Radio Ga Ga: How one question threw PM

PUBLISHED: 09:00 20 October 2017

Prime Minister Theresa May takes part in a live phone-in on radio station LBC, hosted by Iain Dale

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Theresa May’s refusal to tell a radio phone-in show how she would vote in a new Brexit referendum was a new low for the Maybot. Her interrogator IAIN DALE recalls the moment he put the question to her, and his surprise at her failure to answer it

“I know how I would vote in a second referendum,” I said. “Exactly the same as I did last time. If I can say that, why can’t you?” That was the second of three attempts I made to get the Prime Minister to answer the question as to how she would vote in an EU referendum if one were held now.

There we were, sitting in the LBC studio, Theresa May taking phone-calls from listeners, with me asking follow-up questions. It had gone rather well for the PM up to that point.

She had dealt with her conference speech with a degree of humour and had spent almost a quarter of hour being quizzed on her Racial Disparity Audit. She came through that with flying colours.

We then moved onto Brexit and took a call from Nina, an EU national who had been living in the UK for 31 years but was filled with uncertainty about her future. This has been a big bone of contention, not just on my radio show, but every single one on the station.

Every time we cover the issue, the phone lines light up, mainly with EU nationals expressing their concern and disbelief about what is happening and the government’s failure to reassure them. As Nina was talking, I thought to myself that this was a gold-plated opportunity for the Prime Minister to reassure everyone that their future was safe. In the end she did precisely the opposite.

Now I get that in a negotiation you don’t give your position away from the start. I understand that to give a blanket commitment to EU citizens might well jeopardise the position of Brits in the EU, but we are dealing with human beings here – human beings who are generally very sceptical of politicians in any case.

If the Prime Minister was seeking to give reassurance, I am afraid she did exactly the opposite. The hour and 20 minutes on the show after the PM left the studio were packed with callers saying just that.

But it wasn’t those questions for which the interview attracted the attention of four national newspaper front pages, the main news programmes and even Have I Got News for You and Radio 4’s News Quiz.

A week earlier I had asked the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, during an interview at the Conservative Party Conference whether, if the referendum were held today, he’d still vote Remain. He rather surprised me by saying no, he’d vote Leave. His reasons? The continuing belligerence of the EU and the attitude of Jean-Claude Juncker, and the fact that George Osborne’s dire warnings of economic collapse hadn’t come true.

So, I wondered, given that she has sounded like a most enthusiastic Brexiteer, whether the Prime Minister might agree with her Health Secretary. I genuinely thought she would. But she didn’t.

Afterwards, many people said: ‘Well surely she should have been briefed’. I’d respectfully submit that as Prime Minister you shouldn’t need a briefing to give a coherent answer to that question. Some listeners thought I had been incredibly rude to the PM and shouldn’t have been so impertinent as to ask her that question.

One listener emailed: “Dear Sir, The last time I recall voting I understand that voting intentions remain a strictly private matter so therefore your question to the PM was totally out of order and an intrusion of privacy. I am therefore reporting you and LBC to Ofcom.” You can’t please everyone, can you?

The next few days turned into a bit of a whirl. All because I had asked one question that no other interviewer had apparently thought of. All good for the ego, I suppose, but a bit surreal nonetheless. The trouble is, whenever I get a big political beast into the studio people will expect a repeat performance. It’s all downhill from here then…

Iain Dale is a former Conservative parliamentary candidate and Brexit supporter; he presents LBC Radio’s Drivetime show

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