Gavin Barwell: The election was tough - most nights I would wake up in a cold sweat

Written by David Singleton on 24 March 2016 in Interview
Interview
The Conservative MP for Croydon Central talks campaign tactics, top Tory advisers and the power of selfies with Boris Johnson.

If Gavin Barwell had lost his highly marginal seat in the 2015 general election, he could hardly have been accused of not trying his utmost.

The Tory adviser-turned-MP states in a new book about his election fight that the 12 months leading up to polling day were “incredibly tough”. But that could be something of an understatement.

Margaret Thatcher is famously said to have slept for only four hours a night. Barwell reveals that he was not far off that benchmark throughout the 12 months leading up to polling day.

“I had to combine being a government minister, an MP, a candidate running for re-election in an ultra-marginal seat and a husband and father. I averaged five hours a sleep a night and most nights I would wake up at least once in a cold sweat over something that hadn’t been done or with an idea of something new I could do to improve my chances, that I would quickly scribble down on a piece of paper I kept next to my bed, then try to go back to sleep.”

Because he dreaded losing by a handful of votes, Barwell did everything he possibly could to increase his chances: “I’d squeeze an extra event into an already crowded day, produce another leaflet, do six hours’ canvassing on Saturday instead of five, waste less time asleep.”

In the end it was all worth it. But only just. After a recount, Barwell found out at 5.45am on Friday 8 May that he had scraped through with a tiny majority of 165.  It means that his Croydon Central seat is now the fourth most marginal in the land, after the City of Chester, Derby North and Gower.

Nine months after the drama of election night, Barwell is getting on with the day job as a Tory whip. Or to give him his full, archaic, title: Comptroller of the Household.

As we meet in the lower whips office, around the corner from the Commons chamber, I ask Barwell to provide his top tip for winning a marginal seat. He cheats by giving two answers.

“You can’t do it without hard work, you’ve got to graft,” he says. “Beyond that the most important thing I’d say is authenticity. In all the time that I’ve worked in politics, the thing that fascinates me about the electorate is that most people don’t follow who the candidate is, what the party policies are, in great detail. But they’re very good at spotting authenticity. So you’ve got to run on who you are and what you stand for.”

How helpful was it to get a sprinkling of stardust in the form of the mayor of London? Barwell is effusive: “The great thing about Boris is that he’s almost a sort of celebrity. So if you take him into Croydon town centre everybody wants a selfie with him."

However he calculates that an April 2015 visit from the prime minister is more likely to have won over wavering voters - even if it was during his speech in Croydon that David Cameron famously forgot which football team he supported, apparently switching from Aston Villa to West Ham.

Did he have a laugh about the gaffe with Cameron afterwards? Certainly not, says Barwell. “No. I think when the PM comes to help you for the day, you want to say thank you and send him off in the right spirit."

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Barwell is one of the Conservative party’s more fiercely liberal MPs. He notably was the first Tory MP to call out his colleague Aidan Burley in 2012, after the right-winger spectacularly misjudged the mood across the country and tweeted that the Olympics opening ceremony was “multicultural crap”. Could Barwell have won in multi-cultural Croydon if he was an old fashioned right-winger?

“If I was a more traditional right wing Tory Eurosceptic I’d probably have had an easier time with some of the Tory/Ukip waverers,” he ventures. But Barwell calculates that such a stance would not endear him to the many ethnic minority voters in his constituency. “So it’s swings and roundabouts.”

But he does admit that it would have been much more of a struggle to win the seat if he hadn’t had plenty of cash coming in from Tory HQ and elsewhere.“It would have been harder. To do the literature and all that kind of thing, you do need money… But all the money in the world can’t turn a campaign whose messaging is wrong into a winning campaign.”

And then there is the more modern frontier of social media. Barwell says he tried to “moderate” his approach to Twitter after a friend told him he was too argumentative.

“I got interested in politics through debating when I was younger. So I enjoy talking to people and having a good argument about politics. But I think you have to recognise that a lot of people don’t like politicians arguing. For a lot of people, argument is a negative thing.”

