The waspish broadcaster opens up on Boris, imposter syndrome and the joy of interviewing MPs. Words by Alec Marsh
Iain Dale arrives at the Ivy Market Grill in Covent Garden in low spirits. He’s come straight from hospital, where he received less than cheering news about his type two diabetes. In the cab he’s been debating whether it’s worse to lose your eyesight or have your feet amputated. ‘I think my feet,’ he says, adding a dark chuckle. He glances at the menu and suggests we cut straight to the main course.
It is 10 years since Dale, 57, made his first appearance as a presenter on LBC. Since then he has become a fixture at the station, now at the helm of the evening show, where his three-hour-long programme – part news, phone-in and interview – draws 700,000 listeners. Along the way he’s scored a number of on-air hits, notably with Theresa May in 2017 when the then prime minister refused to answer how she would vote in a rerun of the EU referendum.
‘The look of panic in her eye was something to behold,’ Dale recalls. ‘She started doing this gurning thing that she does when she’s under pressure, so I put it to her again… and she just went to pieces.’ Over the next few days the entire Cabinet were asked it. Andrew Neil called it the ‘Iain Dale question’.
I remark on Dale’s rapid rise from publisher and bookseller to radio phenomenon. ‘It kind of doesn’t necessary feel like that from where I’m sitting because I’ve never planned anything that I’ve done,’ he says. Then he contradicts himself. He did plan to start the publisher Biteback. He did try to become an MP. Dale stood for parliament as a Conservative in 2005 and lost, and then tried to get selected in 2010. He then decided to call it a day ‘on the basis most people don’t normally get selected in their fifties’.
‘Once I’d made the decision I was completely comfortable with it,’ he says with plausible conviction. ‘In the 2017 election I nearly put my hat in the ring. But in the end I wrote down the pros and cons and came up with four pros and 15 cons.’
He orders the chicken Milanese with a side of fries.
When he went to university in East Anglia, Dale’s ambition was to become a German teacher. ‘Then I discovered politics,’ he says. Student activism got him an invitation to meet Margaret Thatcher at Number Ten in 1983. It was a life-changing encounter and he describes himself as ‘one of the keepers of the Thatcher flame’. (In 2002 he hosted a dinner in her honour at the Savoy, shortly after she had a stroke. He recalls the room getting to its feet as she left: ‘It was like the Nuremberg Rally,’ he says. ‘Even leftwing journalists were cheering her.’)
‘I don’t hide my politics and political background,’ adds Dale, but he doesn’t like being called a ‘Conservative broadcaster’. ‘Because I stood as a candidate 14 years ago, some people will always see me as “the Tory, Iain Dale”, but the last three elections I could have voted in I haven’t voted Tory – so I’m not particularly tribal.’
Dale’s latest moment in the spotlight was in the summer, when he conducted 10 of the 14 hustings for the Conservative leadership race. At the first of these he asked Boris Johnson five times about his widely reported row with his girlfriend Carrie Symonds. ‘He clearly wasn’t going to give an answer so I stopped then,’ he recalls. ‘The audience booed me at one point. I didn’t even realise the whole thing was live on Sky and the BBC. It’s the most coverage I’ve had on anything. People come up in the street and talk about it.’
The experience convinced Dale that ‘the Tory party had really changed’ in terms of age and ethnic diversity. It also modified his view of the candidates. ‘I was actually genuinely more impressed by them as time went on. And particularly with Boris, because he gave some really brilliant answers to people’s very difficult questions on areas where you wouldn’t necessarily expect him to be an expert, like mental health.’ On Europe, Dale sighs: ‘I was never convinced that either of them had a realistic plan for Brexit, I have to say.’
Dale praises Johnson’s first weeks in office but is open-minded on how it will turn out: ‘I’ve always said he would be a terrible prime minister or a brilliant prime minister. I don’t think there would be many shades of grey with him.’
And what of Dale himself? ‘I’m a fundamentally lazy person,’ he confides. ‘I love just slobbing around the house watching box sets, reading, playing with my dogs.’ Yet he’s only had one week off this year and seems, if anything, to be a workaholic: as well as his LBC show, he’s a regular on Newsnight, Any Questions? and Question Time and is writing a book on ‘the decline of political discourse’, Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?.
One day he hopes to retire to Norfolk, where he has a house. ‘It’s a strange ambition in a way, but I do want to move to Norfolk full-time.’
For now, his partner John will just have to continue putting up with Dale’s tendency to ‘over-share’ on air. ‘The audience… they know a lot about me,’ Dale offers. ‘My partner says, “Can you not keep anything private?” But you are building up a relationship with an individual person and because they listen to you every night they view you as a friend.’
As if on cue, he confesses: ‘I have a tremendous imposter syndrome. I always found that I had a sense of inferiority. If I was talking to Nick Boles, Ed Vaizey, Michael Gove – those kind of people – they’ve all got this inner confidence that they get from having gone to public school and to Oxford. I went to a comprehensive and the University of East Anglia.’
He wonders out loud if there’s anything healthy on pudding menu. ‘I need cheering up,’ he decides, and orders two scoops of strawberry and one lemon ice cream, before returning to imposter syndrome: ‘But when I got to 50, I thought, “You know, I’m just as good as they are.” But I still have in some areas this imposter syndrome and I can’t quite believe that I’m lucky enough to do what I do.’
Who would he like to interview? Boris Johnson as prime minister, and Jeremy Corbyn (‘Seumas Milne won’t allow him on LBC because he thinks we’re a bunch of fascists’). Also Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un. ‘I do have a little black book of people I won’t have on my programme,’ he adds, mentioning Tommy Robinson and Peter Hitchens.
What of the view that today’s politicians are inferior to their predecessors? He points to the political cartoons from previous centuries: ‘Did people think then that they had credible politicians?’ Today’s crop are ‘the most independent-minded MPs for decades’, he notes, but adds: ‘Now, I think a lot of them are probably fairly low-quality, but most people go into politics for the right reasons. It’s just that when some of them become ministers something happens and they become robots. And they lose a mind of their own.’
He digs into his ice cream: ‘There are some very clever people around but there are also some people who are in, shall we say, very high places in the Cabinet but maybe lack a little bit of intellectual depth,’ he says. ‘You look at some appointments and you just think, “What the fuck? Why on earth has this person been put in that job when they’re clearly not suited for it, aren’t intellectually up to doing it?”’
Illustration by Russ Tudor