Book review: Hunt’s dreary, well-informed, well-meaning book about the NHS will make not one jot of difference

24 Jun

ZERO: Eliminating unnecessary deaths in a post-pandemic NHS by Jeremy Hunt

“He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars,” William Blake wrote. “General good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite and flatterer.”

Yet politicians find themselves obliged to talk about the general good. They have to make speeches and issue manifestos about what they will do to make things better for the whole country, or even the whole world.

Although they often have no real idea about how to solve or ameliorate some problem, they have to pretend that they do. How easy, in these circumstances, to degenerate into a scoundrel, hypocrite and flatterer.

Once a politician aspires to, say, the presidency or the prime ministership, speeches and manifestos are no longer enough. A book is required.

Words like “future” and “hope” often appear in the title of this volume, which is unreadable.

Jeremy Hunt is aware of these pitfalls, and has sought with immense conscientiousness to avoid them. He knows that particular cases are more interesting than general moralising.

At the start of the book, he relates a thought which occurred to him a year into his six years as Health Secretary, at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral in 2013, as he listened to the eulogy delivered by Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London:

“He read out a letter she had received from a nine-year-old boy called David, to which she had replied personally. I sat there, and thought: In my seven months as Health Secretary I haven’t read a single letter from an NHS patient. If Margaret Thatcher had found the time to do personal replies as Prime Minister, couldn’t I?”

The Department of Health received more letters than any other government department. It employed 50 officials in the correspondence unit to draft replies, and to protect ministers “from the highly personal and emotional missives received from people who had experienced problems with their care”.

Hunt asked to see one letter a day to which he would write a personal reply:

“I didn’t know it at the time, but this request sent the department into a spin. Sir Humphrey-like meetings were held behind my back to work out if they could dissuade me from such a thoroughly dangerous idea. They saw their job as shielding me from such letters, not exposing me to them.”

He at length received a letter which said: “I am just writing to thank you for the fantastic NHS care I received…”

This, of course, was not the point, and at length he started getting some proper letters of complaint, which were “eye-opening and sometimes horrifying”.

Hunt reckons the problem is that when error is admitted, a search begins for someone to blame. This means mistakes are covered up, nothing is learned from them, and often the same mistake is repeated over and over again before anyone does anything about it.

Hence the horror of the Mid Staffs hospital scandal, which continued unchecked for four years. The whole system is designed to pretend things are better than they actually are.

All this can be stated quite briefly, and is already generally accepted. Atul Gawande, mentioned by Hunt, and others have written about the need, as in the airline industry, for mistakes to be reported, not hushed up.

Once Hunt manages to get a letter a day of complaint presented to him by the department, he drafts a personal reply to it. And he uses some of these letters to introduce each of the 15 chapters in his book: his method is to recount some monstrous case of neglect, before drawing some general conclusions about the need for a culture change within the NHS.

No normal reader is likely to have the stamina to read through all these cases. One soon feels one has supped too full of horrors, and has also had enough of clunky, inconclusive passages like this one:

“I put in place an ambition to halve neonatal deaths, stillbirths, maternal deaths and severe injuries which was very ably led by leading obstetrician Matthew Jolly and chief midwife Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent, which contributed to neonatal deaths dropping by over a third and stillbirths by a quarter over the last decade. I also set up a maternity scheme modelled on what happens in Sweden, to allow instant access to a settlement in maternity cases where the NHS knows a mistake has been made. It was designed to bring faster closure for families and prevent the frustration of long court processes. To my frustration, it was not up and running before I left my role and ended up being cancelled, presumably on cost grounds.”

When I was a child in the 1960s, I knew who my NHS doctor was, and he would visit me at home when I was ill. Dr Price was a comfort both to me and to my parents.

He behaved, so far as I can tell at this distance and through a cloud of the usual childhood ailments, as he would have done before 1948, when the NHS was founded. That was the tradition in which he had been trained.

Does anyone now know the name of their doctor? Hunt works round to this question, and on page 173 states:

“we need a decisive change in the model of care offered by the NHS, so that patients always have one doctor or nurse clearly responsible for their care. In normal circumstances that should be a patient’s GP, although for frail elderly patients it might be a district nurse.”

