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I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward

Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

July 6, 2017
6 min read

Gavin Barwell with new boss Theresa May. Left, the book.

Gavin Barwell is many things, including a passable double of Karl Pilkington, but a talented writer is not one of them. His book, How to Win a Marginal Seat, will make you shudder in discomfort at the hackneyed metaphors and cliched phrases that Barwell pulls out at every possible opportunity – reading this book is an excruciating experience.

Barwell’s authorial voice is reminiscent of the one Steve Coogan adopts for Alan Partridge in the spoof autobiography I, Partridge – but instead of being entertainingly awkward, it’s just awkward.

Take this passage for example, where we are treated to an anecdote from Barwell’s time working for Michael Ashcroft, the major Tory Party donor and pollster. Barwell got a call while on a family picnic in the New Forest, saying that he must immediately make his way to an airport:

‘So Karen took me to the airport, where she was allowed to drive onto the apron right up to the plane that was waiting for me. If I hadn’t been dressed as I was and arrived in a beat up Vauxhall Zafira, I’d have felt like a Bond villain. I fell asleep during the flight and woke up in what turned out to be Kefalonia [a Greek island]. The furthest the Conservative Party had ever sent me was Llandrindod Wells.’

It would have been pretty interesting to know why Ashcroft had flown Barwell to Greece, at a time when Ashcroft was beginning his private polling project so as to be better able to direct money to target marginal seats for the Tories. Alas, he overlooks this trifling detail and we may never know – what we do know, however, is that Barwell once got driven onto the apron of a provincial airport, and it made him feel cool. Great.

Thanks to the pubs

This passage isn’t even the worst offender. Far more often than is forgivable Barwell launches into tedious detail about events in his life that can only serve to leave the reader wondering why on earth he thought to include them, and why on earth his editor didn’t suggest he removed them. (Within the first few pages, for example, we are regaled with the story of how he went canvassing on a long-ago election day and had a big lunch.)

Hazarding a guess, it is probably because if these passages were to be removed, we’d be left with a book mostly made up by Barwell naming people, describing what their job on his campaign was and thanking them. To the point of absurdity, Barwell thanks anyone or anything that is even tangentially related to his campaigns – including, at one point, three pubs in Croydon where he and his team took breaks from canvassing.

The fact that Barwell is now the prime minister’s top adviser, and arguably one of the most powerful political figures in Britain, is astounding to me. He writes in the voice of a washed up non-league football manager. Gavin Barwell is the Mondeo man. We have discovered the authentic voice of middle England. My God, is it ever hard to read.

Given this book was published at a time when he was still a sitting MP, we can take this book to be representative of Barwell’s electoral strategy and the kind of advice he might be giving Theresa May right at this moment. What Barwell seeks to do is to present himself as a ‘local’ candidate, with a ‘personal touch’.

One of Barwell’s strategies was to get one of his supporters to write a note praising him and to print this in a handwriting font and deliver it around Croydon Central – believing that people were more likely to trust a personal recommendation from a neighbour than the messaging of election leaflets. Now, this may or may not be true – but if the Conservatives are planning to fight the next election with the ‘Lucida Handwriting strategy’ they are fighting a losing battle.

Are you thinking what Gavin’s thinking?

Barwell is also in awe of Lynton Crosby, who he worked with on Michael Howard’s infamous ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’ dog-whistle election campaign in 2005. Barwell held the post of director of operations.

Delivering another back-of-the-net anecdote, in a section titled ‘Learning from Lynton’, Barwell writes:

‘No one who worked on the 2005 campaign will ever forget his daily staff meetings, which combined communicating important information about what we were planning to do over the next few days with raucous team-building exercises like staff of each nationality singing their national anthem and the award of “tinnies” to junior staffers who had done a great job.’

Unfortunately for Barwell, it looks like it will take more than tinnies to turn the Tories’ fortunes around this time.

You might think I’m being harsh, but it’s not even that Gavin Barwell lost by a little. He went from a majority of 2,969 in 2010 to one of just 165 in 2015, to then be defeated by 5,652 votes in 2017. It is fair to say that these are not the stats of an election guru. A better title for this book actually might be How to Turn a Marginal Seat into a Labour Seat.

Barwell would frequently launch campaigns on issues in Croydon and was quick to align himself to any of his opponents’ campaigns that appeared to be popular – to such an extent that local newspaper the Croydon Advertiser launched ‘the Campaign to End All Campaigns – calling on Gavin Barwell MP to stop launching campaigns’. The paper said, ‘Gavin, we get it, there’s an election on.’

The one-time MP also treats his reader to a fairly long explanation of why he spent so much time taking his constituents on guided tours around the Palace of Westminster. Basically, he was of the belief that the more people knew him personally the more likely they are to vote for him. Or not, as it turned out.

All this glad-handing and pop-up campaigning must be why Barwell had no time to act on a safety review of buildings such as Grenfell following a fire in a similar high rise block of flats, Lakanal House, in 2009. The government said it would publish a review of the fire procedures for such buildings in 2013, and this fell under Barwell’s brief as housing minister. These recommendations are yet to be published – and Barwell is yet to explain why.

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