Conservative Intelligence

Conservative Intelligence

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Last Updated: Friday, October 14th, 2011

So, Liam Fox has gone.   Amidst the turbulence, it’s worth noting the close connection between the colourful image of Liam Fox relaxing by a hotel pool in Dubai with his friend Adam Werritty and the dry news that the Government has appointed eight new Liberal Democrat special advisers.  The first has stirred unease among Tory Ministers; the second has provoked anger.  The bond that joins these two tales is a basic human need – one as elemental as hunger or desire.

Most people want a safety zone – a place where they feel at home and can be themselves: chill out, relax, crack jokes, let their hair down, relieve tension.  The more a person has to fulfill some public role, the more he will usually strain for the comfort of such a base: he will want to let the mask slip – literally.  And the relaxing laughter which is part of such a place implies company.  After all, there’s little point in thinking of a jest without having someone to tell it to.

If this is true of nearly all of us, that truth is squared when applied to politicians – not because their needs are greater than ours, but because the masks they wear fit tighter: in the age of Twitter, instant YouTube videos and EyeSpyMP, they are seldom off duty.  There is a further dimension to their need for support.  Rightly or wrongly, politicians feel that they have to watch their backs more closely than many other people – against electoral opponents, constituency enemies, party rivals.

Politicians therefore want people round them who are at worst supporters and at best friends – who will aid them in the camel ride of politics.  These twin aspects of the same urge – the yearning both for what security analysts call “safe spaces” and for comrades in a common enterprise are fundamental to the Fox story and the adviser appointments.  Tory Ministers feel that their Liberal Democrat equivalents have people to watch their backs while their own are left unguarded.

And if this urge helps to make their fury explicable, it also does more to make the Fox saga understandable than speculation about the former Defence Secretary’s private life or revelations about his public one – and the grey zone in which the one has merged into the other.  I suggested earlier that politicians have a special need to let their hair down.  Fox likes to let his reach the floor.  He works hard, parties hard, and drinks hard (or did: he has cut his intake down recently).

One of his closest friends in the Commons is the MP Eleanor Laing, but most of his circle are men: this goes with the jokes, the gossip, the band of political brothers gathered round the bar.  He is more than capable of putting the world to rights late into the night over a jar, and bouncing into breakfast the next morning bright-eyed and bushy-tailed: his gregarious stamina is legendary.  And, like most other MPs, he likes company best if it happens to vote for him.

Two MPs who flew with him to the United States in 2005 backed him in the leadership election of that year: Mark Harper and Brooks Newmark.  The fun nights abroad had a serious purpose.  This is where Werritty fits in (or did).  He is a central cog in the Fox machine, who kept its elaborate network of donors and supporters and MPs – not to mention Atlantic Bridge – ticking over.  That machine stood up to the strain of the 2005 leadership election remarkably well.

Fox fought a lively leadership campaign which, unlike David Davis’s, didn’t mess up.  If he’d have had a few more Parliamentary votes and Davis a few less, Fox would have made it to the final ballot, and given Cameron a run for his money.  The former Defence Secretary no doubt finds Werritty good company, but their closeness has had a practical purpose.  Fox has a distinct viewpoint: pro-America, Euro-sceptic, pro-Israel, pro-union.  He may retain, even now, undiminished ambition.

In sum, Werrity was near the centre of Team Fox in opposition, helping to find platforms for those ideas and allies for that appetite.  That team feels ill at ease with Team Cameron – unsurprisingly.  And to that unease in opposition has been added a new one in government.  The former Defence Secretary doesn’t feel quite at home with the civil service.  Hence the blurring of the public and private, as Werritty slipped into Whitehall at home and met up with Fox abroad.

Cameron and Fox have clashed many times since May 2010: over his special adviser appointments, over who was to serve as Fox’s Parliamentary Private Secretary (Tobias Ellwood, a Cameron loyalist, got the post), over briefings about the departure of Jock Stirrup.  Two Fox letters have been leaked to the media.  The former Defence Secretary’s relationship with William Hague – which was once close, but has become strained in recent years – and with Andrew Mitchell is uneasy.

