Lunch with... James Turgoose

Written by Francis Ingham on 2 July 2015 in Features

In the third instalment of a regular feature, PRCA director general Francis Ingham dines with JBP director James Turgoose in Shepherd's restaurant.

The last time I saw James was at the PRCA election night party, kindly supported by JBP. And it’s fair to say that the ambience at Shepherd’s was slightly different - as James volunteers straight off.

“I think it was a wonderful event. Looking at the restaurant now, quite how we crammed in 550 people, I will never know. But I thought it was a very jolly and historic evening.”

Historic indeed. And rather unexpected in outcome.

“I’m fascinated by how the Tories did so well in the marginals. They had the 7% lead they required, but all three or four parties will be trying to understand how Crosby’s machine outperformed Labour so strongly in the marginal seats where it mattered.” 

Three or four parties? An instructive choice of words, which swings us neatly to the SNP, and as James terms it, not their election machine, but their “bulldozer”.

A couple of weeks earlier, Gill Morris had told me that Labour should’ve seen it coming –that there was an inevitability about it. He disagrees: “I don’t buy that. The Tories played an absolute blinder and knew that by emphasising that a Labour Government would be propped up by the SNP, it could only harm them.”  

And its broader effects on UK politics? “Assuming Scotland is still in the Union in 2020, the SNP result completely transforms politics. They won so many seats by such large margins that Labour really can’t come back in 2020. So we have a Tory decade ahead I think ahead...”

Which, as a Tory, makes me happy. But what does it mean for the industry? And indeed for James, lauded on the JBP website as an expert on Coalitions? 

A smooth answer is deployed. “This Conservative majority Government is a coalition, in fact… The challenges within this coalition Conservative Government are going to be more profound and more difficult than the ones within the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition. A majority of twelve is going to really put Cameron through his paces in the next few years.”

I put the argument that having been down the road to hell in the 90s, Tory MPs aren’t daft enough to retrace their steps? 

“I think too many Conservative backbenchers regard Europe as more important than party.  And a Yes win in the forthcoming referendum will be seen and interpreted by many on the Conservative backbenches as an illegitimate result. They simply won’t let it stand.” 

We have a brief diversion while we order food, and I lament being on a low carb diet ahead of ICCO’s and the PRCA’s presence at Cannes. Somewhere, Peter Bingle’s lunch senses tingle in sympathy….

We return to Europe. I ask James what he thinks will happen.    

“I think the Yes campaign will win quite decisively. Our relationship with Europe is and always will be a second order question for most people. I would say the vote will be 60/40 to stay in.”

I try to make a broader link about electoral fairness, highlighting UKIPs one seat with nearly 4 million votes, versus the SNP’s 56 with fewer than two. 

“The discrepancy has parallels with the Liberal/SDP Alliance in 1983. Nothing happened then, and nothing will happen now. Before the election, lots of people were saying ‘we now have four and five party politics’. Well no actually. We have a one party system in Scotland, and a two party system in England. The electoral dynamic which has for decades been biased towards Labour has now rebalanced itself.”  

So with the Tories apparently sitting pretty, who’s going to be the next PM? A direct response:

“It won’t be Osborne. It’ll be somebody from the 2010 intake. Maybe Sajid Javid. Maybe Liz Truss. “

And for Labour? 

“I think Cooper is the most likely choice... Though I doubt she’ll be introducing Ed Balls as her hero, as Sarah Brown did.” 

So with that as the backdrop, how’s the industry looking?

“With a Government majority of 12, it’s very easy for clients to work out that if you get seven government MPs rebelling, then a piece of legislation is in jeopardy. In the last five years, the Conservative right could fume as much as it liked, but the Government majority was always pretty much secure. That’s no longer the case.”  

I ask James if, that being the case, he thinks Cameron actually wanted to win outright. Didn’t he feel more at home with, say, Clegg than Cash? 

“I think he wanted to win for one reason only –to secure that place in the history books.  I honestly don’t think he’s that bothered about how long he stays in a second term. I think we’re going to see a repeat of what we had when Blair said he was not going to finish his term….” 

Biggest challenge facing the industry? 

“The gatekeeper role. Because of technology, it’s a lot easier for MPs to engage directly with campaign groups, with members of the public, with journalists.  We have to redefine our value.”

And so to a final question. When will the next ‘lobbying scandal’ happen? 

“The next scandal will happen in the next 12-18 months. And I can confidently predict that it will not involve any lobbying professional whatsoever.”

On which undeniably true words, it seemed appropriate to eat…… 

We ate
JT: Chicken liver parfait, then Shepherd’s pie.
FI: salmon, then beef with a green salad. No chips….. 

We drank
A bottle of sancerre

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