eah, no, well…” Michael Gove sounded well and truly cornered as he tried to justify the Government’s actions on Nick Ferrari’s LBC breakfast show yesterday. All Ferrari did was ask a straightforward question: namely, why did the Government make a U-turn on the closure of schools this week?
“Michael Gove is canny and good at defending difficult lines,” Ferrari tells me, buoyed up after coming off-air. “But it is my job to point out the absurdity of the U-turn. Parents were ironing their children’s uniforms because they’d been told schools were safe. Hours later, as we were finishing our evening Scotch eggs, schools closed. With home learning, there is a gulf opening up between the poor and the middle class kids and that upsets me. I don’t know how kids without resources will catch up.”
Throughout the pandemic, Ferrari has doggedly pinned politicians down on the finer details of their policy, notably getting the Environment Secretary George Eustice to say that a Scotch egg counted as a substantial meal. His show goes out to more than 1.3 million listeners every weekday and is public service radio — serious points are packaged up with punchy tabloid style slogans and Ferrari relishes sparring with politicians. He claims he doesn’t do hours of preparation other than reading the papers forensically. “I’m just sitting there, sobering up with a coffee.” He laughs before making a more serious point. “At the moment there is a contract between the Government and the people. They’ve asked us for what might be the toughest six weeks we have had. So we have to see that they are delivering on giving the vaccine and it is the media’s job to ask daily how many jabs have been done.” He is busy doing sums to see if the Prime Minister’s predictions of how many people we can vaccinate are correct. “Hopefully this week we will vaccinate around 5,000 people. If that’s true, that’s more than the rest of Europe put together. There are enormous challenges but we need to temper that by thinking about what we have done well too.”
Despite the Government’s U-turns, Ferrari is “happy to say I am a Boris Johnson fan”. Johnson has been a regular on Ferrari’s show since he was mayor and they text each other from time to time. “He is a liberal Conservative and you can see it in his face that he hates making [decisions to lock down], it goes against his innermost feelings. He has fallen into the trap of promising too much and delivering too little but there was a different tone on Monday. He has tempered his talk of ‘sunny uplands’ with more ‘ifs’.”
Ferrari harks back to “the brilliant selling job that Boris did with the Olympics”. But surely Covid and Brexit are on a different level to jokes about whiff waff? “He came back too soon after he had Covid. Like all chief execs he thought he had to be back behind his desk. That informed some of his decision making but he looks jauntier now. His background in newspapers made him robust and he is supremely competitive. What we need from our leader is for them to be a brilliant sales person, to be seen around the world to engender enthusiasm, confidence and a sense of endearment. We are potentially in a great place with Boris.”
Ferrari, aged 61, talks about Johnson as if he is a naughty but nonetheless charming pupil. “Every time he’s on the show, he comes into the studio and says, ‘Ah, the headmaster’s study.’ He’d slide the chair over, try to rifle through my notes and look at the screen where we have questions from listeners who want to tell him he is a complete Herbert.” They Boris-proofed the studio, bolting the chair to the ground — “like they do in police interrogation rooms” — so he couldn’t meddle.
Ferrari relishes telling these anecdotes, in conspiratorial tones. It is his voice that people recognise: “I can rarely go through Marks & Spencer without someone saying, ‘It’s you, isn’t it?’” he says. “I usually say, ‘Well it might be unless I owe you money’.” He proudly adds that he dressed up for our photoshoot, in a lilac scarf “from Joan Collins’s favourite shop in Saint Tropez”. It’s quite a Nineties look, like he’s borrowed one of Bridget Jones’ pashminas.
However much Ferrari admires the PM, he “immediately warmed to Keir Starmer”. “He is a good bloke — the first Labour leader since maybe Clement Attlee to send me a Christmas card.” Ferrari tried to bond with Starmer over how both of their parents had donkeys. “I delivered a foal,” boasts Ferrari. “And I am the only breakfast presenter who can shear a sheep. I wanted to be a vet when I was young because ours had a fantastic estate car.” (Ferrari now has a Jaguar). But Starmer was alarmed at his story about how when he was younger he ended up getting the donkey’s worming shot in his arm.
