Conservative Diary

Parliamentary Conservative Party

20 Sep 2013 08:24:26

The lesson of Damian McBride's memoirs is that Labour is the Nasty Party

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-09-20 at 08.00.21In 2001 or so, I wrote a speech for Iain Duncan Smith that went well enough, and was drafted on the back of it into his team for Prime Minister's Questions prep.  The other three members were David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson (and I should say in passing that those first two were infinitely better at the task than I was).  I thus spent part of each week, for the best half of four years, with the duo that leads the Conservative Party.

I never saw them tip the wink at their underlings to "destroy" a senior Shadow Minister, or leak details of another's alleged "drinking, fighting and carousing", or tip off newspapers about their rivals "drug use, spousal abuse, alcoholism and extra-marital affairs" - all conduct that Damian McBride writes of in his memoir, serialisation of which opens in the Daily Mail today. There are three possible explanations for this (assuming that Tory MPs as well as Labour ones are vulnerable to drinking, fighting, carousing, drug use, spousal abuse, alcoholism and extra-marital affairs which, since human nature is a given, is a reasonable presumption).

The first is that I'm incapable of seeing what goes on at the end of my nose.  The second is that Cameron and Osborne did all this and more when I wasn't around.  The third is that it didn't happen - or at least, to nothing like the same degree. Call me sentimental, self-deceived or a liar, but I'm sure the explanaton is the third. You don't get to the top of politics without being ruthless - and both are as much so as any politician I worked with during my ten years in the Commons. None the less, I can't imagine either discussing plans to set up a paper called, say, "Blue Rag" to smear a woman Labour MP with fictitious tales - as McBride did in relation to Nadine Dorries.

Continue reading "The lesson of Damian McBride's memoirs is that Labour is the Nasty Party" »

2 Sep 2013 08:09:55

There should be no second Commons vote on Syria. We must stay out of its civil war.

By Paul Goodman
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I sent out yesterday the following series of tweets on Syria, which re-iterated the case against intervention. Here they are:

  • A dictatorship bent on using chemical weapons against its own people is unlikely to be deterred by a single series of strikes.
  • If as is likely Assad continues to use such weapons after any such strike, the alternatives are further intervention or backing down.
  • Further intervention would mean arming rebels, military advice, a no-fly zone - and perhaps "boots on the ground". We would thereby assume a share of responsibility for Syria.
  • It is most unlikely that Assad would be replaced by pro-western democratic liberals if ousted.
  • It is probable that Assad would be replaced by a Muslim Brotherhood-flavoured, Hamas-type regime.
  • Extremist Shiites have not carried out terrorist acts in Britain since 9/11: extremist Sunnis have carried out such acts. British troops in Syria would be vulnerable to attacks by both.
  • Britain thus has no national interest in intervening in Syria's civil war.  In any event, we can now project less military power abroad than ten years ago.
  • From a humanitarian point of view, it's worth remembering that both sides in Syria's civil war are committing atrocities.
  • Thursday's Commons vote didn't commit Britain to action. There was thus a strong case for anti-interventionist Tory MPs to support David Cameron.
  • However, those MPs had legitimate worries about Britain being drawn into Syrian conflict. So did voters. The Commons reflected their view.
  • Cameron acted sincerely, but made a horrible mess of party management. The voters will note.
  • Miliband acted opportunistically, probably insincerely, but made a temporary succeess of party management. Voters will note.
  • The special relationship (such as it is): it will recover. It's worth adding that the vote helped to send Obama to Congress, which will displease him.
  • Government authority on foreign policy: this is weakened - because last week's backbench defiance of the whips wasn't a one-off. Rebellions have become more frequent.
  • On foreign policy, the Government is weaker abroad and the Commons is stronger at home. Take your view on whether the latter gain is worth the former loss.
  • Britain should be pro-America, but not to the point where we simply approve everything a US President proposes.
  • Britain should be pro-intervention when practicable (Libya), but not when it's neither practicable nor desirable (Syria).
  • Voters have gradudally got more Euro-sceptic (over 25 years or so) and more intervention-sceptuc (since Iraq). Those who dislike this must get used to it.
  • Finally: it's easy to be swayed, on Syria or anything, by the heat of moment or coverage of atrocities. It's harder by far to think things through.

This morning, I'd add a further thought:

  • None the less, domestic politics and our national interest are the same as they were last week.  a third or more of Conservative MPs and a majority of voters are opposed to military action in Syria.  Over half of Liberal Democrats MPs voted against the Government last week.  The Labour Party is traumatised by Iraq and has a weak leader: it would thus be an unreliable partner any military quest.  As above, there is no strategic or political case for intervention.
  • David Cameron's apple cart turned over last week.  Putting the apples back in it will take time and trouble.  He mustn't let it be upset all over again.

