The Ribbon’s Richard Forbes, Danielle M Cameron, and Elias Weiss discuss Jagmeet Singh, the new federal NDP leader after his landslide win last Sunday to become party leader.

Is Singh a good move on the NDP’s part?

Elias: Depends. Singh was, in my opinion, the best pick for the NDP, someone I could theoretically see myself vote for (even if yes, I know, in the Westminster system we don’t really vote for Prime Ministers, as Elizabeth May made sure to point out on Twitter). That said, he’s a very Ontarian version of the party. This could cause him trouble in Quebec, where the NDP managed to walk a fine line between getting the soft nationalist Quebecois vote while keeping a nice “Canadiana” identity in the RoC.

Under Singh, the NDP will have to find itself a new coalition of voters, voters who may have been turned off by the acceptance of certain aspects of Quebec nationalism. In short: not the easiest path for them to take, even if I believe it is perhaps the morally right one. That said, if Singh is successful in that endeavour, I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up strengthening the Bloc – but that’s another subject.

Richard: I think given the cards the NDP was dealt, Singh was the best card to play on their part. (1) He should be able to keep the NDP competitive in the GTA and parts of British Columbia against the Liberals, (2) He’s a difficult foil for Trudeau to challenge – he’s handsome and young, touts the same positive politics and he’s personally representative of the multiculturalism that the Trudeau Liberals have tried to “own” as an issue, and (3) he’s demonstrated that he can attract new members from outside the party and attract media attention in a way that other candidates couldn’t.

In the latter respect, Singh is a very different candidate than say, Scheer, who was a compromise candidate – literally, the Condorcet choice, the tentpole in the middle of the Conservatives’ pentagram of political factions (i.e., red tories, economic conservatives, libertarians, ‘so-cons’ and Trumpists.) Scheer was chosen because he was safe with regards to party unity, but in the NDP ranks, that would have been Peter Julian or Charlie Angus. Instead, the NDP chose a charismatic figure: someone who could grow (and potentially divide) the party, someone promising more reward, albeit with greater risks involved.

I’ll also add that having a visible minority as national party leader is a significant milestone for Canada. It’s a step forward for our country in realizing a multicultural society.

Danielle: Yes. He won in a landslide victory, grabbing 53.6% of the vote, waving predictions that voting would need several rounds — Charlie Angus, second place, only took 19.3%. That says something. At 38 years old, he’s already an experienced politician, with a reputation for adapting well to his environment and audiences, and also for overcoming obstacles. I would agree with Eli that Singh is, so far, a very Ontario-centric candidate, but this is not to say his policy points, vibrance, seeming good nature, and youthfulness won’t grasp roots elsewhere in Canada. He’s no dandy, in fact he’s got an impressive résumé thus far as an activist, criminal defence lawyer, and politician. Moreover, I think his youthful presence on social media, his athleticism, his fashionable persona, and his approachability are all very positive assets in an up-and-coming leader. His fundraising was impressive, he landed endorsements, and he appears to possess sufficient amounts of savvy, charisma, and stamina to compete against his opponents.

I really feel his becoming leader of his party is a positive thing in Canadian political history; he’s the first non-white leader of a major political party here, and I think that is most certainly a sign of the times and also an indication of millennial voices finally being heard. Young, diverse, open, and fresh. Yet, race and faith are never easy topics to discuss because Canada has a peculiar habit of ignoring or even denying its own bigotry, hiding behind politeness. When you’re running for office or leadership, I can’t imagine what it would be like to have those two things used against you in the way many politicians in North America have. Frankly, it was gross to see Singh asked about his thoughts on Air India or accused of having links to radical Islam, and more. Jagmeet Singh, who is Sikh and wears a turban, has handled every incident or personal, religious, and ethnic-based attack with calm and grace —  even when the personifications of anger and fear are literally screaming in his face…In short, I feel he has demonstrated an ability to stay cool under pressure and not give in or lose his composure. Good for him, I say. Good luck.

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Singh meets his caucus. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick, CP.)

