Conservative Diary

Parliamentary Conservative Party

15 May 2013 14:14:26

Nick Clegg enjoys standing in for David Cameron and denouncing Labour

By Andrew Gimson
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Is the Nick Clegg who promised a referendum at the time of the Lisbon Treaty "an impostor or Snip20130508_1 just a hypocrite"? This was the contemptuous choice offered by Edward Leigh (Con, Gainsborough) as Clegg stood in for David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions.

Leigh was one of several Tory MPs who enjoyed referring to the leaflet in which Clegg pledged himself to a referendum. Vince Cable, believed by some to be intending to supplant Clegg as Lib Dem leader before the next election, grinned as the awkward question was put. Danny Alexander, a loyal Cleggite, looked hot with embarrassment.

But Clegg himself did not look in the slightest bit embarrassed. He confirmed that the man in the leaflet was himself, and declared that the Lib Dem position remains that "we should have a referendum on Europe when the rules change".

Whether or not that is a true summary of the Lib Dem position, Clegg managed to sound as if he thought it was true. He looked like a man who was greatly
enjoying the chance to clear his name.

Continue reading "Nick Clegg enjoys standing in for David Cameron and denouncing Labour" »

15 May 2013 13:31:40

How today's referendum row could change the rules of the game in 2015

By Peter Hoskin
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Really, honestly, I woke up this morning intending to write a post on what the continuing EU farrago implies about the next Tory manifesto and, indeed, the formation of the next Government. My argument was straightforward. With David Cameron being pushed into ever more spectacular shows of commitment to an EU Referendum, will the policy be an even more inviolable promise around the next election? And, if so, what would that mean for the chances of another LibCon coalition? If the Lib Dems remained set against a referendum, it could add all up to No.10 for Ed Miliband.

But that was before I read Daniel Finkelstein’s column for the Times (£) this morning, which strides across similar ground. The next election, he writes, “will be one defined not by policy pledges but by how robust those pledges are”. The party leaders will have to, in effect, draw up “red line manifestos,” establishing where they will and will not cede ground in any coalition negotiations. And the upshot is that “it is quite possible that, by the end of it all, the red lines will make the formation of a new coalition very difficult indeed.”

Continue reading "How today's referendum row could change the rules of the game in 2015" »

15 May 2013 07:00:26

Replace Grant Shapps with a Chairman who can cheer the troops

By Andrew Gimson
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What is the point of Grant Shapps? If the Chairman of the Conservative Party can do nothing else, he ought at least to be able to put fresh heart into the Tory faithful. Yet in the eight months he has been Chairman (or technically speaking, Co-Chairman with Lord Feldman, who runs the business side of the party), I cannot find a single instance of Shapps managing to do this.

It is possible he will grow into the role: possible too that he has won golden opinions of which I have not heard. But it is also possible that Shapps has been given an extraordinarily difficult job, is never going to work out how to do it, and should be replaced by someone better able to cheer the Tory troops in the two years which remain before the next election.

On Saturday 9 March, Shapps addressed the ConHome Victory 2015 Conference, which was attended by a large number of Tory activists. He was by common consent the least interesting speaker of the day. He had nothing to say, and said it badly.

There was no sense of connection between the Chairman and his audience: no feeling that party members were being taken into his confidence and having their spirits raised by being offered a glimpse of the route which together they will tread to the sunlit uplands.

Shapps spoke instead of his success as a local campaigner. “How did I win?” he asked. “I got out there and knocked on doors.”  This was an insult. Pretty much everyone in the room had knocked on doors. Shapps had somehow managed to suggest, no doubt unintentionally, that if only everyone worked as hard as he did, all would be well: the corollary being that if things went wrong, it would be the poor bloody infantry’s fault.

Anyone can have an off day. I decided to canvas opinion within the party. But the first person I consulted was a shire Tory who was still fuming over something Shapps had said in January, during a discussion on Radio Four about local councillors’ allowances.

Shapps said councillors should not be paid more: an entirely defensible point of view. But the Chairman proceeded to argue that councillors are volunteers, so if they were to get paid, you would have to starting paying volunteers in every walk of life, such as “scout leaders”.

Anyone but Shapps would have seen it was unwise to compare counsellors, who are elected and look after large sums of public money, with scout leaders, no matter how highly one may think of the latter.