31 Aug 2013 10:30:03

Downing Street's Corporal Jones moment?

By Paul Goodman
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I asked yesterday whether David Cameron or the Whips bore the main responsibility for this week's party management disaster over Syria.  A day later, the answer is evident.  Downing Street presumed, not unreasonably, that Ed Miliband would deliver a Labour abstention on the vote.  The Whips - also not unreasonably - took their cue from Number 10, made the same presumption, and told some Conservative MPs that they didn't need to return.  One was no less senior a person than the Chairman of the 1922 Committee.  In essence, the Prime Minister was prepared to hold a vote on missile strikes despite opposition to the move from a third or more of Tory MPs.  This is party mismanagement on an epic scale.

Continue reading "Downing Street's Corporal Jones moment?" »

30 Aug 2013 11:11:14

An inner Cabinet. More status for Whips. Changes in his circle - and at the Foreign Office. What Cameron should do next.

Cam ear fingers 2

By Paul Goodman
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  • Yesterday evening's vote makes no real difference to anything.  The economy will continue to grow, David Cameron will recover his position, Britain's non-intervention in Syria will be a mere blip in the continuing special relationship with America, our world standing won't be affected, the Commons will continue to assert itself - and the Westminster Village will calm down.
  • Yesterday evening's vote marks a sea-change in our foreign policy and a shattering of the Special Relationship - as well as a wounding blow to Cameron's authority, a shot in the arm for his previously demoralised Tory opponents, and a wiping-out of the ascendancy over Labour that Downing Street has achieved over the summer.  Britain cuts a diminished international figure on the world stage.

In the aftermath of yesterday evening's vote - apparently unparalleled since 1782 - it is impossible to know which version of events is the more accurate.  What is clear, however, is that the failure of the Prime Minister's gamble over Syria is a reminder that the success of his summer to date has not bridged the gap of trust which persists between him and his MPs, and which at times can widen into a gulf.

Number 10 would be in panic mode were it immediately to effect the changes recommended below - the first two of which this site has been campaigning for since I became its Editor in April.  But until or unless they are implemented, the progress which Downing Street has made since the Queen's Speech and the Baron amendment will be at constant risk of being set back. A hung Parliament requires a more collective style of leadership.

  • Cameron needs to share authority with his most senior colleagues in an Inner Cabinet, and consult its Conservative members more often.  I know from talking to some of the latter that they don't expect Cabinet to be a debating society.  None the less, they are fed up with being cut out of decision-making when they feel their views and advice would help the Prime Minister.  The Inner Cabinet should be based on what office its members hold, not on their personal relations with the Cameron, and should consist of the Chancellor, the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary, the Leader of the House, the Chief Whip and the Party Chairman who sits in the Commons.
  • The status of the Whips Office should be raised.  Sir George Young was brought back as Chief Whip after Andrew Mitchell's resignation, and brought a sense of calm and courtesy to its workings.  It would be unfair to blame the Whips for the decision by Cameron to try to impose his view on Syria on an unhappy Parliamentary Party.  And it would be a mistake to try to re-impose military-style whipping on the independent-minded generation of MPs elected in 2010.  Furthermore, the best changes in the world won't improve the Whips if Downing Street doesn't listen to them.  Tony Blair moved them out of Number 12. They should be moved back to the heart of the Downing Street complex.
  • Cameron's inner circle should widen.  None the less, Number 10 would benefit from having a Chief Whip and Leader of the House more independent of the Prime Minister, and thus in a better position to "speak truth to power".  No Cabinet reshuffle is expected, and this isn't the time for it.  But in due course one of the 2010 intake is required in a senior position in the Whips Office, and the next Chief Whip needs to be a listener and an organiser.  Greg Hands or Nicky Morgan could act as Deputy.  David Lidington, Mark Harper or Oliver Heald are good candidates to be Chief Whip.  Eric Pickles is as independent-minded as Cabinet members get, and as Leader of the House would give Cameron plain and shrewd advice.
  • The Foreign Office doesn't reflect the views and mood of the Parliamentary Party This should change.  I've been concerned for some time that the gap between its view of EU policy and that of the Party is too wide: the balance of competences review has so far proved the point.  It also doesn't reflect the shift towards giving the national interest a higher priority that has been taking place in the Parliamentary Party since Iraq.  Mark Francois is a former Shadow Europe Minister, very much a Euro-sceptic and a senior Minister at Defence, where he will have a grasp of what our armed forces now can and can't do. He should be moved across to King Charles Street before the election.

27 Aug 2013 22:12:14

J Alfred Prufrock MP considers British military intervention in Syria

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-08-27 at 21.56.24By the waters of Leynarvatn, J.Alfred Prufrock - MP for Grummidge West, real ale enthusiast, Faroe Islands devotee, Wolves fan and cycle lane maniac - sat down and wept.  Or would have done, were his expectations of life greater and his experience of Parliament less.  The last streaks of sunset were decorating the Streymoy skyline like a rainbow. Beside him, his Blackberry flickered in the gathering dark.