But the Prime Minister was reluctant to become entangled with the Fox Affair, which is why he’s previously left him – and his unconventional modus operandi – well alone.  Wariness of the Fox operation, to which Werritty has been indispensable, is part of the reason.  A moral can be gleaned from all this: if you want to be a Player, get a Gang.  So who else among Conservative Cabinet Ministers has one?  The answer turns out to have nothing to do with seniority.

After all, Theresa May has one of the most high-ranking jobs in Government, but has no gang.  (No wonder, perhaps: in Parliament, gangs tend to be a male thing.)  The answer has a bit more to do with ideology.  Ken Clarke had a left-of-party-centre team that helped him fight three leadership elections, but it is very much diminished.  It can have a connection with ambition, as we’ve seen in the case of Fox: but Jeremy Hunt, the striving Culture Secretary, has no big network.

The key ingredient seems to be personality: mix this in with ideas, and you have a gang, a team – like those of the following four members of the Cabinet.  Two of them prove that ambition isn’t a necessary ingredient.

* George Osborne: The lieutenant of Team Osborne is Matthew Hancock, formerly his Chief of Staff and now an MP.  Its ambassador is the sharp and combative MP Greg Hands, Osborne’s PPS.  Rupert Harrison at the Treasury provides economic expertise and charm, and Clare Perry in the Commons is one of its leading women members.  Osborne has looked after his Treasury team members, past and present, and has excellent links to such journalists as Ben Brogan of the Telegraph and his old friend Daniel Finkelstein of the Times.

* Michael Gove: Unlike the Chancellor, Gove is not seen as a leadership aspirant.  But the former Times Assistant Editor is on good terms with much of Fleet Street, and has assembled a talented adviser team, in which Dominic Cummings, his Chief of Staff, and Henry De Zoute, his other special adviser, stand out.  Unlike Osborne, the Education Secretary has little money of his own.  But like him, he is capable of raising it: he has particularly warm relations with parts of the Jewish community.

* Iain Duncan Smith: Unlike Osborne – and perhaps Gove – Duncan Smith is beyond ambition.  His view of the party leadership is been there, done that – never again.  But his work at the Centre for Social Justice has given him a mass of contacts in the world of poverty fighting, and he retains a base of admirers in the Commons.  John Hayes’s and Edward Leigh’s Cornerstone Group is an emblem of Duncan Smith’s socially committed conservatism, and in Philippa Stroud he has a dedicated special adviser.

* William Hague: Were Cameron to fall under the proverbial bus, Hague is the safest bet to replace him – even though his view of the Tory leadership is almost indistinguishable from that of Duncan Smith.  The Foreign Secretary has more of a base than a gang – among party members and especially in the north.  But he retains the admiration of Lord Ashcroft and the affection of such MPs as David Lidington, the Europe Minister and his former PPS.  A glance at the Register confirms that he isn’t wanting for money.

All these will be hoping that their teams turn out to be more savvy and successful than Fox’s.

By Paul Goodman




Edward Leigh MP: Why the Government should not block our move to protect free speech:
“Threats and abuse clearly ought to be covered by public order law. Insult, however, is a much lower threshold and is open to misuse. Whatever self-restraint the police exercised in the past in applying the law against insults appears to be melting away. No doubt we can blame it on external pressure from activists and internal pressure from out-of-control ‘equality and diversity’ programmes. The result is that we are witnessing more and more cases of public order law being used to regulate legitimate debate and to silence those who dissent from the nostrums of political correctness. The case of the Christian café in Blackpool that was told by police that displaying the text of the New Testament on TV screens breached public order law is just the latest in a long and sorry line.” Read more:

Paul Goodman: The swimming pool conservatism of Graeme Archer:
“Archer’s swimming pieces were among his first big hits on our site, and they offer the taste of his outlook as authentically as any.  The whole point of swimming is that it is not synchronised.  Swimming pools have lifeguards outside them to keep order and save lives if necessary, but no bureaucrats within them to order queues, command participation, impose structure. In other words, swimming is its own spontaneous order.  Swimmers adapt their individual wishes so as make collective life in the pool possible and, for Archer, society in general and Britain in particular should be one big swimming pool.  As he himself suggests, the model is not Alan Hollinghurst but Murdoch herself, and the baptismal, restorative powers of water in her novels, such as the Bath-like hot springs of Ennistone in “The Philosopher’s Pupil”.”

Bruce Anderson: Ken Clarke is still filling aspirin bottles with arsenic:

“Ken has evaded his just deserts, at least this time. The same may be true, pro tem, of Chris Huhne. But his weaselly treatment of a Cabinet colleague helps to explain his political standing. Although he is a clever fellow, hardly anybody in politics likes him or trusts him.

Whatever Mr Huhne’s fate, there will be no escape for Liam Fox. Nor should there be. It is sad, because he is a man of many qualities. But even before the latest embarrassment, he was failing to grip his department. He could neither think through defence policy nor get on with the generals, some of whom thought that he had a social chip. If so, that would indeed be childlike and laughable. Those who make the charge are men I respect, who do not talk in haste or in malice.”  Read more:

Gavin Barwell MP: Yes, we must control immigration. But it brings benefits as well as problems:

“In the same speech, the Prime Minister criticised multiculturalism.  To the extent that multiculturalism is about focusing solely on our differences rather than what unites us, he was right to do so.  But I wish he hadn’t used that word, because it means different things to different people.  Also, at the risk of stating the obvious, Britishness – a collective identity for the English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish – is by definition multicultural in the literal sense of the word.  And that’s a good thing.  Yes, people who settle here should learn English and integrate into our society but they shouldn’t be forced to choose between being British and being proud of their roots.  Identity isn’t a digital quality.” Read more:


Tim Montgomerie: The most important conservative journalist in Britain is Paul Dacre:

“It is often said that the Daily Mail is pitched at female readers. It is true that Paul Dacre’s features coverage and women’s pages are the envy of his rivals, who often try to imitate them and never succeed. But there is plenty of masculine roughage in the news and political pages. On politics, Paul Dacre has an uneasy relationship with the Tory party. On the one hand, he advocates right-wing radicalism. On the other, he twice supported Ken Clarke for the Leadership, and was irritated when the party refused to take his advice. There is an explanation for the incoherence. Unlike many editors, Mr Dacre is not a politician manqué. He would rather be driving his paper than dining with a Cabinet minister.” Read more:


Jill Kirby: Health ministers should start talking about patients, not systems:

Of course professional bodies and health service unions will object to almost any change to the NHS, fearing a shift in power away from their own sphere of control. Labour, in combination with disaffected Liberal Democrats, has provided predictable opposition from the left (notwithstanding the market-led reforms instigated by the last government). But there has been little support for the bill from the right either, mainly because the reforms do not provide a real increase in purchasing power for patients. Simon Burns wants to put the NHS “on the side of patients and the doctors and nurses who care for them”. But there are times when patients, doctors and nurses cannot be on the same side. When their interests diverge, who takes priority?  Read more:

Fiona Hodgson: The Conservative grassroots is getting more of a say in the Party – as Manchester 2011 showed:

“First, let me address head on the notion that Manchester 2011 was a “Conference without members”. This is simply untrue. Not only did Conservative Party members form the single largest group at Conference, but over the last six years the number of Party Members attending Conferences has increased significantly – reaching a peak at Birmingham last year. Yes, this year the numbers of members were slightly down on 2010 – but overall, the numbers have increased by around a third since David Cameron became Leader and there were almost 1,000 more members at Manchester 2011 than Blackpool 2005.” Read more:

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