How right he is, but can such an outcome be attained by Hunt, or some other well-intentioned Health Secretary, declaring that it ought to be attained?

In the absence of a single doctor or nurse who takes responsibility for a patient’s care, the family try to act as champions, desperately trying to see that relevant notes from the past are presented to doctors new to the case, and to provide whatever the harassed nurses are unable to provide in the way of care.

But what a supplicant one feels as one goes about this task of asking the nurses whether they could possibly provide this or that, or simply tell one, on the telephone, what sort of a night the patient has had.

The melancholy paradox must be stated that to survive a stay in hospital, one needs to be feeling more than usually fit, even though one has been taken in because one is more than usually weak.

Hunt is full of good intentions. If he appeared at one’s bedside, he would be marvellously sympathetic. It would do one good to see his furrowed brow. One would be sure he really cares. One might even think that if he was in charge, the world would be a better place.

But as Health Secretary, he too was reduced to the role of supplicant. And his dreary, well-informed, well-meaning book will make not one jot of difference to anything.

The post Book review: Hunt’s dreary, well-informed, well-meaning book about the NHS will make not one jot of difference first appeared on Conservative Home.

Book review: Murray tries and fails to stir up panic about a “war on the West”

27 May

The War on the West: How to Prevail in the Age of Unreason  by Douglas Murray

This author makes, in his introduction, a number of preposterous claims. Here is his opening paragraph:

“In recent years it has become clear that there is a war going on: a war on the West. This is not like earlier wars, where armies clash and victors are declared. It is a cultural war, and it is being waged remorselessly against all the roots of the Western tradition and against everything good that the Western tradition has produced.”

How can Douglas Murray suggest that this “war”, as he terms it, has only “in recent years” become apparent?

At pretty much any time one cares to name in recent centuries, conservatives have feared that tradition is in danger both from barbarian invaders, and from reformers within the gates who wish to sweep away all we have built, and erect a glittering new edifice in which their reign of virtue can begin.

The French Revolutionaries promised this. Various varieties of Communist promised it. In the 1960s, rebellious students and satirists set out to subvert every traditional source of authority.

In order to justify his hysterical tone, Murray goes in search of enemies who today pose a mortal threat. By page four he has found the Communist Party of China, and complains:

“almost nobody speaks of China with an iota of the rage and disgust poured out daily against the West from inside the West.”

That is true, and this reviewer would not wish for one moment to downplay the horrors perpetrated by China. But the same double standard was applied by many in the West to the Soviet Union.

The problem is not new, and working out what to do about it, or how to contain it, is the work of decades, perhaps of centuries.

But Murray’s fiercest argument is with those inside the West who wish to debilitate the West. In 2017, he recalls, he brought out The Strange Death of Europe, in which (as he says in the volume under review) he asked why the Europeans have allowed mass migration, “and why they were expected to abolish themselves in order to survive”.

According to Murray, only Western countries “were told constantly that in order to have any legitimacy at all…they should swiftly and fundamentally alter their demographic makeup”.

That is a gross over-simplification. In pretty much every Western country, there have been big arguments about immigration. In Australia, the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy, pretty much anywhere one cares to name, politicians have come to realise they will only possess legitimacy if they avert unrestricted immigration.

Africans are at this moment suffering in abominable camps in Libya because the European Union has devised ways to stop them crossing the Mediterranean.

A further paradox, untouched on by Murray, is that many British politicians of immigrant descent – one thinks of such figures as Kwasi Kwarteng, Rishi Sunak, Suella Braverman, Priti Patel and Kemi Badenoch – express conservative opinions with wonderful gusto.

If Enoch Powell were still alive, he would perhaps concede that the British nation and British political tradition have proved more adaptable, and durable, than he had feared.

Where does Brexit fit in Murray’s narrative of a war on the West? He ignores that question and is instead indignant that “we have been pushed into racial hyper-awareness”:

“In recent years, I have come to think of racial issues in the West as being like a pendulum that has swung past the point of correction and into overcorrection.”

He continues:

“Racism is not the sole lens through which our societies can be understood, and yet it is increasingly the only lens used. Everything in the past is seen as racist, and so everything in the past is tainted.”