Richard: Dani, Singh was actually raised in Newfoundland! Your people! Okay, fine, raised a bit in Newfoundland. He was born in Scarborough, Ontario. He lived in St. John’s till he was seven when he and his family moved to Windsor, Ontario.

Danielle: I read that! Disclosure: I am not from Newfoundland, myself, but my mother and her side of the family are proud Newfoundlanders, so, I think the St. John’s connection is pretty cool. Having ties in three of four eastern provinces out here, I can assuredly say there’s a real strong political culture and history in Atlantic Canada that I find often, to the nation’s detriment, gets left out of federal political discussions. I don’t doubt his stint in Newfoundland influenced him later on to look at labour organization, the working class, and community-based politicking, or at least that’s what I’m musing about.

Perhaps we can expect to see more Atlantic Canadians’ concerns addressed under his future leadership, when he’s not busy with Ontario and Québec that is!  

2015 was a tidal wave of red ballots out here, so I think he’s got his work cut out for him.

Richard: Hah, the Maritimes wasn’t just a red tsunami, it’s a red fortress: a gigantic lobster with biting pincers. Look, there’s no getting around the fact that Singh’s an Ontario politician; he’s been a minor power player in Queen’s Park representing Bramalea, Horwath’s deputy even. In that respect, I understand what you two are saying…

Personally, I wonder to what extent Horwath’s decision to stay on as NDP party leader provincially has led to Singh’s surprise foray into federal politics. You’d be surprised to hear how many residents here are asking why the Ontario NDP didn’t run him as party leader. I think it’s possible the provincial NDP’s might have wholly missed the boat with Singh. The question though  – which you two are kind of asking indirectly – is whether he’d have been more successful at the helm of an Ontario party than a national one?

Danielle: [makes lobster claw hand gestures]

Elias: [Quebecois shrug]

What do we think of his campaign planks?

Richard: There’s certainly a lot of the typical fluff in his platform that we could have expected from any NDP platform in addition to a series of questionable tax hike proposals for capital gains and corporations (and given the difficulty that Trudeau is facing closing some pretty straightforward loopholes, I question to what extent an NDP government could even get close to accomplishing the tax reform he’s proposing.) But, that having been said, his income security plan for seniors and working class Canadians is genuinely interesting stuff in my opinion.

He’s proposing means-testing a single, harmonized senior benefit and offering a wage subsidy to top up low income wages. The latter is frankly a far more mature and financially sustainable approach for income security than the basic annual income that the Liberal party adopted via a policy resolution last year. Bearing that in mind, I’m interested to see whether the Liberals will riff off of Singh’s plan come 2019 and if Singh can muscle income security onto the public agenda.

Danielle: Singh has stated that he feels he can lead his party forward, really narrowing down the platform to four pillars: climate change, socio-economic inequality, reconciliation, and electoral reform. The last two? Prime Minister Trudeau has received a lot of flack over lately for his party’s inability to push through electoral reform before 2019, the effective collapse of the MMIW inquiry, continuing problems in implementing the TRC recommendations, or making concrete advances in Reconciliation — aside from well written and well delivered UN speeches on Canada’s troubled history.

Some young people, especially on social media, thought delivering these speeches while vying for a seat on the Security Council stained the sincerity of the recognitions and promises. It was not an uncommon critique, for some, that everything sounded good, the problems were identified, but they felt not enough was being done at home and in the communities in question. I feel as if the last two points, in particular, may hurt the prime minister come election time — Singh could very well capitalize on these matters and re-energize Canadians around what some have expressed as, presently abandoned aspirations.

Elias: NEOLIBERAL SHILL, aka pretty centre-left. But I’d like to see more. Like Richard said, there is a lot of fluff in there. Which is understandable, so far he was in it to win over NDP voters. “The real work begins now,” as they say. Not that running for party leader isn’t work. Y’all get me.

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Singh speaks to Guy Caron, soon tapped to become his House leader.

Does Singh have a “Quebec Problem”?

Elias: I have a nuanced take on it so hear me out.  First, a disclaimer: I do not pretend to know the Quebec psyche better than anyone else.That said, I live in Quebec and consider myself a french-speaking Quebecer.