The one politician who won’t come on the show is the Mayor of London. Ferrari has delivered diatribes against Sadiq Khan’s “incompetence” on tackling knife crime and his green policies but the Mayor has not been on the show to answer for himself since 2016. It is Ferrari’s new year’s resolution “to entice Sadiq on”.
“I’d love my listeners to be able to put their points to the Mayor and I think it would benefit Sadiq Khan with the mayoral election coming up,” says Ferrari. “The listeners are not sitting there roaring with anger at him. He wouldn’t get 30 minutes of bashing, that’s boring radio, and there are a lot of people in favour of his green policies, unbelievably. I have no feelings of personal animosity to him. I sense he might have a little bit towards me.”
What would he ask Khan? “Are you convinced that road policy isn’t making the air worse? I think we are compressing the traffic into certain roads too much. How are you going to get London back on the front foot as the world’s greatest city? He should come on the show for the folk of London — I will even take the risk of unbolting the chair for him and I will buy him one of those $28 coffees Meghan Markle is selling.”
Does Khan refusing to come on the show make Ferrari sympathise with the Today programme, now that ministers are reluctant to speak on it? “There is a sense of arrogance among some broadcast media that they click their fingers and the PM immediately falls in line for them. It is a matter of choice whether politicians speak. But if they stay away for months on end that is plainly ludicrous. That applies to Sadiq.”
He is intrigued by the Government’s new set-up, with Allegra Stratton working as press secretary although her new job is “not something I would have liked to do”. “It will only work if she can weave herself into the fabric — it is only fair she knows the nuts and bolts of how decisions she’s defending are made.”
One of Ferrari’s regular questions for politicians is how much a pint of milk is. They know to expect it and arrive at the studio all briefed. So does he know the answer? “95p,” he says. “Is that right? For the regular one. I don’t go organic.” Ferrari likes food shopping. He has two sons, one runs fitness studios and the other is in film. He and their mother, Sandra, are divorced and he lives with his girlfriend; “Clare without an i”, who is 15 years his junior. He mischievously calls her “the young woman I go out with”. Clare Patterson also works in radio, as a branded content producer. She objects to his morning routine. “I have three alarm clocks set within five minutes of each other,” says Ferrari. “Clare read an interview with Piers Morgan where he said the reason his marriage survived was that when his alarm goes, he dresses in the spare room and she is enamoured by the idea that I should do that but I won’t.”
Editing a national newspaper was Ferrari’s ambition growing up. His father, Lino, started the Ferrari Press agency. Ferrari remembers dinner parties where his father’s colleagues would recount stories too outrageous to print. Ferrari started out as a reporter on the Sunday Mirror and then became the editor of The Sun’s Bizarre page. He has a steady stream of anecdotes from that era. His favourite is the time that The Sun’s editor Kelvin MacKenzie said he didn’t care what it took to get a Roger Moore interview so Ferrari flew to India and got a job as an extra on Octopussy. “Roger Moore sat smoking a cigar, as kids thrust paper at him for autographs. One kid passed the paper back to him. With quizzical eyebrows he said as he signed it again,” (Ferrari impersonates his baritone voice), “‘Two of mine are worth one of Sean Connery’s’.”
Ferrari started his LBC show in 2001. “I didn’t think I would make it to 20 years,” he says. “The radio industry didn’t either but we kept face.” The industry is more equal than when he started out. He is “old-fashioned” about being a gentleman. “I hold doors for women — Clare didn’t know what I was doing when I first started walking on the outside of her on roads. She thought I was running away.” He is pragmatic about equal pay. “It can’t be right if one person is getting three times as much as another for the same job but I would sound a note of caution. The media is a strange business.”
How does he plan to celebrate his 20 year anniversary on LBC? “I won’t. And I don’t look at listening figures. Like football managers, I stick to the current result. I’m busy worrying about each day and the next 20 years. Right now we have to present listeners with reality but provide hope as well. It is the darkest before dawn but we’ll get through.”