Andrew Neil is currently the best political interviewer the BBC has got. At least, that’s the view of almost everyone I’ve spoken to – inside the corporation and out – who point to his encyclopaedic knowledge of politics, his obvious fascination with and interest in his subject, the sheer amount of preparation he does and, critically, his forensic approach.
And, according to the Daily Mail on the morning we meet at his BBC Millbank studio in Westminster, so does the Queen! Her Majesty, apparently, keeps up with the rough and tumble of the election by tuning in to Neil’s Daily Politics on weekdays BBC2 – with a pre-lunch gin and Dubonnet served at half-time.
“A story too good to check,” says Neil, who is almost frenetically busy. Between the last week of March and election day on 7 May, and taking into account his Sunday Politics, This Week and a string of “mini-debates” running on BBC2, he reckons he will have presented 65 programmes. But here’s the thing – they’re mostly on BBC2 and nearly all, as Neil puts it jokily but with intent, “…on the periphery of the schedule”.
Other references to “ploughing away at a lonely furrow” and of being “unappreciated”, all delivered with self-deprecating good humour, point to an uncomfortable truth about the way the BBC really feels about Neil. As one senior executive described it to me, “Millbank marginal rather than mainstream”. But at election time, when politics moves mainstream, there is a tangible sense that Neil and his programmes don’t.
And there is history here. Back in the early 1990s, after Neil’s exit from the Murdoch empire – where he had been a pretty successful and high-profile editor of The Sunday Times – it looked as if a second career in broadcasting might beckon. But some in the corporation were suspicious of an outsider with Murdoch connections and views some way to the right of the liberal BBC consensus of the time.
Neil still remembers the “palpable hostility” he encountered as a guest presenter of Newsnight back in 1995. Other opportunities, too, including hosting the BBC’s weekly political showpiece On the Record, went the way of others – partly because, it is suggested, Neil was “blackballed” on account of his politics (he still runs The Spectator) and associations. Neil eventually got his break in 2003 with Daily Politics, This Week and later Sunday Politics. But he still remains something of an outsider.
And so it is that in spite of rave reviews, Neil has never been given a chance at the highest-profile election roles. And there are many people – again, inside the BBC and out – who think that at the very least he should have been given the BBC1 leader interviews, which used to be conducted by David Dimbleby, then by Jeremy Paxman and now by Evan Davis. Not to mention hosting the election debates and even the BBC’s election-night coverage.
The man himself, however, couldn’t be more gracious. “I would love to have done that. But there is already someone in position, who is probably the world’s leading presenter of election shows, called Mr Dimbleby. He’s been great at it and does it fantastically well.” There’s also praise for Evan Davis. “I have a kind of west of Scotland head-banging approach,” says Neil. “Evan is much more sophisticated…” And of his situation now: “I harbour no further territorial ambitions.” But you can’t help but sense these are opportunities he wishes had gone his way.
Not that there’s any suggestion that this is holding him back. In the midst of the closest campaign anyone can remember, Neil’s in his element. Here he is on the Tories: “It’s an odd one – a messy campaign… in any previous postwar election, if the Government had the set of economic indicators that this Government has got, which are unprecedented, all the talk would be of a landslide.” So why isn’t it? “I think the Conservatives still face a big problem in big parts of the country that their brand is toxic….they are in danger of becoming a regional party of the South East.”
And how about Labour? “I think the Labour rank and file will be pretty pleased with the way things are going just now.” But Scotland is a major worry for them. “Whereas it took the Tories a generation – from 1955, when they were the biggest party in Scotland, to 1997, when they had no MPs at all… Labour might be about to achieve that in just six months… This is a major phenomenon.”
And David Cameron and Ed Miliband? “In this election, Mr Cameron [whom Neil, it was reported, once described as the first Tory leader since Margaret Thatcher not to have him “reaching for the sick bag” – he says this must have been before he signed his BBC contract!] is stronger than the Tory brand and Labour’s stronger than the Miliband brand.”
And what of the wrangles over the TV election debates? “Maybe we need a US-style debates commission to call the shots,” he says. “Separate from the parties and the broadcasters.”
Interestingly, in spite of numerous attempts to book them, neither Cameron nor Miliband (nor George Osborne) has dared to venture into a one-on-one interview with Neil. Does he take that personally? “In some ways it’s a badge of pride. One prominent person in the Miliband campaign said to me only yesterday, ‘None of them – including my man – will come on because they’re frightened of you.’ So that’s nice. It doesn’t help the viewer, though!”
Does Neil think Paxman’s “why is this lying b*****d lying to me?” approach is the best one?
“No, you see, unlike some interviewers, I love politics… overall I am not anti-politicians at all. I recognise they are more important than me.”
Do you ever get genuinely angry with them?
“Yes – when politicians tap-dance around a question the viewer has every right to expect to be answered.”
At least on this election night Neil will finally get a seat at the BBC’s election programme top table – albeit the one vacated by Paxman – doing on-the-minute interviews and analysis. And at 6am he’ll dash from the studio to College Green opposite Parliament to begin the process of unpicking what the result means.
Which, considering where he was at the last election, in 2010 – aboard the BBC’s so-called “Ship of Fools”, bobbing about on the Thames with only intermittent electricity – must be a move in the right direction?
“I am not an insider – definitely not… but I don’t think you could call me an outsider.”
Steve Hewlett presents The Media Show on Radio 4