I don’t think Singh has a Quebec problem per se but rather (as I’ve mentioned earlier), a “Quebecers who tend to vote NDP” problem. What do I mean by that? The NDP have played it soft on federalism in Quebec in the past and have refused to be too vocal about multiculturalism during their campaigns. I think a part of it is down to strategy: go after progressive soft souverainistes who may be tempted to vote Bloc. I do also believe that there is a sort of ideological reason as well at this point. The strategy essentially attracted politicos who hold similar views to the voters the NDP has been cultivating. Therefore, the Quebec party leadership of the NDP may not see eye to eye with Singh on a number of thorny issues. We may hear a few ‘you’re fired!’ and ‘you can’t fire me! I quit’.

Now, more generally, I think a lot of people would like to think that Quebecers ‘rejected’ the politics of ‘fear’ and ‘division’ in 2015 by voting for Justin Trudeau, who is an unabashed ‘multiculturalist’. It’s a naive interpretation. Truth is, a lot of Quebecers (not all) mostly voted for the Liberal Party despite all this talk of multiculturalism.

For a lot of progressive Quebec voters the NDP may want to lure in, multiculturalism isn’t a top priority, and for a number of people within that subgroup, multiculturalism can [sometimes] go too far. That, or if you’re The Globe and Mail, they’re basically all racists rationalizing their bigotry. Pick your lane. Either way, any NDP leader interested in moving away from that strategy and adopt a strategy in Quebec relatively consistent with the message delivered in the RoC would encounter problems, mainly within the NDP party leadership in Quebec. The fact that Singh is as Quebecer would say a ‘visible minority’ and ‘openly religious’, may cause him additional problems in Quebec among certain voters, but I doubt that is specifically a Quebec problem per say. More of a “ffs people grow the f**k up” problem, which can be found d’un océan à l’autre.

If my answer doesn’t make much sense to you, you’re free to buy me a whisky (or two) and I’ll try my best to draw a picture.

Danielle: I for one would love to see Elias’ whisky-fueled pictures.

I think the big elephant in the room is an extremely delicate and complicated discussion on multiculturalism, secularism, politics, and the wearing of overt religious symbols while serving state. Open displays of faith make many uneasy, while others embrace it. I think it will certainly rouse some debates in Québec, at the very least. It’s no secret that the Trudeau family has a sensitive and historic relationship with Québec, and if Singh is successful in convincing some Grits to trade in their red sweaters for orange socks, it might give the Tories some breathing room elsewhere.

The NDP have traditionally had a difficult time in securing a die-hard base in Québec and I think, for the most part, we may continue to see the party clumsily find its way. Maybe Singh’s big new presence and assertiveness will get people curious, get them talking, maybe start to consider other options. I think it’s too early to say for sure. I think he will face some tough criticism in Québec with some folks, but I believe that Québecers, en masse, are open-minded. We’ll have to wait and see if Singh is received by the majority of Canadians in the same warm embrace that he’s been held by his party.

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“Wearing religious symbols is showcasing one’s religion, and that is promoting one’s religion and promoting religious values, no matter what the religion is,” says Bloc leader Martine Oullet, attributing Singh to the “rise of the Religious Left.” (Photo: Simon Clark, Agence QMI.)

Richard: My position is not to outright disagree with the premise that Singh has a “Quebec problem,” but rather that the reality of the problem may not be as dramatic as assumptions suggest; it may not emerge in any substantial scale or predictable result at all, and it won’t be the biggest problem facing Singh and today’s NDP in Quebec, nor would any other leadership candidate for the NDP have been able to avoid those larger issues in la belle province. For three reasons…

(Please forgive the length.)

  1. Quebecers’ position on religious headwear is not monolithic.

Not everyone, not necessarily even a majority of Quebecers, interpret that a ban of sorts on headwear will support or protect Quebec’s cultural development or that it’s the right thing to do.

Indeed, polling indicates that the Charter of Values was deeply divisive in Quebec and I expect Bill 62 will be too because there is no monolithic position in Quebec on headwear.