Is this really true, or is the pendulum already swinging back against such a simplistic reading of history? On one of my regular walks I pass a house, on a leafy slope on the Highgate side of Hampstead Heath, in the window of which for some months I was faintly irritated to see a hand-written sign which said “SILENCE IS VIOLENCE”.

The sign has now been taken down. I accept that this does not amount to conclusive proof that the moral panic which swept at hurricane force across Britain as well as America after the murder of George Floyd has blown itself out.

But things have died down a bit. No more statues have been thrown into Bristol harbour. Churchill still stands in Parliament Square, his plinth at present unsullied by accusations that he was a racist.

On page 126 of his book, Murray alludes to a Policy Exchange pamphlet in which Andrew Roberts and Zewditu Gebreyohanes rebutted the slurs cast at Churchill in February 2021 during a panel discussion at Churchill College, Cambridge.

So the pendulum does still swing, and contentions which for a short time have held sway are exposed to criticism, and cease to be quite so fashionable. It turns out to be possible to disapprove in the strongest terms of racism, without supposing it offers a complete interpretation of the past.

Gebreyohanes has just become Director of Restore Trust, an organisation set up, as she explained in a piece for The Times, to return the National Trust to its founding values and objectives.

Murray is in grave need of opponents, and inclined to magnify their importance. Many of those he finds are in the United States. He digs up Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein, both of whom used to be more influential than they are now, and various other figures who may or may not become influential.

Karl Marx is dug up too, and we are reminded of some of that thinker’s today unacceptable views on race. Murray remarks ruefully that although the bust of Marx in Highgate Cemetery has from time to time been daubed in red paint, there have been “no online petitions or crowd efforts to pull it down and kick it into a nearby river”.

There is actually no river nearby, and to kick this colossal bust anywhere would be a difficult task, liable to end in many stubbed toes.

Marx, however, suffers what is in some ways a greater humiliation. He is ridiculed, or treated as a mere curiosity. If one does not wish to pay to enter the cemetery, one can see him through the railings on the southern edge of Waterlow Park, at a distance which reduces the bust to an acceptable size.

That is how the British public has long been inclined to deal with intellectuals who take themselves too seriously: it peers through the railings and laughs at them.

It seldom occurs to Murray that the best way to deal with fashionable absurdities is to laugh at them, and to trust to the good sense and conservatism of the wider public. Edmund Burke (absent from this book) put the point with genius in his Reflections on the Revolution in France:

“Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that, of course, they are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the little, shrivelled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome, insects of the hour.”

Murray has flattered the loud and troublesome insects of the hour by writing a whole book about them.

Since this ill-titled volume went to press, Vladimir Putin has ordered the invasion of Ukraine. There the true war on the West is being waged. The Ukrainians’ fight for freedom reminds us how trivial most of the pseudo-war recounted in this book really is.

Book review: Perfect parliamentary rules will not encourage able people to seek election as MPs

29 Apr

Held in Contempt: What’s Wrong with the House of Commons? by Hannah White

Pessimism comes in different forms. Few conservatives are without a sense of loss, a feeling that valuable aspects of our culture have got worse, and we are engaged in rescuing what we can.

Hannah White offers a case study in liberal pessimism. In her five chapter headings, she maintains that the House of Commons is “Side-lined, Unrepresentative, Arcane, Exceptionalist and Decaying”.

Her regret is not so much for what has been lost as for liberal reforms which have not yet been enacted, and she fears never will be enacted, unless, as she puts it in her closing lines, a catastrophe occurs:

“If the unmodernised palace finally goes up in flames like the cathedral of Notre Dame, parliamentarians will find themselves forced out of Westminster without notice. The task of re-creating parliament in such circumstances would prompt reflection on many previously unthinkable questions about the way our politics operates. Perhaps it is only such a disaster that will force Westminster to reverse the cycle of decline into which it has fallen.”

Here is the tabula rasa fantasy in an extreme form. Only by razing to the ground what is already there can we start afresh and build something better.

This was the assumption which led, after the war, to the demolition of great tracts of our towns and cities, rather than the repair and adaptation of existing buildings.

