Conservative Diary

Parliamentary Conservative Party

1 Jun 2013 13:32:28

Patrick Mercer, Jews - and battle at Anzio

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-06-01 at 13.12.39My mother's father and brother were both professional soldiers.  My grandfather survived the First World War more or less unscathed, but my uncle was not so fortunate during the second: he lost the use of a leg, and the partial use of an arm, at Anzio.  Then again, fortune is as fortune does, since a German bullet struck a cigarette case lodged in his breast pocket.  So if you were fanciful, you might say that smoking saved his life.  I don't know what the proportion of Jews serving as professional soldiers was then or is now, but suspect that it's unusual to have two in the family.

I mention this because the regiment that my uncle served in was the Sherwood Foresters.  So did Patrick Mercer's father - and he himself was commissioned into the regiment, or rather into the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters, as it had by then become.  Mercer is very knowledgable about the history of the regiment, and was able to tell me, when we were Conservative MPs together, more or less exactly where my uncle was wounded during the battle. He said that there were then a small number of Jewish officers in the regiment who were regarded by their fellow officers with respect and affection.

I defend neither Mercer's misconduct nor him referring to an Israeli soldier as  a "bloody Jew" (which is re-heating the "black bastards" controversy, needless to say). It's evident that the latter was his idea of a joke.  Others will rightly make the point that it was not an amusing one and that anti-semitism is completely unacceptable.  But I think it worth writing as I have to explain why I don't believe that one appalling remark proves that Mercer is an anti-semite.  He used to say that one day we should travel to Anzio, and he would show me the spot where my uncle was wounded.  I expect the visit will never take place, and am sad at the thought.

1 Jun 2013 08:58:09

"We will bring forward early legislation to introduce a power of recall". Three years later, where is it?

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By Paul Goodman

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It was the visit to Eastleigh that changed my mind about the right of recall.  The notices tacked up on front doors - sometimes sealing letter-boxs, to prevent material coming through them - read: "NO MORE ELECTION LEAFLETS, PLEASE, or NO LEAFLETS. I AM NOT VOTING, or variants on that theme (often less polite ones). In short, the Eastleigh by-election reminded me how much voters detest by-elections - or, more particularly, the political and media circus that comes with them, together with the doormat snowdrift of election literature.  The case against the right of recall is that unrepresentative minorities will be able to throw out an MP - a classic example is higher tuition fees in a seat with a large student population.

It would certainly be wrong for minorities in constituencies to be able to hold majorities to ransom.  But the key to avoiding this is to get the mechanism for recall right: the correct trigger for a petition, plus voters' hatred of by-elections, ought to be enough to see off unrepresentative challenges.  The Government's draft bill on the right of recall proposed two different means.  First, the MP in question should have been found by the courts "to have engaged in serious wrongdoing", in which case a petition signed by ten per cent of voters in his or her seat could trigger recall or, second, MPs themselves could vote for a recall petition to be opened in a particular case.

Continue reading ""We will bring forward early legislation to introduce a power of recall". Three years later, where is it?" »

31 May 2013 14:34:28

No, the news about Patrick Mercer isn't good for Cameron - since it raises the issue of the right of recall

By Paul Goodman
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Mercer Patrick Feb 2012As readers of the site (and much of the country) are well aware, David Cameron isn't universally popular among Conservative MPs. But amidst a competitive field I would have had no hesitation in nominating Patrick Mercer - until his resignation of the Tory Whip earlier today - as the man most likely to try to sneak the Claus Von Stauffenberg memorial briefcase into Number Ten.  Asked what the Prime Minister's biggest mistake has been, the Newark MP has been reported to have replied: "Being born".  He also said - perhaps on being challenged to say what he really thought - that Cameron is "a most despicable creature without any redeeming features", adding, for the avoidance of doubt, "I loathe him".

