Lunch with… Liam Herbert

Written by Francis Ingham on 7 April 2016 in Features

PRCA director general Francis Ingham dines with Chelgate director Liam Herbert at Shepherd's restaurant.

My first PAN interview lunch with Liam Herbert met the fate of Richard Nixon’s Presidency – some excellent results, fatally undermined by regrettable recording gaps. So we reconvened to give it a second go...

Speaking of repeats, I piled straight in with a tease about the state of Liam’s beloved Labour Party. The Labour Manifesto 1983. We’re seeing the re-run now aren’t we?

"We are, actually.  We don’t appear to be an Official Opposition because we don’t appear to be opposing very much.  But we do appear to be talking quite a lot about stuff.  If you take the view that what we’re doing is reorganising as a Party, trying to start a broader movement, then I think that’s going better than actually opposing the Government."

Which is his polite way of saying that he despairs at what’s happening. Though on the bright side, he points out that:

"There are more people involved at the local constituency and branch levels. There are more people out on the doorstep, and more people offering their ideas about how Labour should be working."

The wry smile on his face says it all. I suggest therefore that he must be feeling very confident about the May elections, and the 2020 general.

"There’s been a lot said about the locals being a bellwether moment. I don’t think that’s true. Whether we do well or we do badly, not much will change. Corbyn is secure whatever the result.

"This is very much a case of politics repeating itself, because we have been here before, in the eighties."

I venture that’s a bit harsh on Michael Foot. He’d been in the Cabinet after all; and he supported the Falklands War. Herbert agrees, but contends:

"We’ve been here before in that we have lost sight of what we should be doing. And many people don’t realise that we are in fact replaying what happened previously. We have a whole bunch of new people who are very young, so they have no concept of what came before.  This is all new ground for them."

I ask who he thinks will win the Mayoralty. It’s a simple response: "Sadiq.  And easily."

But that’ll be a boost for Corbyn and for Labour won’t it?

"Indeed.  And many Tories will welcome that boost. London’s very different from anywhere else, including the makeup of the local Labour Party.  The win will be seen as affirming Corbyn’s approach. But it won’t translate elsewhere in the country."

So what will happen with the newly under-employed Boris? "Boris would be brilliant as a leader of the Tory party.  It’s never, ever going to happen though.  It would be lovely and it’d be great fun, but it would almost be your Corbyn moment. Almost."

I ask if Boris will come out for Brexit. "He’ll keep people waiting, and in the end he probably will."

Which is pretty prescient. Speaking of predictions, what will be the result? "We’ll vote to stay."

In which case, Lionel Zetter will lose his bet with that other doyen of Shepherd’s, Gill Morris, and will spend a week wandering around London in a beret…..

We move on to the lobbying register. And if you thought he was candid about Corbyn, well you ain’t seen nothing yet. I ask if Chelgate is on it and why?

"We’re on it because within the reporting period we met the criteria. But it’s pointless, because most of the work that we do doesn’t get covered. Which is the same for almost everybody.  It’s pointless and expensive."

I ask at what point the costs of being on the Register become so onerous that companies just change their models slightly so that they’re not covered by it? Many agencies I know, after all, are on their pretty much voluntarily –the ones declaring no registerable clients, but paying anyway for example. 

"It’s getting very close to that point now. No one should have a problem with transparency.  But the lobbying register doesn’t facilitate transparency, and that’s the big problem with it.  The Government’s lost interest in the issue. And there is no prospect of that situation changing anytime soon."

We move on to his company, Chelgate. How’s business?

"It’s good and it’s interesting.  We’re finding that having a settled Government and the lack of a sensible Opposition is making people quite interested in how they’re engaging. And because central government is devolving difficult decisions down to local government, that’s adding a new context too."

Which should all add up to Chelgate recruiting I suggest? Shockingly, Herbert doesn’t offer me a job on the spot…

"We’re recruiting at all levels, as they say.  So we’re looking for senior people with broad experience, and at a junior level we’re looking for, bright, young people.  Compared to when I started, people feel more in tune with exactly what they want to do and how they want to do it.

"In the eighties we kind of drifting into lobbying.  But now people are actively choosing it.  And when they’re actively choosing it, they’re actively also choosing what they want to do, what they want to learn, and how they’re going to play it."

Finally, I ask as usual for something PAN readers won’t know about him.  

"Most people know that I’m a science fiction geek. But everything I learned about management, I learned from watching the Godfather films."

The waiter saunters over and I ask if there’s any horse’s head on the menu. Regrettably, there isn’t. But there is haggis. Which seems close enough.

We ate

Pickled sardines and haggis
Pate and Shepherd’s pie


We drank



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