"PHONE GREG HANDS," it declared.  Prufrock groaned aloud at this intrusion from the world outside - this serpent of a message sent to destroy his paradise.  He had fled to it five days earlier consumed by sensations of almost unearthly joy.  The best part of a week free from constituents!  And from Mrs Prufrock, and young Billy Wright Prufrock, and even younger Wilhelmina Wright Prufrock!

Continue reading "J Alfred Prufrock MP considers British military intervention in Syria" »

27 Aug 2013 16:45:45

What are junior Ministers for?

By Harry Phibbs
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As the weeks go by, the speculation about a Ministerial reshuffle has shifted to the junior Ministers. In many respects this is encouraging. During the Labour Government, both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown shuffled people around too much. John Reid used to move about once a year - Transport Minister, Scottish Secretary, Northern Ireland Secretary, Leader of the House, Health Secretary, Defence Secretary, Home Secretary. Mr Reid had the satisfaction of being promoted, but not of having the chance to achieve anything.

What is of concern though, is a suggestion in the Daily Telegraph today that the appointment of new Ministers, and the promotion of existing ones, will be based on who can most effectively communicate in the media.

The report says:

Esther McVey, a former GMTV presenter and junior minister at the Department for Work and Pensions, is likely to be promoted to a more prominent Government role by David Cameron, the Daily Telegraph understands.

According to Whitehall sources Downing Street “just love putting a northern woman up on television to speak for the government”.

Miss McVey, who has a seat in her native Merseyside, entered Parliament at the 2010 election.

Nadhim Zahawi, the Tory MP for Stratford-on-Avon, is also believed to be heading for a ministerial post.

Mr Zahawi is seen as a reliable media performer who can both defend the Government and successfully attack Labour.

Continue reading "What are junior Ministers for?" »

19 Aug 2013 08:30:48

Any proposal for a second Coalition should be put to all Party members - not just MPs

Screen shot 2013-08-19 at 07.53.20
By Paul Goodman

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David Cameron is absolutely right to plan properly for post-2015 election negotiations, as the Daily Telegraph reports today, either with the Liberal Democrats or with other parties (such as the Democratic Unionists, were the numbers to add up).  As the paper kindly acknowledges in an editorial, one of my leitmotifs since the 2010 election is that the Conservatives can't win a majority next time round given the distribution of the vote - a problem that the cut in the number of Commons constituencies proposed by the Government, and so ignobly sunk by the Liberal Democrats, would have addressed.  If the Commons is hung in 2015, the Prime Minister would have a responsibility to the country to strive to keep it out of Labour's hands.

This means building strong foundations for any consequent coalition - a necessity which, last time round, was compromised by the rush to office of both parties, and their unpreparedness, plus that of Whitehall, for the dance of negotiation which a hung Parliament brings with it.  The Liberal Democrats made a hash of their position on tuition fees.  And the Conservative leadership was too quick to dump parts of the programme on which it had just fought the election, such as its commitments on inheritance tax and stamp duty.  Furthermore, Tory MPs weren't given the chance to vote formally on the coalition deal.  It was presented to them at a single meeting of the 1922, and sold to them on a mistaken prospectus.

Continue reading "Any proposal for a second Coalition should be put to all Party members - not just MPs" »

10 Aug 2013 08:34:52

Twits - and worse - on Twitter

Screen shot 2013-08-10 at 08.06.24
By Paul Goodman
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Mike Weatherley, the MP for Hove, will be on Team Rock Radio today at noon presenting heavy metal for two hours.  But that's enough free advertising.  On a more sombre note, he has received a death threat on Twitter, according to today's Daily Mail.  "He received the message "Kill Weatherley" from a twitter user, it reports.  Weatherley said: "There is absolutely no way that I will allow this intimidating kind of behaviour to change my stance on this matter, as I will continue to stand up for gay rights both in Russia and around the world." (He had written to David Cameron to complain about anti-gay leglisation passed by the Duma.)

Is the Hove MP over-reacting? I don't think so. Most readers of this site would be more than mildly discombobulated were someone to say "Kill Smith" (for example) on a radio station with some 500 million listeners, especially if they did so anonymously.  The comparison is in order.  Twitter is essentially a broadcast system. You join it, and broadcast messages - tweets.  It is true that no-one is obliged to read them, and that you aren't obliged to read anyone else's.  But you might not take such an airy view were someone to tweet the word "kill"...and then to tweet your name next.

