Lunch with... Pete Digger
In the fourth instalment of a regular feature, PRCA director general Francis Ingham dines with MHP managing director Pete Digger in Shepherd's restaurant.
I caught up with Pete Digger in Shepherd’s shortly after the budget. What did he make of it?
"Politically, absolutely fantastic. Previously, I hadn’t necessarily bought into this view of Osborne as a political genius. But this Budget has thrown Labour into disarray. The whole idea is to pitch the Tory tent quite far to the left of where it was before, and to sweep up Labour doubters."
So has it made Osborne PM-in-waiting?
"Yes - if he can maintain this kind of momentum. He’s managed to reinvent himself and to put Boris in a very difficult position, because at the moment he hasn’t really got a stage to play on. Osborne has a lot of levers to pull, and critically is Cameron’s friend. Neither of those apply to Boris."
So after the Labour Party and the Lib Dems, the big losers from the election were May and Boris? Digger agrees. And then makes some interesting comments about the SNP.
"I would question how much of a victory the SNP necessarily scored. That might sound like an odd thing to say, but how much power do they actually have? They’ll have a couple of Select Committee chairmanships, and of course they did exceptionally well in Scotland. But what can they actually control in the House of Commons? They don’t hold the balance of power, and it’s unlikely they ever will. The Tory Parliamentary Party of today isn’t going to be as self-indulgent as the one of 92-97."
As our starters arrive, we turn to hunting, and the Government’s plans to amend the rules...
"It surprises me, although I think the brouhaha about it was disproportionate to what’s actually proposed. Now this will be an area where the SNP have leverage, because there are enough Tory MPs who won’t be whipped here. So if they decide to vote, the SNP will make the difference."
As it turns out of course, that’s a rather prescient observation …..
We turn to the manifesto. I venture the view that it was a manifesto to negotiate on, rather than to implement. Digger agrees.
"There were things in the manifesto that they never expected to have to implement, because they expected to be a coalition. They would have turned around and said, 'It’s the Liberal Democrats’ fault.' That’s no longer an option."
Speaking of manifesto commitments, we move to Europe. I ask if he thinks the party will tear itself apart over Europe in the way it did before. A clear answer:
"No. Not least because all of the main parties will be campaigning for the same thing as David Cameron, which is to stay in. It’ll be an easy yes win."
We move to Labour. Who’s going to win? Digger expects Yvette Cooper to triumph. I respond that every interview I’ve done so far, I’ve received different predictions. Though at the time of speaking, nobody had yet suggested the MP for Islington North. So why Cooper?
"She’ll do solidly in the first round, and she’s very well placed to pick up Liz Kendall’s second votes, Andy Burnham’s second votes, possibly even Jeremy Corbyn’s second votes. She’s a solid, safe pair of hands. Her campaign hasn’t set the world alight, but it hasn’t dropped any clangers either.
"Kendall will come fourth. Corbyn will do very well. But if they elect Corbyn, they’ll be out for 15 years, rather than the 10 they’re looking at currently."
The Lib Dems. Any idea when their leadership election actually is, I ask? Digger replies quick as a flash:
"Yes, on the 17th July, Tim Farron will win. Ad you can take that to the bank."
And what’s his route back to relevance?
"They’re going to have to pick which areas they seek to own, and then campaign on them. Apart from anything else, with so few MPs, they can’t cover every issue. Health will be a good one, where Lamb will be the spokesman."
We turn to MHP’s own staffing. I ask cheekily if I’m a Lib Dem working at MHP, ought I be looking with trepidation at the HR department? Digger is emphatic.
"No. I’ve always been an advocate of recruiting people who are really good political operators, rather than recruiting based on their party colours. You won’t see us falling in the trap of hiring people just because they used to photocopy George Osborne’s receipts."
What of the dog that didn’t bark? UKIP?
"I think UKIP will quite possibly win some by-elections in this Parliament."
Will Nigel Farage ever be an MP?
And on that note of certainty, the food arrives, and we move on to the much more contentious issue of the Ashes. Digger makes one final prediction:
"I’m beginning to think England might have a chance of winning the Ashes."
Spot on Pete. Spot on……
Chicken liver parfait followed by cod fillet
Duck egg followed by pork belly