The year 1997 may seem like a strange time to have become involved with the Tory party. It was the year when things could only get better - but only if you were a Labour supporter - and when there was a sense of a new dawn in British politics, tinged with red, rather than blue. But the current chairman of the Improvement & Development Agency, Colin Barrow, was undeterred by the winds of change blowing over the political landscape and probably goes down in history as being one of the few Tories actually celebrating on 1 May 1997.
'I have always been interested in politics. I came out of business, I sold it and sat down and said 'what am I going to do now?' and found myself surrounded by men in blazers who said: 'Have you ever thought about going into local government?' I was propelled into a seat, and the next thing I knew I was deputy leader of the Conservative group on Suffolk CC.'
Mr Barrow is perhaps best known for his association with another Tory whose memories of 1 May 1997 are not so joyous - Michael Portillo. During the 2001 Tory party leadership campaign, Mr Barrow lent his palatial home to the Kensington & Chelsea MP. The former residence of the Bishop of London, it was a perfect HQ for Mr Portillo's campaign - it is just behind Westminster Abbey and a couple of minutes' stroll from Tory Central Office in Smith Square. According to The Guardian, Mr Barrow's home, estimated at £3m, was the most expensive of the four campaign HQs.
Mr Barrow lent the once gung-ho defence secretary his support because he liked the caring Conservatism Mr Portillo displayed, to everyone's surprise, following his 1997 defeat.
'I felt and feel that the Conservative party has got a bit out of touch and needs to address the world as it is, rather than the world that it might like to be. I think we have to find a kinder way of expressing ourselves than the way some people do. I admire many of the members of the front bench but I felt that Michael was going to be a catalyst for that type of change. Funnily enough, the last party conference was radically different from party conferences in the past. It showed the caring side of the Conservatives,' says Mr Barrow.
'Iain Duncan Smith has his critics but he was the leader of the party when that happened so we do not get IDS flag waving or singing Land of Hope and Glory,' he says.
What does he think of IDS? 'I'm just a foot soldier,' he replies in mock modest fashion.
Reading his CV, one would imagine that Mr Barrow would be a Tory in the Thatcher mould. A high-flying trader both on Wall Street and in London, he sold his business in the 1990s and now has part-time interests in a number of investment companies. He has fond memories of his business days in New York.
'I was there in the early 1980s right in the middle of Gordon Gekko, greed is good, red braces. It was a fascinating, fascinating time. People really worked hard and wanted to get on and there was a sort of immigrant mentality. There's a saying in America derived from an advertising slogan for the lottery, which is 'all you need is a dollar and a dream',' he says.
Despite his millionaire lifestyle, Mr Barrow does feel he has a connection with the struggles his constituents face. One of the reasons he moved from Suffolk to Westminster was because he needed better facilities for his autistic son.
Has this had a bearing on his political life? 'Yes, it has. It brings you directly into contact with the day-to-day difficulties that everyone else deals with. It is a very important lesson. You can be quite successful and quite insulated from the real world and this brings you very firmly into the real wo rld. While it may be okay for us,
we can manage in this situation, it still hit the family hard,' he says.
Despite these difficulties Mr Barrow professes to being supremely satisfied with his life at the moment. He loves politics and he loves Westminster, not least because the Tories are in power there.
'Westminster is a truly first-class outfit so it is very exciting. The electorate is more demanding, it's more engaged, the community societies are stronger. People tell you what to do here, more so than in Suffolk,' he says.
He also feels he has a lot to offer.
'It is nice for people who have done something else to offer a contribution to politics. Politics demands an impatience with the status quo. Politics is about getting something done, about effecting change, about making the world a different place and coming from experience in other countries. I have lived in Switzerland, I have lived in America - things are done differently there and that
is a valuable experience,' he says.
Mr Barrow cites the House of Lords as a wonderful example of how people with no political experience can get involved in public life. So is Mr Barrow hankering after a peerage?
'Oh! I'd like to be Queen!' he says. 'I would like to be prime minister but I somehow think that's not going to happen.'
And would he fancy slumming it at the Commons if a title is not in the offing?
'I'm on the list of parliamentary candidates but I'm not actively looking for a seat at the moment. I'm enjoying what I'm doing but tomorrow's another day,' he says.
LGC arranged to meet Mr Barrow to discuss his work at the IDeA, where he has been chairman for three years. There have been a lot of changes in the organisation during his tenure, not least the departure of its dynamic chief executive Mel Usher and the arrival of his replacement Steve Bundred.
Mr Barrow made it clear what sort of person he was not looking for - a 'time-serving bureaucrat' - to replace Mr Usher. Is this a reflection on how he views local governme nt officers?
'There are time-serving bureaucrats in any organisation but what we didn't want were people who were past their best, what we wanted were people who were at the top of the game. To join the IDeA was something that a top chief executive would aspire to and indeed Steve Bundred has come from a terrifically successful run turning around Camden. What we didn't want were people who say 'I've been this, I've done that, I'm semi retired so I'll pass a bit of time at the IDeA'.'
So what does the wheeler-dealer businessman think of the talent in local government?
'I don't subscribe to the view that the private sector is jolly good and public sector management is terrible.
I don't buy that at all,' he says.
The problem at the moment, he says, is that local government is not empowered.
'We have very talented, very able people and people who are itching to get on and sort out what should be done in their local area. I think we need to be set free to do that. If we are set free then local government management will begin to show what it is capable of.'