Conversations In Isolation: Ed Vaizey
We're interviewing some of our Scarfe's Bar guests to see how they're coping with lockdown
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During lockdown Scarfe’s Bar is shut, so we’re asking some of our past interviewees how they’re coping with isolation and how they think Coronavirus will change our world – first up our regular culture correspondent ED VAIZEY.
Ed was longest serving culture minister ever, being in office under David Cameron from 2010 to 2016. Theresa May sacked him when she became prime minister. Ed continued to serve as a back bencher but left Parliament in 2019. From next week, in conversation with our Associate Editor Charlotte Metcalf, he launches our new weekly podcast, Lockdown Culture, to navigate the bewildering mass of digital culture and entertainment on offer and give us his top picks for the week. Charlotte Metcalf spoke to him on the telephone as he was walking his dog.
Where are you isolating?
In my Oxfordshire home in my old constituency of Didcot and Wantage. I’m with my wife and children, Joseph 13 and Martha 12. Home schooling tends to involve Xbox and Tik Tok.
How are you keeping fit?
I run for half an hour a day and do an hour-long Facetime session with my fitness trainer. We sometimes go on a family walk and my wife does the odd Pilates work out. The kids largely do nothing.
Are you working?
I have a portfolio career at the moment but I am looking for high profile roles. Paradoxically, I left parliament to do something in public life – to run a public-facing body, for example. I recently applied to be Chairman of Tech Nation, the body that oversees the British start-up sector. I worked with Tech Nation closely with for six years when I was Culture Minister. Unfortunately, they didn’t even give me an interview! They sent me an email with my name spelt wrong saying I didn’t have the right skills set. So my career change is not going so well…
Away from business, I’m still on the board of National Youth Theatre, where we’ve recently introduced on-line auditions via Tik Tok. The NYT is well-managed and not about to go under.
What have you learnt in isolation?
That FOMO is a superficial emotion – it’s completely cured mine.
How do you see the post-Coronavirus world?
We’re in mid-crisis, so appetite for party politics is close to zero. But I think Coronavirus will have a huge political legacy. There will be a lot of public debate about funding and support for the NHS as the public, quite rightly, will see it as the organisation that stood by them during disaster.
There will also be debate about how the government dealt with the crisis – that would be inevitable however well it had been managed. But I suspect Boris will continue his love affair with the British public and I’m not convinced that Keir Starmer will cut through.
Generally I think life as we used to know it will return pretty much to normal, though I do think coronavirus has accelerated what should already should have been happening – more working from home and doctors being able to have remote consultations with patients.
At the moment culture has stopped – no concerts, plays or exhibitions – but there is a silver lining. This period will force all our arts institutions to engage online more and inevitably culture will become more accessible. I work with Digital Theatre so I am passionate about this. Currently there is a finite number of people who can physically go to a play or concert. If the arts improve their digital reach, someone in a tiny village in Cornwall will be able to learn how to paint or see a great play or opera live. That has to be a good thing.
Now, read Charlotte Metcalf‘s interview with Ed from 2018…
In His Genes
Ed Vaizey, ex-Culture Minister, is young (well – still under 50), energetic, clever, funny, charming, cultured and passionate about politics. So why isn’t he Tory leader? It’s a question he enjoys, given Theresa May sacked him in 2016, but he dismisses it cheerfully, claiming not to have the ambition or character for the role. Yet he was raised in a political household. ‘Politics mattered at home and was always discussed,’ says Ed.
His father, John, was a Labour peer and Professor of Social Science at Brunel University but died of heart disease when Ed was just 16.
‘I often think about the arguments I’d have had with my dad if he’d lived longer,’ says Ed. ‘I was a Tory from the get-go and thought Thatcher was a radical, challenging the status quo. In a way, my father’s death set my politics in aspic.’
Ed was educated at St Paul’s and Oxford and then went straight into Conservative Central Office as a researcher. ‘It was an amazing job,’ he says. ‘I was writing speeches and going to meetings with cabinet ministers and MPs, who were my equivalent of rock stars. What made it all extra special was working with Ken Clarke, who was absolutely brilliant with wit and sparkle. It was all around the time Thatcher resigned, so it was an extraordinary run of events.’