I never thought I’d be quoting the late Jacques Parizeau for a defense of anything, but his opposition to the Charter of Values, in this case, is demonstrative.  As Parizeau supposed then, I would suppose now: that the backlash against religious headwear isn’t consistent with the Quiet Revolution or Quebec’s push for religious neutrality, rather, it’s a contemporary backlash based on fear and intolerance of minorities not unlike what we’ve seen elsewhere in the rest of Canada and, frankly, everywhere else in the world.

We’re just too quick to distinguish between Quebec and the ROC in stock generalizations based on the Quiet Revolution and religious neutrality. Opinion is far more divided and muddled in Quebec over what religious neutrality – the divide between church and state – requires from individuals with regards to personal attire. For instance, a recent Angus Reid poll found 66% of Quebecers support people wearing a turban in public, against 81% in the rest of Canada. We’re so quick to focus on the relative difference between Quebec and Canada – the fifteen percent – we fail to appreciate the obvious shared values in absolute terms.

  1. It’s true some Quebecers (and some in ROC too) will not vote for Singh because he wears a head covering, but it’s not a political death sentence!

People rule out voting for candidates for ridiculous reasons all of the time. But ruling out an abstract candidate and a specific candidate are distinct decisions – the differences between which we’ll have to sift through to accurately size up just how much a substantial effect, both positive and negative, Singh will have on the NDP’s position in Quebec.

If you ask Quebecers would they vote for a Sikh or a man wearing a head covering, an Angus Reid poll suggests they’re the most chilly (36%) to the idea of voting for a man who wears a religious head covering. But ask them, as Leger has recently, whether his turban would deter Quebecers from voting for Jagmeet Singh specifically, only 28% say “yes” – and ask them whether they would vote for Trudeau or Ouellet or Scheer even more specifically if Singh were leader versus Angus or Caron etc., the difference of results are infinitesimal, within the margin of error even. I would argue the “Singh” effect on Quebecer voting behavior appears to be small, unpredictable and intimately subject to context.

To throw more of a wrench into things, a Mainstreet poll even had Singh at his most popular in the province of Quebec among NDP members.

  1. I don’t expect the NDP to do well regardless of the candidate.

At this point in time, Singh is inheriting an NDP that is trending below the Conservatives and the Bloc in Quebec. I would forecast the NDP losing every seat in Quebec except Alexandre Boulerice’s seat, Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie; Eric Grenier’s far more sophisticated seat projection (using 10,000 trials), has the NDP being completely wiped out of Quebec altogether.

For that reason, I would argue a discussion over whether what Jagmeet wears on his head is going to scare Quebecers is missing the point: the NDP is currently set for a historically bad result in Quebec – reminiscent in those regards to a pre-Layton era – regardless of whether their party leader is pale as milk or not…

Whoever became leader of the NDP was going to face a significant challenge before them to reverse the red tide among Francophones and try to muscle themselves into the province’s politics and maintain the party’s relevance. That is, to nurture a base for themselves in Quebec that isn’t shallow and unstable, one based around a mature understanding of federalism and tolerance – a base that won’t fall like a house of cards when the dog-whistles start whistling.

Singh may or may not be the person to do that, but it doesn’t change the fact that the NDP’s “Quebec problem” is far more significant to the NDP than Singh’s “Quebec problem.” If the NDP performs badly in Quebec in two year’s time, Singh won’t wholly be responsible, the party will be – as a result of the political choices they’ve made up to this point in the province.

Elias: It’s true that there are a few interpretations of what secularism is and should look like in Quebec. That said, I think there is a push in certain progressive corners of Quebec politics against certain aspects of multiculturalism and depending on a bunch of variables, it could influence the way Singh is perceived and welcomed in the province. Also, keep an eye on the CAQ’s and QS’s performances in polls and by-elections, it may give you a sense of the Quebecois mood.

Richard: I’m assuming the CAQ kicking the front door down in Louis-Hébert is bad…?

