Most defectors to Ukip get the full flashbulb treatment, wheeled out to wild applause at a party conference or before a gathering of excitable reporters. But the Farage army's latest recruit, a man known inside Westminster as the legend that is "Gobby", will manage his move from press pack to party HQ in the manner to which he is accustomed – cloaked behind the scenes in his trademark mac, fag in hand.
Paul Lambert has not quit the Tories but the BBC to join Ukip. As a producer with the broadcaster's political team, he became almost as great an institution as those which his reporters held to account, earning a reputation for being everywhere, and asking – loudly – the questions that few behind the cameras on Downing Street dared to consider.
You wouldn't recognise him if he were sitting next to you in an M4 traffic jam, but you've heard the voice that earned him his nickname: "ARE YOU GOING TO RESIGN MINISTER?" "HAVE YOU FIXED THE DEFICIT YET, CHANCELLOR?" Barked inquiries to enliven footage of boring men in boring suits.
But now, Gobby has left the lobby to field questions that, Ukip being Ukip, are likely to out-awkward the best even he could muster. Few gamekeepers with a background in poaching are as qualified to protect perhaps the biggest voice in politics, Nigel Farage. The Ukip leader announced Lambert's arrival as communications director on Sunday, replacing Patrick O'Flynn (the former Daily Express man has taken the next step from gamekeeper to rhino as a Ukip MEP).
"He's one of the best in town," Farage said in a tweet, repeating a sentiment widely shared in politics. Among the dozens who referred to Gobby as a "legend" yesterday was Paul Waugh, the veteran lobby reporter and editor of the website PoliticsHome. "The thing I like about him is that he brought colour and brashness to what is an incredibly drab scene," he said. "That's why he'll fit well with Ukip, and with his dirty hack's mac and trademark cigarette he'll also be in tune with his new master."
Farage, unsurprisingly, agreed, saying on Sunday that Lambert "will fit Ukip like a glove. Drive, passion, hard work, honesty and immense good humour are the hallmarks of Paul. It'll be fun working with him." But how much fun will it be for Lambert? He arrives at a turbulent time for Farage. The party leader and renowned control freak is, as ever, fuming about being "misquoted" in reports of his comments about immigrant traffic jams and public breast-feeding. Late yesterday, Ukip suspended its general secretary, Roger Bird, following allegations of impropriety.
"It will be interesting to see how he deals with communications," Waugh said, "because he's not a natural diplomat, but he is a brilliant fixer and will spot an elephant trap a mile off." That's because he used to lay the deadliest traps, and a review of what little we know about Lambert's career shows how suited the maverick producer could be to the combative nature of Ukipolitics as the general election gets closer.
Waugh thinks Lambert used to be an electrician before working his way up the technical ranks of the BBC. "He's no-nonsense, and the most tabloid you'd ever get at the BBC, which is why they loved him," he said. "He could ask the questions others wouldn't dream of. He also had a brilliant nose for a story and where to pop up and when."
Gobby was everywhere, holding the microphone and working with the camera crew, nabbing positions and politicians, and deciding which doorsteps or events offered the best scoop potential. In a famous exchange in 2005 he went to a low-key Cherie Blair book signing and asked the Prime Minister's wife when he planned to resign. "Darling, that's a long way in the future," Cherie grinned, before waking up to front pages full of speculation that Tony would stay put until 2010.
He rarely overstepped the mark but in 2011 Gobby broke Westminster rules by filming the arrest of a protester who had attacked Rupert Murdoch with a foam pie. Great footage, but the authorities removed his pass. After a story about this by Waugh went viral, Labour heavyweight Ed Balls was among those who campaigned successfully for Lambert's return. "I feel pleased to have played a small part in challenging this blow to press freedom," Waugh said.
Gobby himself has yet to make in impact in his new role. He explained his move on Sunday. "Ukip is today the place to be if you want to be a part of a party that is changing the face of British politics for the better, and providing a new, clear and honest voice," he said. How new, clear and honest that voice sounds to the rest of us will now depend largely on the slightly quieter work of Paul "Gobby" Lambert.Reuse content