A ‘Proper’ Job
Thinking he should do a ‘proper job’ before trying to become an MP, Ed became a lawyer. ‘I did it all for the wrong reasons and I found the Bar stultifying,’ he confesses. ‘I plodded along but really missed politics. Then I joined the Public Policy Unit months before Labour won the greatest landslide since the war. I fell foul of them fast as no one wanted to hire a Tory researcher. So I went into PR.’
Ed worked in PR until he stood as MP for Bristol in 1997. ‘I turned a 5,000 Labour majority into a 17,000 one,’ he says, grinning ruefully. ‘When she won, the incoming Labour MP, Jean Corston, looked at me and said, “We’ve swept the scum from the streets!” I came back to London on the back of a tow truck because my car had blown up. It was pretty demoralising.’
Nevertheless, Ed made up his mind to try again after the 2001 election, and eventually won the seat of Didcot and Wantage in 2005. To this day, he remains MP there and has increased the Tory share of the vote from 39 to 54 per cent.
When David Cameron asked Ed to be his culture spokesman, he was delighted. ‘Normally people want a job in the Treasury or something but I’d grown up around culture because my mother, Marina, was the art critic on The Sunday Times and FT, so, from a young age, I’d been going to galleries, theatres and the odd opera,’ says Ed. ‘It was my dream job.’
Into the Mainstream
Ed served as opposition culture spokesman from 2006 and then became the longest-serving culture minister ever in 2010. ‘I’m most proud of taking culture from the fringes into the mainstream. The British film industry has grown by 80 per cent in the last three years compared with just eight per cent in Europe. We achieved that through tax breaks.’ He also pushed for coding in schools and put in place ‘the most successful rural broadband programme anywhere in the world, reaching 4.5 million homes. You wouldn’t believe how many places didn’t have broadband or good mobile coverage,’ he says. ‘It always amuses me that the day I was sacked by phone the PM had to wait 15 minutes to do it as she couldn’t get a signal.’
Ed is particularly proud of the Harmony Programme, inspired by Julian Lloyd Webber, teaching children in deprived areas to play an instrument in an orchestra. ‘It was tears-to-the-eyes stuff seeing kids getting incredible confidence through this exercise,’ says Ed. ‘It’s expensive to do in every town but it’s so important that arts are central in a school as they have such a knock-on effect.’
So what now? ‘I’m having a nice time decompressing and spending time with my constituents,’ he says. ‘I’m an Honorary Professor of Cultural Practice at King’s College London, which is a real thrill, and I’m on the board of the National Youth Theatre and BritDoc. I’m still passionate about culture and technology.’
He is a firm Remainer and admits he is ‘depressed’ about the outcome of Brexit. ‘What makes me most angry is the divisive nature of the government’s approach, driven more by very hard ideology rather than a practical outcome that will help people with jobs and security,’ he says. ‘Half the country wanted to remain and very little has been done to reassure people about the outcome.’ I persist in asking him about his long-term political ambitions again but he just chuckles cheerfully. ‘I just like doing things I’m interested in and the only job I’ve ever really wanted was to be Secretary of State for Culture. I’m perfectly satisfied being on the back benches,’ he insists. ‘People shouldn’t assume all ex-ministers are bitter and twisted.’
Ed may be content but there are, no doubt, several high ranking Tories who are quietly regretting the loss of a clever, charismatic, popular and dedicated politician from the political front line.
Wine or green tea?
Green tea of course – I’m almost 50.
Cat or dog?
I grew up with cats and we seem to have inherited one from next door, but we’ve just got a new puppy.
Pub lunch or Michelin star?
Pub lunch, particularly The Star at Sparsholt near Wantage.
Sharp suit or country tweeds?
I’d say a sharp suit but I’ve stopped wearing them – I only wear clothes by Sunspel.
Theatre or gardening?
Theatre. I’ve just seen The Seagull at The Lyric.
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