Elias: The CAQ was founded by two former PQ (relative) heavyweights, it’s more on the centre-right economically, but yes, they do share certain views on religious neutrality. An example would be their position on multiculturalism; they view it as a tool to integrate immigrants. There is no romance attached to it, it’s seen as a pragmatic approach to essentially, dare I say…assimilate immigrants into Quebec society. Some inside the CAQ go as far as advocate for a Quebecois approach in opposition to the Canadian multiculturalism model. So, to go back to Singh, I don’t know if it would necessarily be an indication of Quebecers position on multiculturalism and openness to someone like Singh, or simply a provincial ras-le-bol with Couillard’s Liberals. But deep down, I believe it would, as I said, indicate maybe a certain mood in the province that may not be propitious to anyone flying the flag of multiculturalism. 

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Nathan Cullen (l) says he is not concerned with Singh not seeking a seat in the House of Commons. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick, CP.)

Is it a problem that Singh doesn’t have a seat in the House of Commons?

Danielle: Despite the ethics of running federally while retaining his seat as a MPP in the Ontario Legislature being questioned by reporters, this summer, Singh did not appear perturbed. In fact, Singh said it wasn’t really an issue for him that he didn’t currently have one, but said he could run for one before the next election.

I guess so long as the NDP are willing to keep paying his salary, until he secures a seat, it’s not a huge issue? I think not having a seat currently will play into his game of presenting himself as a “dynamic outsider.” I think, oddly, there may be a political advantage in this for him. He’ll have more time to be a media darling and really engage the electorate in alternative ways, where his online presence will come in handy — but, having gone to journalism school, my piece of advice to him is to stop asking for the reporters’ questions beforehand! It’s a major faux-pas, and no matter how much the reporter may like you, they’re not allowed to give them out anyway! You got this, Mr. Singh, you don’t need to rehearse.

Elias: Most people don’t give a flying monkey, so…nope. As long as he’s ‘out there’ talking to people, giving interviews etc, I doubt the general public will have a problem with it.

As for the weirdos who do care about politics and parliamentary conventions, ask Richard or Danielle. They’ll know.

Richard: The conventional option would be to ask an MP to step aside for him, but that seems unlikely given the small size and the relative youth of his caucus. Brian Masse (Windsor West) and David Christopherson (Hamilton Centre) seem like remote possibilities, I suppose, in those regards? I dunno, I’m not convinced Singh would go down that road or needs to do so. Singh has spoken about the need to have an “authentic connection” to a riding.

I also wouldn’t recommend Singh run in any of the upcoming byelections.

South Surrey—White Rock (BC) is probably the only byelection upcoming I would even vaguely entertain for him as a party leader and it’s a fairly Conservative riding. Newton to the north of South Surrey has one of Canada’s strongest Sikh communities and a historical orange streak to it, but it’s not really encompassed by South Surrey.

I suspect Singh will make use of not being in the House of Commons to get to the scrums early and allow a more prominent House leader – strategically chosen – to act as his “other face” in Quebec. [Since the time of writing, Guy Caron, speak of the devil, has been made House leader.] Sparring with the prime minister in parliament won pundits over for Tom Mulcair but, let’s be honest, it didn’t help him win the federal election and I doubt it’d help Singh either. Singh may even find having a more prominent House leader allows him to grill the prime minister with a good cop / bad cop approach – with Singh, decisively the ‘good’ cop.

Elias: Better for Singh to be ‘outside’ to be honest. Being good at Question Period hasn’t exactly helped the previous NDP leader. It’s the type of insider things, pundits, journalists and people with a death wish (I was one of them for a time, I got help) pay attention to.

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Official opposition leader Andrew Scheer (l) looks on as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to parliament. (Photo: Adrian Wyld, CP.)

In a race between Singh, Scheer and Trudeau, what can we expect from the next federal election?

Elias: You mean if we all make it to 2019 alive? Ha ha ha. Here all week. More seriously, a lot has been written and said about the fact that those three are pretty young (even if I genuinely forget Andrew Scheer is actually younger than Justin Trudeau). I think we can expect the ‘youth vote’ to be the hottest ticket in town (you can’t see it, but I’m already cringing).

More, more seriously, it’ll be interesting to see if Singh’s NDP and Trudeau’s LPC decide fight it out (elegantly and oh so very dapperly dressed) on the centre left, and whether that ends up helping Scheer. And I gotta say, if the Liberals perform badly because of vote splitting, that’d be ironic af (and I say that as someone who didn’t give two monkeys about electoral reform).