Would he still advise other MPs to use the platform? “Yes. Because I think you can reach people you wouldn’t reach through traditional forms of campaigning. But you just need to make sure you portray yourself in the best positive light.

“So what I do now is try and spend less time talking to political opponents who aren’t going to change the way they vote, and concentre on responding to genuine queries that I get from residents and picking up local issues.”

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Barwell, 44, almost fell into politics after graduating from Cambridge with a degree in theoretical physics. Unsure of his next move after leaving university, he applied for a job at Conservative Central Office (as it was then called) after a friend alerted him to the advert for a desk officer.

After a year and a half in the Conservative Research Department Barwell was appointed as special adviser to John Gummer, then environment secretary. He went on in later years to be chief operating officer at Tory HQ before entering the Commons in 2010.

Few MPs would rush to embrace the dreaded ‘career politician’ tag, but Barwell insists that his background can be a positive.

“It has pros and cons. Looking at it from my constituents’ point of view, It does mean I know virtually every other member of the Conservative parliamentary party. Having been a special advisor I know how the government machine works, so I’m probably better equipped than some maybe to know my way around the system and to get a good deal for my constituents.”

Asked for the most impressive strategists he’s worked with, Barwell offers up three names.

First up is the Populus founder and former Downing Street strategy director Andrew Cooper. Barwell points to his work to modernise the Tory party in the wake of the 1997 election defeat at the hands of Tony Blair: “He was the first person in the Conservative party to grasp the degree of change that was required to win an election again.”

He also names former Tory chairman Stephen Gilbert, saying: “In terms of the organising of a campaign and grassroots campaigning, he’s a huge asset to the party.”

Finally he cites the man who many credit with winning the 2015 election for the Tories, stating that Lynton Crosby was especially impressive when the going was tough some years ago under Michael Howard’s leadership.

“Lynton has elements of both of them. He operates partly at a strategic level but has a good insight into a lot of that grassroots campaigning as well… … When I first met him and worked for him in 2005 the thing that I really admired about him was his ability to motivate the people underneath him.”

I note that Barwell has not mentioned George Osborne. Clearly keen not to knife the chancellor, he responds that the economy was a trump card for the Tories in 2015 and says Osborne should be given credit for making it so. “That has to be to a significant degree down to how he framed that issue, the policies he drove through as chancellor during the course of the government.”

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In the coming months, Barwell is not short of further campaigns to get stuck into. He acknowledges that Sadiq Khan is “clearly the favourite at the moment” to be the next London mayor, but insists that Zac Goldsmith can still come from behind to win.

“I think Zac is a candidate who is well placed to appeal to people’s second preference votes… And the other key thing that he needs to do is to pick away at the credibility of what Sadiq is offering,” says Barwell.

He is also pushing for a Remain vote in the EU referendum and says the phone polls are looking promising. “But one of the things I learnt from Lynton is don’t spend the campaign watching the polls, try and influence the polls. And there’s a lot of people who haven’t made their minds up, so lots to play for on both sides.”

As for his chances in 2020, Barwell is clearly hoping that Jeremy Corbyn will remain in place as leader of the Labour party.

“What’s fascinating about the polling at the moment on Corbyn is that normally people take quite a while to make up their mind about the leader of the opposition…. Actually at the moment the polling is showing that most voters have made up their mind about Jeremy Corbyn and they don’t see him as a prime minister. So I think if he’s still the leader that is bound to work in favour of Conservative candidates.”

Of course, that contest is still some years away. Which means Barwell has plenty of time to catch up on sleep lost in the run-up to last election, should he choose to.

As it happens, the Croydon Central MP and Tory whip is in no rush to have a lie in. Rather, he is arriving in the Commons “before seven every morning”.

That puts him on a far-from-indulgent six hours sleep a night. But with memories of the 2015 general election still fresh, Barwell is looking on the bright side: “It feels better than five.”

 

 

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