He is a Tory who supports inequality. She wants to be a Labour MP... Every morning they meet over breakfast
Andrew and Sally Gimson: ‘She is a woman of action and I’m just a mere parasite’
Richard Osley referees as the Gimsons, husband and wife, thrash out their political differences
LET’S not cause a marital row, they don’t need any more differences of opinion across this particular breakfast table.
But you get the impression that if Andrew Gimson had won arguments now buried in his past, his children might be enrolled at a private school by now.
Maybe, too, his home would not have become a “hotbed for Ken-nites” plotting a Vote Livingstone campaign during the recent London mayoral election, with posters splashed across windows and bundles of leaflets piled high in the hall.
He possibly might not even have to put the bins out each week.
The Daily Telegraph’s sketchwriter insists he holds no grudges, even if within four minutes and 33 seconds of meeting him and his Labour-supporting wife in a coffee shop close to their Gospel Oak home, she has manoeuvred him onto the backfoot over the merits of Boris Johnson’s victory.
“Immediately, you find me on the ropes,” he protests. “I’m being pummelled by a series of devastating arguments just when I thought I was on my strongest ground.”
In an hour’s conversation, Sally – it’s easier to use their first names in what is Mr and Mrs G’s first-ever joint interview – will hitch her eyebrows to the ceiling umpteen times but Andrew, perhaps best known now as Boris Johnson’s biographer, isn’t the put-upon hubby he might sometimes pretend to be.
Both give as good as they get in a daily crossfire over the cornflakes, proving opposites can attract.
In the blue corner, Andrew, 50, an old-school-tie Tory, has carved out a niche as a bit of a BoJo expert. His book, Boris: The Rise of Boris Johnson, is the only real serious study of the new London mayor’s past and unsurprisingly has been a heavily used resource in recent weeks.
No wonder extra chapters will be released later this month.
In the red corner, Sally, 43, is a lefty Labour activist who might have been a Camden councillor had her party not been decimated in a landslide defeat in the 2006 local elections. Rather than shrink into the background, she has put herself up for possibly more electoral punishment by standing for Parliament in Leicestershire South, former chancellor Nigel Lawson’s old constituency and a real outside bet on the Labour radar.
“It’s small steps on the path to leader of the universe for her but it can’t be done overnight,” Andrew says. “Many people outside of the House of Commons want to be Prime Minister. I’m looking forward to the Denis Thatcher role.”
Together, this unusual union has made snippets for the diarists. The thought of one of David Cameron’s admirers on the House of Commons press bench going home to a wife who doesn’t believe in standard Tory beliefs such as the right to buy your own council home (Andrew: “a work of genius”, Sally: “it won’t help”) has raised a snigger or two.
But the question remains, Andrew, if you had the money, would you go private with your children’s education?
Amid the pause and the nervous guffaws, Sally butts in with that incredulous eyebrow and a flat negative: “No, we bloody wouldn’t.”
It’s time for tact and Andrew explains: “I believe very strongly in independent education. I like the fact the Tories all went to good schools but I must say I’m very impressed by Parliament Hill [where the couple’s daughter Eliza is a pupil] and also I couldn’t afford independent, private schools. So I’m jolly lucky Sally insisted we send our children through the state system. But it’s true a lot of middle-class families are terrified at the thought of a comprehensive school.”
The discussions must run on long into the night – and not just about whose turn it is to do the dishes. They can breathlessly argue about whether Labour is inherently “paternalistic” or not for hours unless they are interrupted.
Andrew confidently says he “believes in inequality” – more glances at the ceiling from Sally – and welcomes the super-rich who can live independently of the state. He is excited about Cameron’s leadership of the Conservative party, describes Margaret Thatcher as “the greatest living English woman” and maintains a straight face throughout his insistence that Johnson has the ability to do a sound job running City Hall. In fact, Andrew believes Boris could become a credible future Prime Minister.
“I’m very pleased he has emerged, as I always thought he would, as a more substantial figure,” he says. “I don’t think Boris will want to get a reputation of a hard-faced man grinding the faces of the poor. I do think he is more cautious than he pretends. I do think he’s one of the very few politicians who is interesting as an individual.”
At one point Johnson suffered cold feet about Andrew’s book and tried to buy the writer out with “£100,000”, “free Greek lessons for the children”, “entrance to the members’ enclosure at Henley” and “an offer to mow the lawn”. Andrew stuck to his guns and when it was published Boris told him: “You’ve done enough to avoid the charge of sycophancy”.
“Boris as Mayor will want to show he is capable of running a city which isn’t full of natural Tories,” says Andrew. “He saw what the issues are. He fought a very good campaign.”
However good it was, it stalled in Camden where Labour fared better across the south of the borough and in Gospel Oak, partly thanks to Sally, who was co-ordinating the neighbourhood door-knocker-uppers at the same time as Andrew must have had his fingers crossed for her sworn enemy.
Sally says: “Boris is a megalomaniac but we know from people we have spoken to he isn’t interested in policy. You meet Boris and he says ‘hello’, puts his arms around you in a sweaty way and then wanders off. I think his victory is a regressive step. I think he will cut back on things like free transport and childcare. We will get a London that is more polarised than before.”
If the pair’s marriage seems an unlikely coupling to friends and even relatives – Andrew’s first cousin, Andrew Robathan, is the Tory MP Sally is trying to unseat in Leicester – the manner in which they first met was unusual as well.
Both tried to become Samaritans – circa 1992 – failing to get hired but meeting each other at the auditions. True to form, the episode is recounted in Andrew’s archive of Telegraph cuttings. Sally was a journalist who did her stints on The Observer and The European but now works for the Family and Parenting Institute. Andrew, once a roving reporter and then deputy editor for The Spectator, began writing the Boris book after being told by his wife he was approaching 50 and at risk of becoming a “washed-up journalist”.
Sally says: “I think what we have with Cameron is the Tories pretending they are something they are not when they are really the last hurrah of the Establishment. Yet Andrew likes the fact they all went to Eton.”
Of her own party’s faults, she doesn’t mention Blair, the Iraq War, or the privatisation of public services much when she mulls over her council defeat in Gospel Oak ward two years ago.
She blames a “dirty” campaign run by her Conservative opponents.
“A lot of promises were made that haven’t been kept,” Sally insists. “It was a political education. They [the Conservatives] promised to get rid of single-mother immigrants and druggies. What has been heartening is that in the London elections, when it really came down to voting Labour or Tory, people voted Labour.”
So who gets the last word? Sally says the longer she is married to Andrew – 15 years now – the more she is convinced that she is “on the right side and the Tories really are the enemy”.
Andrew, however enthralled by the Tory renaissance, says he will vote for his wife because “she is a woman of action and I’m just a mere parasite”. He also promises not to foist his views on their two daughters and son – one of whom met Gordon Brown recently and apparently became “Labour overnight”, sensing a hidden charisma in the PM millions of others have missed.
And when it gets really heated over after-dinner coffee, he says, “my guns fall silent and I try to be not so irritating. I’m a pragmatic Tory, which is another word for a defeatist.”
That’s one Tory voting Labour in Gospel Oak but Sally will know a fair few more will need to do the same before the whole ward is red again.