The shire Tory happened himself to be a local councillor, and said: “This was an object lesson in how to alienate people who work hard for you. It was stupid, crass and means he’s not a pin-up among the councillor fraternity. He just gave the impression that they [the Tory high command] don’t really want to listen. They just want to tell people what hoops to jump through. They don’t want to hear what it’s like in the front line. The view from the shires is that basically people in the metropolitan elite aren’t really interested in what’s going on elsewhere.”

Shapps finds himself dismissed as a member of the elite even though he is not metropolitan. He was born in Watford, and went to Watford Grammar School and Manchester Polytechnic before setting up a printing firm. Part of his attraction, from the point of view of the Tory leadership, must be that he is not yet another Old Etonian who went on to read PPE, or indeed anything else, at Oxford. He sounds classless, and worked with great persistence to get himself elected for Welwyn Hatfield, where he lost to the sitting Labour MP by 1,196 votes in 2001 but won by 5,946 votes in 2005 and 17,423 votes in 2010.

On arriving at Westminster, he was quick to prove his value. As one close observer puts it: “He was very, very effective in Opposition – a good attack dog who put out press releases attacking Labour all the time. As shadow housing minister he backed localism. He came out of the expenses scandal very well. He was also one of the first MPs to have his own online forum and to go on Twitter. Nothing seemed to be too small for him.”

In 2010, Shapps became Minister of State for Housing and Local Government, and Quentin Letts, of the Daily Mail, even suggested he might be a future Tory leader. Many people began to think Shapps might make a good party chairman, but in retrospect it can be seen that to give him such a prominent role before he had developed an independent political persona was perhaps unwise. The energy and humility needed to deal with small things may or may not be accompanied by an ability to see the big picture, but in Shapps’s case appear not to be.

After Margaret Thatcher died, Andrew Neil asked Shapps: “Are you a Thatcherite?” The Chairman replied: “I think I probably am.”

Neil also asked: “Are you Chairman of a Thatcherite party?” Shapps replied: “We’re a Thatcher party, but we’re also a John Major party.”

Such feeble responses do not make Tory viewers feel proud that this man is their party Chairman. A Tory lady remarked of him: “It’s not even as if Grant appeals to young people.”

In confirmation of this, a young Tory activist who is currently employed by a think tank said of Shapps: “He’s very pro-active, to the point of being annoying. Obviously he attends every event, and works very hard, but there’s no flair to it and I don’t know what his core principles are. He doesn’t inspire me. I do think he’s been over-promoted.”

A senior Tory backbencher described Shapps as “able, extremely nice, but extraordinarily inexperienced for his present role”. Tory chairmen since the Second World War have included Lord Woolton, Lord Hailsham, Rab Butler, Iain Macleod, Lord Carrington, Willie Whitelaw, Peter Thorneycroft, Cecil Parkinson, Norman Tebbit and Chris Patten. The best chairmen have already been considerable figures when they were appointed.

Another long-serving Tory backbencher was less charitable: “We don’t want Muppets being the voice of the Tory Party, and that’s what we’ve got with Grant Yapps.”

This backbencher insisted, rather unkindly, that Shapps was becoming known as Yapps because of a tendency to yap, and added that “he called himself Michael Green for several years, for reasons no one entirely understands”.

In September 2012, soon after he became Chairman, it emerged that on HowToCorp, an online marketing company Shapps set up, he had indeed called himself Michael Green.

That curious detail is, it seems to me, irrelevant to the question of whether Shapps is capable of encouraging the Tory troops to get out and trounce their opponents. But the fact is that after an eight-month trial it looks most unlikely he is.

Any fair-minded observer would agree that inspiring the Tory footsoldiers is just now more difficult and more necessary than ever, given the shrinking size of the party, and the rise of UKIP. But that is why the Prime Minister should think again, and should appoint someone to the role who is already a big political figure. To leave Shapps there for the next two years would be to insult a party which already feels it has been insulted enough.

15 May 2013 06:46:25

Do Conservative MPs really want to win the next election?