The bad blood between the two men goes back to, and possibly beyond, Cameron's sacking of Mercer from the front bench.  Little wonder, then, that a leadership loyalist has been texting journalists with the words: "Newark: Conservative gain".  But I wonder if Number 10 really will be "cracking open the Cava", as Iain Martin puts it in the Daily Telegraph (the paper is slugging it out with Panorama over which one of them has forced Mercer's resignation).  It remains to be seen what the Newark MP has or hasn't done wrong.  But if Cameron's view is that it's right for Mercer to resign the whip, what will he say if asked whether he should resign the seat?

Continue reading "No, the news about Patrick Mercer isn't good for Cameron - since it raises the issue of the right of recall" »

27 May 2013 08:03:04

Plots and whispers

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-05-27 at 08.15.47Now here's a dog that didn't bark in the night-time. Or rather, an MP who spoke in the day-time. David Ruffley, a senior Conservative member of the Treasury Select Committee, went on television yesterday.  What did he talk about?  The fragile signs of renewed growth in the economy? The fastest rise in house prices for six years?  The current condition of Indonesian long bonds?  No: the Bury St Edmonds MP mused aloud about what the political landscape might look like after next year's European elections. He said -

"I think next May’s euro elections might put pressure on [Cameron] to go harder because there is a lot of speculation in and around Downing Street, so I am led to believe, that UKIP might come first.  Now if that happens next May there’ll be 12 months before the election and some of our colleagues in marginal seats might get a bit windy. I don’t think UKIP are going to win seats but they could split the Conservative vote if they are very strong and let Labour through in those marginal seats. But I think David Cameron has got 12 months to show that his strategy works."

The conventional wisdom is that the maximum point of danger for Cameron's leadership was this month's local elections.  But Ruffley's intervention confirms that some backbench dissidents believe that replacing Cameron with a new leader before UKIP tops the poll next year would be cack-handed timing: better to act immediately after that - and let this new leader sprint for the electoral finishing line the following spring.  A senior rebel has put exactly the same argument to me during the past week.

Odd that a Tory MP popped up to make the point yesterday, isn't it, over a quiet Bank Holiday weekend?  Almost as if someone, somewhere, wanted to serve notice of intent.  "I smell a device." "And I have 't in my nose too."

25 May 2013 13:19:59

Boris and Carswell show Conservatives how to win

By Mark Wallace
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Screen Shot 2013-05-25 at 13.15.02The need for politicians to reconnect with the electorate is beyond debate. Falling turnout, the collapse in party memberships, and widespread disillusionment with politics and its practitioners all demonstrate the scale of the problem. 

The initial reaction of the political class to this problem was to come up with the worst possible response: blaming the people. 

Even the choice of word to label the issue was patronising and inaccurate: apathy. All the polling, as well as the clear evidence of growing online activism and rising pressure group membership, shows that people don't care any less than before about political issues.

Rather, voters increasingly feel that the political process, and the parties who operate within it, does not offer any solution to their problems. Why donate, volunteer and vote if in return there is no appreciable change?

Continue reading "Boris and Carswell show Conservatives how to win" »

22 May 2013 06:57:24

Three ways for Cameron to get back on the front foot - and stay there

By Paul Goodman
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Cameron heart tshirt 2Here are three measures that, if implemented -

  • Will help to quell the charge that the Party is being led by a "Chumocracy" unrepresentative of its MPs and members.
  • Will stop David Cameron being ambushed by Conservative backbenchers on EU policy, as he was by John Baron's amendment to the Queen's Speech.
  • Will thus prevent these two problems from inter-acting with each other to suggest that the Party is divided.  (If a perception of division persists, victory in 2015 will certainly be impossible.)

They are as follows:

  • The Prime Minister should create an Inner Cabinet - to build collective Party leadership and kill the Downing Street chumocracy charge As I've previously explained, the Cabinet is too big: 32 people are entitled to attend it.  And the Quad, at only two people, is too small (besides, two of its members are Liberal Democrats - giving the junior Coalition partner equal representation at the top, a cause of Tory resentment).  The Prime Minister needs a Conservative Inner Cabinet which meets weekly to shape policy and make decisions.  Attendance should be formal and collegiate, with the following membership: the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary, the Leader of the House, the Chief Whip and the Party Chairman.  Obviously, the right people are needed to fill those posts - but that's a matter for another day.  What matters is that membership of the Inner Cabinet should be strictly related to Ministerial and Party function, and that it should consist of senior politicians only.
  • The standing, morale and effectiveness of the Whips Office should be raised by it becoming a vehicle for promotion - not sacking.  The natural complement to an Inner Cabinet - and thus proper collective leadership - is a Whips Office with real authority.  That able MPs such as Dominic Raab, Ben Wallace and Rob Wilson turned posts in it down at the last resuffle, as was reportedly the case, is a sign that something is wrong.  Perhaps there was a connection with the fact that several Whips simply left the office at the same time: James Duddridge, Brooks Newmark, Shailesh Vara, Bill Wiggin.  There are always special circumstances, but the status of the Whips Office was not raised by so many of its members failing to move on to Ministerial posts.  Cameron will also need a new Chief Whip, since Sir George Young - loyal trooper that he is - only returned to the Cabinet to help the Prime Minister out.  Again, who his replacement should be is a matter for another day.  Enough for today to point out that improving the standing and effectiveness of the Whips Office must be a priority.
  • The Prime Minister can't cure his EU problem until he grips it.  As a wise old hand put it to me, Cameron mistook his EU referendum speech for a process.  He hoped by offering his Party an In-Out referendum to halt internal Party debate on Europe - at least for a while.  The gambit failed.  And it won't succeed while his stance on the repatriation of powers is unresolved.  The lesson of last week is that if the Prime Minister hopes that the Government's review of EU competences and the Party's own manifesto formation will quiet discussion of renegotiation policy within his Party until 2014, he is mistaken.  Two courses of action are open to him.  The first is to make it clear that he favours a minimal repatriation of power after 2015 - social and employment policy plus protection for the City, perhaps.  The second is to put Conservative policy-making on renegotiation in the hands of his Party - the 1922 Committee, the Conservative Policy Forum, and so on - and accept that what would emerge would be, most likely, "Common Market or Out".

Having been in the Commons for the best part of ten years, I appreciate that logic isn't everything in politics: sometimes, even often, there's a role for fudge.  But a lesson of so much that's happened to Cameron on EU policy - from the dropping of the Lisbon referendum commitment in opposition to the EU referendum revolt last week - is that by consistently seeking to put off making decisions on the EU issue, the Prime Minister has merely stored up trouble for himself later.

Continue reading "Three ways for Cameron to get back on the front foot - and stay there" »

21 May 2013 08:05:25

The same-sex marriage bill. Bad when it started. Just as bad now. It should be opposed today.

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-05-21 at 07.43.19No political party should alter a bedrock institution without the following conditions applying - especially if it is the Conservative Party.  A sizeable campaign to change that institution should be in place: in other words, there should be real evidence of public pressure.  The Party should then discuss and debate the matter internally.  If the Party then decides on change, if should say so unambiguously in its general election manifesto.  If it doesn't win the election, but enters into Coalition, any commitment to effect that change should be written into the consequent Coalition Agreement.  Ideally, any bill enacting the change should be preceded by a Green Paper in which any  problematic consequences of the bill could be aired, and solutions thereby sought.  Such solutions could then be written into the bill, or tacked on to it by amendments.  Finally, the bill should be subject to a geniunely free vote.

Not a single one of these conditions apply to the same-sex marriage bill, on which MPs will vote this evening.

No campaign for same-sex marriage preceded the bill.  (Although Stonewall has consistently favoured same-sex marriage, it didn't launch a big campaign for it - at least partly because it thought the Government wouldn't concede it.)  There was no discussion within the Conservative Party, especially at local level.  There was no manifesto commitment.  There was no Coalition Agreement undertaking.  There was no Green Paper.  There have been no significant amendments - other than Labour's on equal civil partnerships.  And there has been no free vote, at least at when it comes to members of the Executive: it has been made very clear to Ministers which lobby the Prime Minister wants them to go into.  For these reasons alone, Tory backbenchers should vote against the bill at Third Reading this evening.  The way in which it has been introduced and championed has broken every rule of good government and party management.