White is impatient at the slowness with which Parliament changes. However fast our legislators move, they are too slow for her, too stuck in their ways, too “exceptionalist”, as she often puts it.

Surely, a conservative reader will think, all Parliaments are in some way exceptionalist, and in many ways ought to be exceptionalist: ought to cherish their traditions and the things they do well, and draw on those strengths as they redress grievances, correct abuses and adapt their procedures and buildings to modern needs.

The Institute of Government, where White is Deputy Director, is a valuable source of expertise about how Parliament and Whitehall actually work. She herself was a clerk in the House of Commons.

But she never pauses to celebrate the adaptability of our political system. In 1979, she records, 19 women were elected to the Commons, three per cent of the total.

In 2019, she goes on to say, 220 women were elected, 34 per cent of the total. One can, of course, say this proportion should be larger.

But liberal pessimists make themselves excessively despondent when they ignore the speed of the change that has taken place, and just lament that the proportion is not yet 50 per cent.

She takes a similar attitude to the proportion of ethnic minority MPs, which has again shot up; and she passes over in silence the number of Cabinet ministers from that background.

At one point she refers in passing to “the UK’s infamous ‘unwritten’ constitution”. What is “infamous” about it?

One can make a case for a written constitution. One may deprecate the complacency which once existed about our way of doing things, which was held to be “the envy of the world”.

But “infamous” is used here as if no argument is needed. The assumption is that written rules must be better than a tradition of behaviour.

No allowance is made for the possibility that not everything can be written down. In most walks of life, including politics, one learns how to do things by practising them, not just by reading books about them.

The most instructive form of education is often the apprenticeship. One learns from someone who has already mastered the craft, by watching what they do, and by attempting to imitate what they do, at first not very successfully.

This is how, on the whole, we learn the craft of politics. One may read any number of books about how to give a speech, one may learn any number of rules to follow, but without actually giving speeches, and probably a great many speeches, one will not learn how to do it.

White yearns to simplify the rules of procedure in the Commons, and to make them more comprehensible. She seems quite unconscious of the dangers which reform might bring.

The executive might become over-mighty. Various reforms, including family-friendly hours, have already reduced the ability of determined parliamentarians who believe the Government is doing the wrong thing to make ministers’ lives a misery by keeping them up all night.

On the other hand, the country might become ungovernable. Ministers do sometimes have to act with great rapidity. To decide when this is the case, judgment has to be exercised. MPs have to be persuaded, or refuse to be persuaded, that what the Government is proposing is justified. No set of rules can allow for every eventuality.

White declines to recognise some of the great simplicities which already exist.

The vote is won or lost: that anyone can understand. The Government survives or falls: that too is clear enough. To form a Government, one must have a majority in the Commons: again, a brutally clear rule.

The Speaker is asked to grant an Urgent Question on some controversial matter which has just blown up, about which the minister then has to come to the Chamber to answer. Here is another matter of judgment which cannot be reduced to a rule.

I happened to be sitting in the Commons Press Gallery in 2009 when John Bercow replaced Michael Martin as Speaker. There was an immediate and dramatic improvement in the quality of debate in the Chamber.

Bercow had himself been a hyper-active backbencher who spoke with amazing frequency and often behaved very badly. He wanted the Chamber to be animated, and to be debating whatever the topic of the hour was, and to a great extent he managed to bring this about.

After the EU referendum of 2016, White notes, Theresa May excluded Parliament from the Brexit negotiations, but was then unable to maintain this exclusion: Parliament had to decide whether to accept or reject her deal.

One of the paradoxes of Brexit was that before it happened, it made the Commons far more significant, with people tuning in from all over the place to see what was happening.

It is in fact at moments of crisis that the Commons comes into its own. So we need crises: here White is correct. Freedom is only truly valued when it is in danger.

After May had failed, Johnson too did not have a majority, so fought a Parliament versus the people general election at which he gained a majority by promising to get Brexit done.

Suppose that instead, Remain MPs had managed to stop Brexit: would this have enhanced the legitimacy of the Commons? It seems likely, on the contrary, that the standing of the Commons would have been fatally undermined.