Richard: Vote-splitting is an issue, yeah – the irony, oh the irony. Now that his numbers are starting to fall back to earth, the motivation behind Trudeau’s previous ‘appreciation’ of the transferable vote has re-emerged sooner than anyone would’ve thought. Ultimately, the Liberals had their chance to enact electoral reform and they took a pass, but they made that calculation when the party’s numbers were particularly rosy…

Expect a closer race than anyone imagined Trudeau would have faced. I think he’ll do well east of Ottawa, exceptionally well even – that is if current trends continue. But it’s amazing how the smallest shifts in Ontario can turn a majority Liberal government into a minority Liberal government or a Conservative government rather easily. Softer numbers in Ontario might even be responsible for those highly contested Forum numbers released last week which had Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives in the lead over the Liberals.

I haven’t tried to hide the fact that I consider Scheer essentially an incompetent party leader, but the truth is it won’t take all that much for the opposition to disrupt an easy Liberal re-election. You can expect Scheer to focus on campaigning in the 905 area around Toronto along the QEW and the 404 through Burlington, Oakville, Vaughan, Markham, Richmond Hill, and Whitby. Singh will also focus on the GTA (and Vancouver), but more Peel and Old Toronto rather than Halton and York. That could make this upcoming election, a very Ontario-centric election – putting the Liberals on the defensive all throughout Ontario where a lot of their red wave was rather soft.

Elias: As my mother said, Andrew Scheer is the human personification of the colour beige.

Richard: Err, you’re mistaking Andrew Scheer for John Tory, Eli. It’s an easy mistake.

Elias: Yes, you Anglos all look the same to me.

Richard: C’est raciste!!

Elias: Says the folks going around, culturally appropriating our poutine.

Danielle: It’ll be a tight(er) race. Trudeau will have to defend his record to-date, answer for the gaping holes in some areas, and calm the anxieties of people who are outraged about deficits and some of his more controversial proposals (ie: closing of the income tax loopholes). Trudeau does have a lot of momentum still in his favour and a lot of support, but Jagmeet Singh is being branded as the newer “more hip” young leader. Made me laugh when, in 2015, the Conservatives ceaselessly mocked the Liberals running Justin Trudeau. He was “not ready,” on account of age (really just being younger than Stephen Harper… being 44 heading into an election isn’t THAT young.) Yet, after the first NDP leadership round, the Prime Minister is now the oldest leader of the three major political parties. Times change! I think Singh is positioning himself as a strong contender, with a grassroots, true-orange NDP platform — not entirely unlike other NDP platforms before, but certainly a new presentation of them.

RichardFor his 56th birthday, Bob Stanfield’s Tory caucus plastered parliament with the numbers, “fifty-six” in a sad attempt to counter the image of Stanfield as your granddad’s candidate. For those unfamiliar with the federal election of 1974, let’s just say, they failed. The perception of age and vitality is what matters here, not the reality. Trudeau, like his father, is blessed genetically with a relief from that particular problem but I honestly wouldn’t put it past today’s Conservatives to drape the banisters of Centre Block with the numbers, “thirty nine” come next May…

 

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Danielle M. Cameron is East Coast-born and returned after having lived in Ottawa. Besides crash-coursing in journalism at the City University of New York (CUNY) in N.Y.C., Danielle holds a B.A. Hon. Human Rights from Carleton University, B.J. Journalism from University of King’s College, and is currently working towards an M.A. in Political Science at Acadia University. Former intern at The Coast — Halifax’s Weekly.

Canadian and American politics are more precious to her than air – will watch anything on PBS American Experience and has probably read every presidential biography, twice. “New Deals with It” on a daily basis, and also recently discovered coffee is not a food group.

Twitter: @DMC130

 

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Elias Weiss 
studies Neuroscience and Biotechnology at McGill University. A liberal and a passionate believer in evidence-based decision-making, Elias hails from British Columbia but is now a proud Montréaler and also a French citizen.Twitter: @eligdeon

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Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).

When asked what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.

Twitter: @richardjforbes

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