The Loongate row is still reverberating in the Party, especially at local Association level.  The key point about it is that too many Conservatives, from the Cabinet table to the grassroots, believe that the controversial words are what is thought and said of them in Downing Street. No measure has done more to buttress that impression than the same-sex marriage bill - which has been imposed on the Party with such absolutism, and which is the cause of such a bitter culture war.  Many older people especially see the measure as a deliberate assault on their values: the bill might thus almost have been designed as a recruiting-sergeant for UKIP.  For this reason alone, Tory MPs should vote against the bill this evening in good heart.  They will certainly grasp that Ministers haven't a clue what the courts will do when they get to work on Equality Act challenges, and that the bill is consequently a threat to religious freedom.

19 May 2013 08:10:41

Lord Feldman should ring each Conservative Association Chairman to thank local activists for their work

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-05-19 at 08.05.37This weekend of the “mad, swivel-eyed loons” row will swiftly be followed by Commons debate on the same-sex marriage bill. Will Conservative MPs accept Lord Feldman's denial, view the incident as yet another instance of media irresponsbility, and look more sympathetically on the measure - on which David Cameron has staked part of his political reputation?  Or will the report only harden the opposition to it - since some will conclude, regardless of what they think of Lord Feldman's denial, that his words represent what Downing Street thinks anyway?

The answer will become clear over the next few days.  What is evident this morning, however, is that what Cabinet Ministers do and say about the bill will be watched very closely indeed.  The Sunday Telegraph confirms that Chris Grayling will support amendments that aim to protect people who work in the public sector and believe that marriage is between men and women - and that Owen Paterson and David Jones will oppose the bill at Third Reading.  The logical extension of Philip Hammond's pointed remarks on Question Time last week is that he should, too.

Continue reading "Lord Feldman should ring each Conservative Association Chairman to thank local activists for their work" »

18 May 2013 15:58:24

Party Chairman Lord Feldman denies calling Party members “mad, swivel-eyed loons”

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-05-18 at 15.33.25Andrew Feldman has issued a statement as follows: "There is speculation on the internet and on Twitter that the senior Conservative Party figure claimed to have made derogatory comments by the Times and the Telegraph is me. This is completely untrue. I would like to make it quite clear that I did not, nor have ever described our associations in this way or in any similar manner. I am taking legal advice."

The question that obviously follows is whether some other person with "strong social connections to the Prime Minister and close links to the party machine", as the Times (£) put it this morning, spoke the contested words.  This seems not to be the case, and Lord Feldman's statement confirms that he is indeed the man at the centre of this controversy.  I understand that a conversation between him and several lobby journalists took place at a dinner earlier this week.

Continue reading "Party Chairman Lord Feldman denies calling Party members “mad, swivel-eyed loons”" »

15 May 2013 23:22:38

Cameron's been likened to Major. More votes like this one, and the comparison will be with Lord North.

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By Paul Goodman

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Parliament means Party, and Party means Whips. In other words, MPs must always form themselves into political parties, which in turn will require whipping, if the executive is to work in our system of Parliamentary government.  It follows that Prime Ministers have both a selfless and a selfish reason for taking special care of their whips.  If they don't, coherent government becomes impossible (the selfless reason) and their own position becomes endangered (the selfish one).  And since it has never been harder to be a Whip - given the transformation of MPs into constituency champions, and their consequent rebelliousness - David Cameron must zealously care for their condition and morale.

The Prime Minister's EU referendum bill gambit was rushed out to quell the threat of a large number of Conservative MPs voting for John Baron's amendment to the Queen's Speech.  Over 100 did - so the manoevre failed. That's roughly half of all Tory backbenchers.  Blame must therefore lie either with the Whips, for failing to minimise the rebellion, or with Cameron himself, for failing to tell them to do so.  The guidance consistent with both minimising the rebellion and good party management would have been to offer one of those free votes that aren't really free votes at all.  Both Ministers and backbenchers would have been encouraged by the Whips to abstain, to drive down the number of Tory MPs supporting the Baron amendment.

Continue reading "Cameron's been likened to Major. More votes like this one, and the comparison will be with Lord North." »