Screen shot 2013-05-15 at 06.38.45
By Paul Goodman

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The main argument for the Baron/Bone amendment to the Queen's Speech, which regrets the absence of an EU bill, is either that a mandate referendum bill, which aims to give David Cameron a mandate for EU renegotiation, or an In/Out bill, which seeks to write his promised referendum into law (or both), are essential if the Conservatives are to win voters back in 2015.  This is simply wrong.  Such thinking over-estimates the significance of Parliament and the salience of the E.U issue to voters - including UKIP voters (see here, here and here).  The matters that most move the British people at the ballot box are the meat, potatoes and two veg of British politics: the economy, hospitals, schools and crime - plus, of course, immigration.

The mandate referendum is dubious.  Its most likely outcome is a large vote for renegotiation on a low turnout - thus undermining the very mandate which it seeks to gain.  The writing of an E.U amendment into law is a different matter.  While it may not move many voters, it will undoubtedly reassure some, and is sensible enough.  The best time for one to be moved, from the point of view of preserving the Coalition, would be during the final period of this Parliament.  However, the Prime Minister has now bowed to the will of his party, and had a private members' bill drawn up.  This is enough to satisfy Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan, who yesterday wrote in support of Cameron's latest initiative, and some other Euro-sceptic MPs, such as Zac Goldsmith.

Continue reading "Do Conservative MPs really want to win the next election?" »

14 May 2013 07:40:03

A failure of leadership that leaves Cameron as a latter-day John Major

By Paul Goodman
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Cameron_as_MajorNEWDavid Cameron has promised an In-Out referendum on the EU in the next Parliament.  Why, then, do some of his backbenchers want a mandate referendum now, and still more of them want to write the In-Out referendum into law?  There is no simple answer, but a number of different factors have come together.  One is the passion that the EU has excited within the Conservative Party since Bruges.  Another is fear of UKIP.  Still another is the belief, common among Tory MPs, that Cameron is very unlikely to lead a majority Conservative Government after 2015.  But, above all perhaps, there is, at worst, a distrust of the Prime Minister over Europe and, at best, the conviction among Tory MPs that on the issue he will follow rather than lead.

Cameron's gambit yesterday evening was crafted to ward off accusations of followership after a day in which party debate over the Baron/Bone amendment to the Queen's Speech, and over the EU itself, threatened to run out of control.  The device of a Private Member's Bill is the best he can do to regain the initiative - since Nick Clegg will not concede a Government Bill, even on a free vote, and there is nothing the Prime Minister can do to master him, short of breaking up the Coalition altogether.  Such a Bill is unlikely to deliver the goods, since such measures are vulnerable to being talked out. Ed Miliband's main aim will be to obscure his party's own differences on the EU, and to out-manoevre Cameron when MPs vote in the Commons - in alliance, probably, with the Liberal Democrats.

Continue reading "A failure of leadership that leaves Cameron as a latter-day John Major" »

5 May 2013 10:24:24

Nigel Evans denies "completely false" rape allegations

By Harry Phibbs
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Nigel Evans MP has made the following statement:

Yesterday I was interviewed by the police concerning two complaints, one of which dates back four years, made by two people who are well-known to each other, and who, until yesterday, I regarded as friends.

The complaints are completely false and I cannot understand why they have made, especially as I have continued to socialise with one as recently as last week.

I appreciate the way the police have handled this in such a sensitive manner and I’d like to thank my colleagues, friends and members of the public who have expressed their support and, like me, a sense of incredulity at these events.

4 May 2013 19:49:58

Why Nadine Dorries should get the Conservative whip back

By Paul Goodman
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FLIGHTI was opposed to the arbitrary and unjust removal of the whip from Howard Flight, a regular contributor to this website, just before the 2005 election.  It brought to an end the Commons career of an intelligent and dedicated servant of the Tory cause, and was utterly disproportionate to the offence - namely, embarrassing Michael Howard and the party leadership during the run-up to that year's poll.  That Flight was later given a peerage was a backhanded recognition that the leadership had made the wrong judgement call.  A Conservative MP has usually been chosen as a candidate by his local party and endorsed as a MP by voters.  He should not be deprived of the whip from the centre without exceptionally good reason.

