Lifting The Lid On An Extraordinary Chapter Of British Politics

Ben Riley Smith will talk about the last 13 years of Tory rule at Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival

During his decade at the heart of Westminster’s media, the Daily Telegraph’s political editor Ben Riley-Smith has interviewed the biggest names in British politics. In his new book, The Right to Rule – Thirteen Years, Five Prime Ministers and the Implosion of the Tories, Ben reveals the explosive story of this tumultuous period and talks to many of the key figures who shaped it.

Ben will share his stories live at this year’s Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival, and we caught up with him ahead of his appearance to find out more about how he came to write the book – and what he learnt about its leading characters in the process.

How did the book come about and what was the idea behind it?

I wanted to do a book for a long time, because as a political reporter on a daily newspaper often you only have time to spend a few hours looking into something, so I wanted to do something with more depth.

I tried to do something about the fall of Boris but the timings didn’t quite work. But through that process I got an agent and the agent said what would be interesting would be to look back at this period because there’s an election coming up and who knows what will happen. So the idea was to look back at this whole 13-year run and try to make sense of it and pull together some of the threads.

Did you speak to all five prime ministers for the book?

Three of them gave me an interview for the book – Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and David Cameron. Rishi Sunak I interviewed for the Telegraph when he was talking about the small boats issue, and I’ve talked to Theresa May in the past.

What did you learn from writing the book?

There’s been this cliché in British politics since I’ve been reporting that there is something ruthless about the Conservative Party and I wanted to test that and see if it was true, and I was surprised by how many people reinforced that idea.

One thing a number of people said to me is ‘you have to understand the Tories are not an ideological party, they’re a power party.’ That doesn’t mean they don’t have broad values and principles they believe in like free markets, individual rights, and a cautiousness about the big state, but fundamentally they want to be in power and retain power to deliver on those principles.

If you look at the Labour Party, it was founded with a demographic in mind to represent the working class and an ideology in mind which was to bring about democratic socialism. But the Tories are not anchored on either of those points which means they have an ability to shapeshift and change position to try and meet the public mood. The pursuit of power and the willingness to change to do what’s needed runs through the party like a stick of rock.

What did people tell you about Liz Truss’s brief time as PM?

I think what it comes down to, talking to a lot of her cabinet ministers and Downing Street team, is she has this thing that somebody called ‘the Spinal Tap effect’, which is turning everything up to 11 – this idea that whatever we’re going to do let’s do it bigger and bolder and quicker.

And when she was a cabinet minister that could work because cabinet ministers need to negotiate with each other and the prime minister and their demands get watered down. But when you’re the prime minister there’s nobody there saying ‘no, turn it back down to 10 or 9.’ I think that ‘spinal tap’ attitude to policymaking explains why the mini budget ballooned and ballooned in size.

On Liz Truss’s premiership, one of the most damning on the record quotes I got was from Kwasi Kwarteng. He was her chancellor but also her right-hand man when it came to this tax cutting project and they were longtime political friends and he said to me, ‘I love Liz very dearly, I think she’s really principled, but if she didn’t blow up over the mini budget it would have been something else because her temperament wasn’t right to be prime minister.’”

How do you assess Boris Johnson premiership?

He had the biggest Tory majority since Margaret Thatcher, an 80-seat majority. With those kinds of numbers you can reshape Britain in your image. Margaret Thatcher’s changes created ‘Thatcherism’, there’s Blair and ‘Blairism’, but there will be no ‘Johnsonism’ that he’s known for. So how did that possibly happen?

It’s a very nuanced picture and I talked to 20 plus of his cabinet ministers and various people in Downing Street and some of them argue the pressures of covid mustn’t be underestimated, and the problems that put on the public finances, and taxes having to go up because spending had to be injected into the economy to prop it up during lockdowns.

But I think there were frailties and idiosyncrasies in his style of governing that are criticised by a lot of people who saw it firsthand, including Tory colleagues. One of them was that he didn’t often make quick, decisive decisions. He would allow policy discussions to go back and forth for weeks and weeks and he didn’t like telling a cabinet minister ‘no, I’m going to go against you.’

Possibly underpinning that was did he really have a deep, ideological view of how he wanted to change the country? He’s criticised as not being a details person but I think that’s unfair in some capacity because when he wanted to be he could be, that’s what allies said.

What makes a good political journalist?

There’s a number of things. The first is to try and be impartial and objective. That’s never easy to achieve because everyone has their own biases and political instincts, but you have to try and switch off your personal ideological views.

There’s a lot of relationship management in political journalism, because fundamentally to report on something that’s happening ideally you need people who have eyes on what’s happening to pick up the phone to you and tell you what’s happening. So you have to convince them to talk to you and gain their trust.

Then there’s the challenge that in the future it’s very likely you’re going to have to write negative stories about some of the people you build up relationships with – be it MPs or advisors, or the causes they believe in – because that’s the nature of political journalism.

Is journalism still a rewarding career?

Journalism is a precarious business and it’s easy to be put off but I’d encourage anyone to try and do it because it’s so fulfilling and thrilling, particularly political journalism. You feel like you are at the heart of the public debate and discourse at any one moment and you get to see behind the curtains how it all works.

How significant has the last 13 years of British politics been?

It’s been very significant and for one reason and that’s the B-word – Brexit. Whether you like it or loathe it I think everyone agrees it was a huge moment of change. The irony is it was something the Tory government at the time did not want people to vote for. So the biggest thing currently in their legacy is a policy that the UK government at the time did not want to bring about. So that’s a curious reality of these last 13 years.

13 Years of Tory Rule with Ben Riley-Smith is on Saturday 21 October at 4pm, at The Crown, Harrogate. Book online here or call the box office on 01423 562 303.