I was walking down a street in Litchfield, and this lad walked up to me with an aggressive look, saying, ‘What have we got in Lichfield? We haven't got a cinema, a skate park, or a bowling alley; we haven't got fucking anything in Lichfield. The only entertainment we've got is you, so I’m voting for you.’
“Though people may mock my hair, at least it acts as a walking billboard. If I was walking around in a pinstriped suit like a normal MP, there’d be not much point if I didn’t get recognised… nobody is interested in boring farts.”
Although it seems to work for Lichfield’s Cuthbert, Dibble and Grub, does Westminster fail to take him seriously?
“Hugely so. It happens with all parties; if you are a character, people fear that you are unreliable… It was a joke that I was the ‘fluffy whip’ but I like being myself,” he concludes earnestly.
And others do too. I’m told he is well-liked across party lines, and it is “good fun” socialising with him. Fabricant mentions having seen Behind the Candelabra recently with a Labour MP friend, and cracks out Liberace’s nasal Wisconsin accent alarmingly often throughout the interview.
The next day, he is dared by an MP to ask a PMQ in this voice. I can’t quite tell if he’s swinging from the candelabra, or there’s one hurtling from the ceiling towards him.