Lunch with... Peter Bingle
In the first of a new series, PRCA director general Francis Ingham interviews a senior public affairs professional over lunch in Shepherd's restaurant. This week, Ingham dines with Terrapin Communications founder and former Bell Pottinger public affairs chairman Peter Bingle.
Lunching with Peter Bingle in Shepherd’s shortly after the Tories have won an election is like dining with the proverbial Cheshire Cat - much merriment, laughter, and grinning. Particularly because this particular lobbyist called the election result right when most of his colleagues called it wrong. A point Peter is justifiably not shy about making.
We dive straight in to the new Cabinet. Whittingdale as the new Culture Secretary? “Delighted. Remember him coming out of Downing Street in black leathers, and getting on to his motorbike. I don’t Maggie ever quite understood that”. Ah, Mrs Thatcher. Her first name check, only one minute into lunch
Does this presage the end of the BBC I ask: “A reformed BBC. Trust abolished. I doubt the presence of Mr Purnell helps. Thatcher was always wary of touching it. I think in a strange way, this Government will be even more radical than Thatcher. And appointing Whittingdale couldn’t send a clearer message.”.
And we move swiftly to another favourite Bingle topic, the genius of George Osborne. Osborne for next PM then ‘Yes. Yes. Yes’ Peter replies, “I first remember young George at CRD in about 1991. Personally charming. Great fun. Great opera fan, great Wagnerian. Popular with both sides of the House. The big loser is Boris of course. All of the people who’ve been writing George off, they’re now cosying up to him. He’ll deliver the referendum result the PM wants”.
Referendum. In or out? “People will vote to stay in. I will vote to come out. Reform will happen. Merkel will come to Cameron’s rescue. I suspect there’ll be quite a good deal. But the Tory Party needs to understand that there are some problems you simply can’t fix, and Europe is federalist by instinct and by destiny. And we are not”.
While we’re on the subject of predictions, I ask Peter if he feels vindicated by calling the general election result. “I never thought that English voters would vote for Miliband. He was strange. He was left wing. He didn’t get ordinary people. I was only surprised that the gap being shown by the opinion polls was so small. With this mandate, Cameron must learn from Thatcher and be brave. I think he will be”. Your faith didn’t waver in face of all of those polls I ask? “No. No. No. people were thinking about their pockets. What a Labour Government would mean for them”.
Having been so wildly out, we turn to the polling companies, and here Bingle directs real scorn: “I hope that they return their fees”. I remind him that Kelvin McKenzie famously refused to pay up in 1992: “He did. Like when he fired his astrologer and said ‘if you were any good, you would’ve known it was going to happen’. We discuss why the polls go it so wrong. He’s of the view that it’s not just a matter of shy Tories, it’s about their whole polling methodology being wrong. Whatever the reason, we agree that the pollsters have got some pretty tough questions to answer. I ask if he agrees with the suggestion made that polls should be banned in the run-up to an election. He replies straight away ‘Yes. Last ten days. No polls’.
Peter’s looking avidly at his starter now (thankfully, it’s meant to be cold), so we go to quick-fire mode.
Lobbying register? Five years of stability? “They’ll leave it alone. The reality was it was never an issue. I’ve never met a Permanent Secretary with a client”. Not even at the opera I ask? He laughs “There’s a dullness these days. My ultimate destiny is to put Strauss back into public affairs”. Not Prescilla? “Prescilla will always have a role in my life”.
Prescilla or Strauss I ask. The surprise answer is Strauss. More waltzing queen than dancing queen apparently.
Best campaign you ever ran? “With the Police Federation campaign re the Sheehy Inquiry. The Police thought they were getting shafted. And we turned it around. Over the last few weeks, on the doorstep, the people most hostile to Tories were the Police. That’s Nick Herbert’s legacy as Police Minister
Best lobbyist ever I ask. Well. second best if you’re not feeling modest. “Greer at his peak. The best ever. The old days of great networks have gone. Nowadays I can’t think of anyone with the influence of the old days”.
Thatcher the best PM ever? A booming and predictable “Yes”.
Second best? A more surprising “Attlee. A true former. Governments are at their best when they are radical and brave. They should ignore opinion polls”.
Best SPAD? Sheridan Westlake He side-steps. “The best ever were Norris and Vedera under Blair. And to be fair, when Cameron worked for Howard, he was kind of adviser who always spoke for their Minister”.
I ask mischievously if Dave has yet invited him round to Number 10 to celebrate. “Not quite yet” Bingle chortles.
Does he regret not being politician? A moment’s pause: “Part of me yes. But I have many more friends in politics by not doing it. I wouldn’t be close to my Labour party mates. Or my Lib Dem mates if I’d been a politician”.
Wouldn’t he love to be Lord Bingle: “I love Iolanthe” he replies, and sings a little ditty. “If asked to serve my country, I would love to do it”
And on that note of public service, I stop recording; we turn away from politics, public affairs and opera, and towards Peter’s other favourite activity: lunch.
What did we eat?
Cured salmon to start
Shepherd’s pie for main
Sancerre to drink