In David Lean's wonderful Lawrence of Arabia, Jackson Bentley says that Lawrence was "the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnum and Bailey".  It is worth bearing in mind that Bentley had not met Nadine Dorries.  I completely understand why her colleagues were infuriated by her pushing off to the jungle from the Village, while they toiled long and hard in the lobbies.  Furthermore, it's not unknown for her to cross the line of tact and taste and even truth, as her "posh boy" remarks about David Cameron and George Osborne indicated (though it should be remembered that he didn't come up with the phrase, which was put to her by Giles Dilnot of the Daily and Sunday Politics - and which she then repeated).

Continue reading "Why Nadine Dorries should get the Conservative whip back" »

26 Apr 2013 06:15:33

A view from Downing Street

Screen shot 2013-04-25 at 23.38.09
By Paul Goodman

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I'm in a position to offer this morning to offer an insight into current thinking in Number 10.  Tim Montgomerie touched on its current charm offensive yesterday, of which the Jo Johnson appointment was a part.  I'm not going to comment on this thinking - though I will certainly return to the subject soon - but relay it as straightforwardly as I can.

  • Number 10 claims that it's in a better place with Conservative MPs.  First, it cites the appointment of Jo Johnson and the new policy board.  (And there are clearly more changes in Downing Street to come.)  Second, it says that the introduction of political Cabinets before Cabinet has given the Conservative operation a more political focus.  Third, it stresses the degree of contact between David Cameron and Tory backbenchers - regular gatherings of the Parliamentary Party (sometimes chaired by Graham Brady, the Chairman of the 1922 Committee, and sometimes chaired by George Young the Chief Whip); repeated meetings with Ministers of State and with Under-Secretaries - every six weeks or so in the case of the latter, I was told; the Prime Minister's weekly trip to the members dining room after each PMQ session.  "No Conservative leader," I was told, "has done more to make himself available to Conservative MPs".

Continue reading "A view from Downing Street" »

25 Apr 2013 19:02:31

Well done, Jo Johnson – but, sadly, there aren't enough jobs for the rest of the 2010 intake

By Andrew Gimson
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How astute of David Cameron to make Jo Johnson the head of his policy unit, and to ask some other backbenchers to contribute to policy. As Tim Montgomerie noted here earlier today, the Prime Minister may at last be starting to get his Downing Street machine into shape.

The 2010 Tory intake is exceptionally gifted, which for the long-term health of the party, and of Parliament, is a very good thing. It is more than likely that the next or next-but-one leader of the Conservatives will be chosen from among these men and women of ability.

But, in the short term, it is very difficult to find enough for these newcomers to do. As an MP, it is easy to fill or overfill your time with engagements of small importance, but can be hard to find work of real significance. Westminster is full of men and women who have taken great trouble to get there, and discover on arrival that they do not matter at all.

Continue reading "Well done, Jo Johnson – but, sadly, there aren't enough jobs for the rest of the 2010 intake" »

25 Apr 2013 15:27:53

Cameron lowers the Downing Street drawbridge and invites new voices into his bunker

By Tim Montgomerie
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Is David Cameron finally getting his machine into shape? There are signs that he might be.

There has been the skilful and sensitive management of the sad death of Margaret Thatcher. The PM has used the period to reconnect with some of his MPs - dining with key Thatcherites and writing handwritten notes to every one of his colleagues who spoke in the Commons debate to mark her death. He was at Tuesday night's launch of Charles Moore's biography of the Iron Lady, meeting and talking with key members of her Cabinets.

Overnight he did two things that I've long recommended: (1) He set up a policy unit of Tory MPs and (2) he rehabilitated... Some of the new members of his policy unit are people who have rebelled against his authority, notably Jesse Norman and Peter Lilley. Yesterday the Downing Street drawbridge came down. Light was let into the Number 10 bunker and new thinking was invited into the Prime Minister's operation.

Jo Johnson is an able enough individual but it is regrettable that yet another Old Etonian occupies yet another key position at the heart of the party. Overall, however, we're seeing a Prime Minister who is finally getting serious about party management. Many people are correctly crediting Lynton Crosby with improvements to the operation, but the real driving force of better personnel relations is John Hayes MP – appointed as the PM's parliamentary adviser a few days before Lady Thatcher's death.

While the PM is in a forgiving and healing mood he should warn uber-loyalist colleagues to end their briefing against Theresa May. He should also restore the whip to Nadine Dorries. The whips want this to happen but Numbers 10 and 11 are resisting.