Continue reading "Twits - and worse - on Twitter" »

29 Jun 2013 07:57:33

David Cameron should never be free of the fear that his own MPs might sack him

By Andrew Gimson 
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Screen shot 2013-06-29 at 07.56.29“Conservative Members of Parliament constitute the most elusive and mendacious electorate imaginable.” So says Robin Harris in his excellent new biography of Margaret Thatcher, Not for Turning, when he turns to describing how her own MPs got rid of her. Harris observes that the Conservative Party’s “somewhat bizarre rules” for electing its leader were “originally conceived for when the party was out of power and not intended to displace a sitting Prime Minister”.

In 1989, when the first challenge to Mrs (as she then was) Thatcher was made, all that was required was a “stalking horse”, Sir Anthony Meyer, and two other MPs who proposed and seconded him.  The taboo against challenging a leader who was also Prime Minister was broken by that rebellion, and at the end of the following year Mrs Thatcher was swept away by her own MPs, who were terrified that she was leading them to electoral ruin.

In 1998, when new rules were brought in which gave Conservative Party members the right to choose the new leader from a shortlist of two drawn up by MPs, the opportunity was taken to avert future leadership challenges by what might turn out to be only a handful of MPs. Under these rules, which remain in force, 15 per cent of MPs must write in confidence to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee to demand a vote of confidence on the leader.

Continue reading "David Cameron should never be free of the fear that his own MPs might sack him" »

16 Jun 2013 08:32:42

If Cameron is to defuse Leigh's criticisms, he must get on the front foot over renegotiation

By Paul Goodman
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Cynics will say that now Edward Leigh has his knighthood in his pocket (so to speak), he will feel free to be as openly critical of the Government as he likes.  But I think this would be to mis-read the significance of his sweeping dismissal on this site today of the Queen's Speech as "the weakest legislative programme in recent memory", and his warning that "unless there is a change of course, and a firming-up of our Conservative instincts, we could lose the election".  He writes: "A group of like-minded Members of Parliament – the Centre-Right Steering Group – have been coming together in recent weeks to question the path the leadership are taking and to scrutinise their policies".

The steering group brings together some of the main groups on the centre-right of the Party - including Cornerstone and the No Turning Back Group.  It is likely that some of its key members will have been aware of Leigh's article in advance of publication.  And David Cameron is acutely aware that views of his leadership on the Party's centre-right range from the loyally critical to the contemptuously hostile: hence his recent appointment of John Hayes, who co-founded Cornerstone with Leigh, to Downing Street as his Parliamentary Private Secretary.

Signs of economic recovery and of progress in the polls, and attempts by the Prime Minister to reach out to his right (such as the masterminding of James Wharton's EU referendum bill) seem to have done nothing to pacify some of Cameron's critics, for whose grievances he must take some of the blame.  I believe that Leigh is right on some points (same-sex marriage, HS2) and wrong on others (tax and spending).  David Cameron isn't going to tear up his election pledges, and un-ring fence aid and NHS spending.  So to suggest that he does is a waste of breath.

In which case, the economies that Leigh wants - and for which he has such a keen eye in his role as a former Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee - wouldn't be enough to deliver tax cuts on the scale he implies.  The Government would need billions of pounds in savings, not millions - and to find them, it would need drastically to re-think the role of state, along the lines set out by Harry Phibbs set out recently on this site, and pursued by Liam Fox in a recent speech in which he praised our Local Government correspondent.

I am all for such a re-think - ConservativeHome is one of the few centre-right publications to have run a series on how to scale back public spending further - but, when it comes to cutting spending, much of the right is all mouth and no trousers.  All in all, Leigh's worry about "a percentage of our people [peeling] away to the right" is absolutely correct but, if such imagery is to be used, David Cameron must worry no less about the Party's appeal to the centre.  Successful conservative leaders abroad, such as Stephen Harper, appeal to both at the same time.

The leitmotif of this site since it was set up has been that to campaign on such Tory staple issues as tax and Europe is necessary but not sufficent.  To maintain power, it must recognise that most of the seats it needs to win and hold are urban and suburban ones in the midlands and north, where the public sector is larger, selling a scale-back of the state is more difficult, and voters (as they are elsewhere) are at least as concerned about, say the NHS as the EU  - to put it mildly.  Leigh places an electoral stress on the issue that the polling evidence doesn't justify.

But in doing so, he sends an important message to Downing Street.  Only a majority Conservative Government can deliver the In/Out referendum to which David Cameron is committed.  The promise of the latter has satisfied some of the Prime Minister's former critics on the EU who simply want Out.  But it hasn't quelled the appetite of many of his backbenchers for a major renegotiation, and Leigh's views are an eloquent expression of them.  If Cameron delays setting out his own view until late next year, he risks a destabilising row about its scale and ambition during the run-up to an election.  Better for him and everyone else to have it sooner rather than later, rather than let the matter drift through inertia and irresolution.