On a summer night in 1987 just minutes after the Conservative party was confirmed as winner of that year’s general election, Dr David Owen of the Social Democrats stepped out before the TV cameras in Plymouth to acknowledge the unwelcome news.
As soon as he’d got the words out the piping voice of an adolescent was heard to shout: “And it’s all your fault!”
That voice belonged to me. My father had stood against Owen in Plymouth, attracting substantially more Labour support than previously; but failed to oust the politician who had done so much to split the anti-Tory vote.
My father, Ian Flintoff, on the night of the 1987 election.
As this suggests, I grew up sympathetic to the Labour party and fiercely averse to its opponents. But times change, and I recently decided to join the Tories.
Some who know me will regard this as a betrayal, probably never speak to me again…
Others may diagnose a marginally premature case of middle-aged rightward drift.
Or suspect it is some frolic, nothing but a “story” in many ways reminiscent of the article I wrote after a previous editor sent me scuba diving among sharks.
But there’s another way of looking at it. Britain’s political system restricts an individual’s participation to just one vote every five years or so a vote that can be used by the winning party to justify more or less anything.
The only way to contribute more fully is by joining a party with a realistic chance of winning elections and helping to shape its policies.
[Hey – thanks for reading so far. To be completely transparent, this story is from my archive. I dug it out of the grave because I thought it might attract your attention – and I guess that worked. To find out what happened after I joined the Tories, how I ended up at dinner with Theresa May, and had my appearance dissected by a spin doctor, keep reading. If you read to the end, I'll tell you something else…]
Tony Blair is often described as a Tory who happens to lead the Labour party; this may be unfair, but one can readily imagine him crossing his fingers, over the years, while dutifully promoting socialist policies not entirely to his taste.
In doing so, he got himself into a position where he could bring the party closer to his own views. Why shouldn’t I go the other way?
After several years of glory, Blair’s “New” Labour now looks a bit washed up. Today’s wannabe politician is better off joining the Tories.
As I did, online, on the day lain Duncan Smith was ousted. And when I heard that Michael Howard was taking over as leader, I congratulated myself: this, it seemed clear, was a party with oomph.
Naturally, I was anxious about how I could fit in.
I decided that so long as I never actually told a lie I would allow myself, when necessary, to keep back awkward truths.
Where would I practice this time-honoured, political ethic? At as many events as I could manage to attend, of the variety published on the party website: an “evening at the dogs” in Essex; a debate on Iraq in Westminster; or the annual gala dinner of the Gay Conservative Association, where I kept quiet about the fact that I’m married with a daughter.
I went along because I was interested to know how this newly affiliated group squared the rights of homosexuals with a party not traditionally regarded as friendly towards them.
I thought I could hide among the hundreds of guests, but was rather surprised to be one of just 35 seated around the single banqueting table.
Even though I was stuck at an end, I was still only a few seats from the guest of honour, Theresa May.
Beforehand, in the bar, I chatted to an amiable doctor from Leicester; a sinister marketing manager from Cambridge who wants to be rich (“but not famous”); a businessman from Chichester who offered £1,000 if somebody could persuade the party to put together a formal gay policy; a former MP, and a local councillor from Westminster who is on the list of parliamentary candidates.
To fend off awkward questions that night I told people simply that I joined the party because I was impressed by the removal of Duncan Smith.
The man from Chichester agreed, saying he has been lobbying for a year to get rid of IDS, writing letters and collaring influential people whenever he meets them. With a glint in his eye he said suddenly: “Come with me.”
And he marched me towards a woman standing alone in a corner of the room.
This turned out to be a feature writer from the Independent. I briefly considered telling her I was just another reporter, but that would have been cowardly and anyway not the whole truth.
I was here because I wanted to be, I told myself. This is who I am, now.
So what happened? Here’s her account, as published in the Independent the following week:
An elder statesman of the Gay Conservatives dragged over a stooge. “This man has just joined the party because he’s so pleased that Michael Howard is leader,” he announces, slapping his nervous young colleague on the back. “You should talk to him.”
What made a young, gay-friendly man sign up to a party headed by Michael Howard? “Well, I thought lain Duncan Smith was rubbish, ” he offers. “You know, rubbish on TV, that sort of thing.”
So, is he just hoping Howard will change his mind about gay rights? “Um, yes,” he begins, and then seems to sense that that’s not what he has been brought here to say. “I mean, I think he’s already changing it. Politicians are quite nimble, they change their minds as society changes.”
Another pause. “But that doesn’t mean to say they’re hypocrites.” As we are seated, he looks grateful to be led away.
My first political interview! Not the greatest-ever, but I’m hoping it’s only a small step from that kind of thing to a regular seat beside David Dimbleby on the BBC’s Question Time.
A few days later, my membership card finally turned up. Long delayed by the musical chairs at Central Office, and postal strikes, this came with a letter from Dr Liam Fox, co-chairman, welcoming me with thanks for my generous support and encouraging me to get in touch with my local association.
No sooner did I feel the laminated card between thumb and forefinger than I started to feel like Frodo Baggins fingering his ring: forces of evil called to me with dreams of power…