Lunch with… John Higginson
PRCA director general Francis Ingham dines with Higginson Strategy boss John Higginson at Shepherd’s restaurant.
I met up with political journalist-turned-public affairs agency boss John Higginson in the usual place and began with a standard opener: what did he make of the political scene at the moment?
"Globally, politics is struggling to keep up with people. We’re in this strange period where technology is advancing faster than all the different mechanisms there are around to deal with it -including the political process.
"People are looking to politicians to respond in the same way that they now get things via technology. So, for instance, you can now go to your phone, click, you’ve got an Uber outside. Things are much more instant. If you want to watch TV now, you go onto Netflix and you don’t have to say, 'I’m not going to come out now because I want to watch my programme.' You pick your life and things fit around you. So, in all spheres of life, technology is helping people to shape their world. But politics and law are moving at roughly the same pace as they have been for hundreds of years. Legislation takes a long time; change within politics takes a long time."
Which is actually an insight nobody has made to me before.
But on to a topic that plenty of people have passed judgement on. The inevitable one…
"It’s very hard to talk about British politics without it being framed around Brexit. I don’t think there’s a whole lot that the Government’s doing outside of Brexit, and I’d love for them to be doing much more. In a funny way, the Conservatives are looking at some quite liberal, left-wing things. Looking to build on the greenbelt. Sticking to foreign aid commitments. But on Brexit -the one issue that everyone is looking at- I think the Party has gone to the right. You don’t have people at the top table like Osborne - the natural liberals in the Conservative party."
So if you were prime minister I ask, what would you do re Brexit?
"I would carry on being as charming as possible to my counterparts in Europe, telling them how much we love them and how much we will continue to be great neighbours. And at the same time, I would be making really good plans for no deal. To show that we want to work together as much as possible, but that we’re aware that if we can’t reach, a deal we’re not all going to die."
Are you listening, DD? So what about Corbyn?
"I didn’t predict it. One of the things that I see now from Corbynism is that there is a much bigger problem in terms of a wealth gap and a property ownership gap between generations than many of us realised. It’s leading people towards the kind of socialism that Corbyn is offering. Because if you work hard and you earn as much money as you can, yet there’s still no chance of you getting on the property ladder, then you’re naturally not going to be a Conservative."
That being so, will Corbyn be the next PM?
"No. And it won’t be Boris either - he’s blown it. It was there for him on the table, and he blew it onto the ground. If he’d gone 'Right, this is it. We’ve done it. Well done Michael, you’ve got this position,' then he’d be prime minister now."
An analysis with which I agree. And which Boris probably agrees with too, and cries about. So it won’t be Boris, and it won’t be Corbyn. But it will be a Tory?
"In many ways, the Conservatives are in a stronger position than they know right now. Corbynism has lost its sheen, and we’re in this weird perverse universe where the people who voted Leave rally around a leader who voted Remain in Theresa May; and the people who voted Remain rally around a leader who voted to Leave in Jeremy Corbyn. So no one in politics is particularly happy right now."
Room for a new SDP?
"You might argue that the people on the right of the party in Labour and on the left of the party in the Conservatives could create that new SDP. And you could say, well, why aren’t the Lib Dems doing that? Why aren’t they doing better? You could look to France and go, 'Well they managed to do it with the party they just set up'. And in Greece. And in Italy.
"But we still run a first past the post system, and it’s bloody hard to get anything other than a two-party state in that system. Look how hard UKIP tried. They had all those just two seats."
Briefly, I ask John for his best moments in political journalism. He offers two priceless anecdotes.
"I was quite well-known for throwing out wacky questions at the end of interviews. I remember doing one with Gordon Brown, and I had what felt like an extraordinary amount of time for this interview -15 minutes or so with the Prime Minister I was like, “Great, I’m home free. I’ve got so much stuff I can get out of this, I can fire out six or seven questions. Some of it’s going to be gold.”. But he wouldn’t do a live picture while we were talking, because he’s always gurning and looking glum, and he’d do a smile that always looked a bit awkward. So we had to do a separate shot. That ate up a couple of minutes’ time.
"But anyway, I do this interview and I get absolutely nothing. He’s giving me the wall treatment. So, I said, 'Look, if you were a dinosaur, what dinosaur would you be?' I just thought I had to throw something from the side he hadn’t dealt with. He’s been so briefed on so many questions, he’s going to just give out an answer that’s going to do nothing for the Metro. The editor’s going to look at it and go, 'Boring.' It’s not even going to make it, and I’m going to come back and he’s going to nib it.
"Brown answers 'What do you mean, what kind of dinosaur am I?' He thought I meant he was a bit like a TUC old-fashioned person. 'Are you a brontosaurus or a T-Rex?' I ask. I think in the end he said, 'I’ll leave it up to you to decide what kind of dinosaur I am.'
"But one of the best responses I got out of just firing something out sideways was a Cameron interview. It was during the time of the Olympics, and as I was walking over from Parliament to Downing Street, I picked up a copy of the Standard. I flicked through it while I was waiting in the reception of Downing Street and I saw a story that Michael Phelps had said, “I pee in the Olympic pool before going for my swim.”
"So I said, “Prime Minister, have you seen this today? Have you seen what Michael Phelps has been saying? He’s peeing in the Olympic pool. Are you cool with that?” He goes, “No, no, that’s not cool at all. He shouldn’t be peeing in the Olympic pool.”
"Obviously, the story runs “PM says: Stop peeing in the Olympic pool.” That’s the one story that everyone remembers. Not what he said about Lords reform."
And finally - two things. First off, something about the Higginson Strategy, which he heads up with his wife Clodagh.
"We’re trying to do it in a different way. Lobbyists in general are shy about lobbying, a bit embarrassed about it. But with all of the lobbying I have done, I’ve felt proud that it’s changed the world for the better. So, two things I want to do is to bring lobbying to people and organisations that otherwise wouldn’t think of it as part of their armoury of changing the world. And to champion lobbying as a cause for good, because lobbyists are the ones quite often that can look at a law that might have been written in haste, and help improve it."
And something about John that he’s happy sharing with readers?
"I’ve got a large skull and crossbones tattoo on my arm. It’s something I did when I was 18. I know that tattoos have become ubiquitous now, but at the time it was quite rebellious. I wouldn’t get one now, but I’m not shy about the fact that I have it. Because it was my decision. My belief in general is that making decisions is the difference between people who do well in life and people who don’t. People who don’t do well just struggle making decisions. If you make decisions, make them fast, change them if they’re wrong, but make the damn decision in the first place."
Amen to that. Just don’t decide to pee in the pool. And after one of the most wide-ranging, and frankly nicest public affairs interviews I’ve done, we turned our attention to lunch....
Like refined pirates, with shrimp fritters and turbot; smoked salmon and lobster
Eschewing piratical rum, instead we consumed Picpoul.