It helped my cause that the candidate Peter saw before me appeared to be mad and possibly racist. Not being the latter and not immediately presenting as the former was enough to secure me the job. I was to be the Conservative Research Department’s man on Culture, Media and Sport, reporting to Peter Ainsworth, the then shadow Culture Secretary.
I was a bit disappointed. Peter seemed agreeable, but I had been hoping for a more obviously political brief — something that would have placed me in what was not yet known as the thick of it. It just goes to show that you can’t always trust your gut. It was a fabulous job and Peter was to become one of the central figures in my life.
He astonished me by being extremely candid and trusting from day one. Officials often complain that politicians won’t heed their advice. Given that I was 23 and knew nothing, it freaked me out that he did.
It wasn’t enough, though, to provide Peter with quality briefing. He rightly sensed that I was not drinking deeply of arts and culture. He resolved, successfully, to make me appreciate that they are integral to a rich, happy life and also that this meant government should take a direct and strong interest.
Some politicians master their briefs. Peter lived and breathed his. His life after Parliament proved that. Even though they couldn’t help push him up the greasy pole, the causes were not dropped. But then they wouldn’t have been, for there was nothing inauthentic about Peter.
Plantlife, the Heritage Alliance, the Big Lottery Fund, the Churches Conservation Trust, the Environment Agency, the Rhodes Commission, the Elgar Foundation, and the College of St Barnabas all benefitted from his hard work and wisdom.
The spotlight was focused on other people by then, and that was totally fine. What was vital was to keep the issues front and centre. And it wasn’t about glamorous, Manhattanesque fundraising balls, but rather detailed policy work and support for projects, typically small and local, that made a real difference.
He was a world-class conversationalist
Long before it was fashionable or politically advantageous, he advocated for the environment. This made him something of a curiosity in the Conservative Party before others caught up, yet it never seemed curious or inconsistent to him that a conservative should want to conserve. Peter’s philosophy owed nothing to Ayn Rand but rather a lot to Philip Larkin and John Betjeman.
I shared each of my triumphs and disasters with Peter. It was particularly heroic of him to come and watch me do stand-up comedy in a small, well lit room above a pub, leaving himself at the mercy of the compère who could easily have savaged a Tory politician.
Whenever life was difficult, he was a strong, reassuring presence, striking precisely the right balance of empathy and resolve-stiffening. Employers don’t have to be friends, but he was.
But perhaps it says most about him that he was equally interested in the quotidian, in things that were neither triumph nor disaster. Every time I worked up a song on the guitar, I’d send him a video. He read every poem and story. And he commented on them all, kindly, thoughtfully, and usefully. He returned the compliment with poems he dismissed as doggerel and stories he called stupid. In fact, they were wonderful.
One of the reasons he was a world-class conversationalist was that he instinctively shared Clive James’s understanding that one should divide culture into good and bad, not highbrow and lowbrow. He gifted me three CDs over the years: by Muse, Busted, and Gerald Finzi. He admired Thomas Tallis and Shania Twain.
He was terribly funny. My favourite of his impressions was Tam Dalyell asking Margaret Thatcher about the sinking of the Belgrano. A throwaway remark Peter made just before a television interview caused me, his press officer Gavin Megaw, and Peter to laugh so violently that we thought we might have to cancel it.
In every meeting — including Shadow Cabinet meetings — he would adorn his papers not with notes but sketches of the participants. He did this very well and with no effort to conceal what he was doing. I found this insouciance deeply pleasing.
The Conservative Party fared spectacularly badly during my time. And yet I treasure those years. Denuded of civil service support in opposition, the politicians had to turn to callow youngsters. Strong bonds were forged in adversity. Loyalty was more prevalent than disloyalty. And Peter inspired real devotion.
Early on in my career, another politician was mocked in a newspaper. Aggrieved, he asked Peter if I was responsible. Peter backed me to the hilt. (For the record, I was innocent. Not only was I not a leaker, but it would also never have occurred to me that this politician was newsworthy.)
On a bus back from campaigning in a by-election I was asked if I thought we were going to win. I said we were going to get hammered, and someone complained to Peter that I had dented morale. Peter insisted that I had simply answered the question honestly. (Also correctly, but that wasn’t the point.)
Peter Ainsworth was and remains profoundly special to me
Peter Ainsworth was and remains profoundly special to me, and yet many of his staff could have written this, their stories different but the man they were about wonderfully the same and true in each one. Reading social media is often a wretched experience, but it has been a balm of sorts about Peter’s tragically sudden death. Senior Tories praised him, as did opponents who became allies once they recognised his commitment to shared causes, and to whom he was courteous and kind. Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary that Peter shadowed rigorously and relentlessly, became a friend for instance.
Most politicians love their families and some have hinterland. For Peter, these were not additions to politics but what mattered in politics. You had to protect the earth for the sake of future generations, and the arts, heritage and culture made life worthwhile. When I was moved from the Culture desk to Health we agreed that I should not see it as a promotion.
I was longing to get outside a few bottles of wine with him after lockdown. Those of us whose lives he immeasurably improved will have to settle for raising a glass to him and always remembering him with gratitude and love.
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