White refers at quite frequent intervals to “the spiral of public contempt for the House of Commons”. She cites some polling evidence, but does not examine in any detail whether the Commons has usually been held in contempt.

In the 1970s, things seemed pretty bad, and when the Palace of Westminster caught fire in 1834 the London mob applauded, just as they had applauded the assassination in 1812 of the Prime Minister, Spencer Percival.

It seems to me likely that a considerable number of people have always despised the Commons on what one might call egalitarian grounds – a desire, that is, to stop MPs feeling excessively pleased with themselves, grander than the rest of us.

And perhaps it is possible, as with a football team, to be both scornful and loyal; both to despise the Commons, and to hold out the hope that it is going to start doing better.

White does not dwell on the need to get good people to stand for Parliament. She is instead obsessed by the question of diversity, which for her is also a question of efficacy:

“Inevitably, the gap between what MPs decide for the rest of the country and what they (literally) embody themselves determines their authority in setting the rules. Consequently, a lack of diversity in the House of Commons itself is likely to reduce the efficacy of the laws and regulations it passes.” 

Yet she also concedes that the public do not seem all that worried about diversity, referring for example to

“a 2019 YouGov poll in which three in five respondents said that gender or gender identity, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation were not important when selecting prospective MPs (62, 59, 68 and 68 per cent, respectively). The same survey found that a significant chunk of the public – around two-fifths – were opposed to measures to improve the diversity of candidates, including all-women shortlists, gender quotas or lists of preferred ethnic minority candidates.”

What matters much more to the public than the achievement of perfect diversity is the calibre of the politicians who are elected. White recognises one aspect of this when she writes:

“Every reported misdemeanour by an individual MP, every example of MPs acting as if rules do not apply to them, chips away at public respect for the House of Commons in a way which is not easy to repair.”

But there have always been some MPs who have behaved like that: see the melancholy catalogue set out in Great Parliamentary Scandals by Matthew Parris and Kevin Maguire.

To find 650 perfect human beings who are also energetic enough to want to get elected to the Commons is an impossible mission.

Even to arrange for there to be among the 650 members of the Commons a sufficient number of able people from whom to form an acceptable Cabinet, and also a sufficient number of acute critics to scrutinise that Cabinet and provide the nucleus of an alternative administration, is an ambitious task. It is not, unfortunately, one which White gets round to considering.

Fukuyama has written a disgraceful, third-rate book, as naive as his essay about the end of history

1 Apr

Liberalism And Its Discontents by Francis Fukuyama

Francis Fukuyama is a not very quiet American. He has been famous since the summer of 1989, when he wrote an essay called The End of History? for The National Interest. This made such a splash that the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, whom I met by chance at a party, asked me whether I had read it.

To my embarrassment, I had not, though I did go away and read it afterwards, as it was evidently something any thoughtful person should have a look at, if only to see whether Fukuyama was quite as foolishly optimistic as he sounded.

He was. In his celebrated essay he wrote:

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

This was not the effusion of some callow youth. Fukuyama was 36 when he wrote it, and in a way he deserved his fame, for he expressed what many western liberals believed to be the case.

His new book has one great merit. It is short: only 154 pages. The tone of voice is bland, optimistic, friendly. In the photograph of Fukuyama inside the back cover, he smiles in a benevolent way, conveying not only his desire to help, but an off-putting confidence that he knows how to help.

His intentions are so terribly good that one cannot help being reminded of Pyle, the touchingly upright but also disastrously over-confident idealist, “impregnably armoured by his good intentions and his ignorance”, who is the title character of Graham Greene’s masterpiece, The Quiet American.

Fukuyama has set out to write a defence of “classical liberalism”, and on his first page quotes with approval John Gray, who says liberalism is “universalist, affirming the moral unity of the human species and according a secondary importance to specific historical associations and cultural forms”.

Here at once is a problem for all those of us who agree with Edmund Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France:

“Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.”

Burke is not mentioned by Fukuyama. He does, however, touch on the French Revolution, telling us that it “spawned the next major competitor to liberalism, which was nationalism”.

Surely, one thinks, nationalism has often been liberalism’s ally? Did not 19th-century liberals see the creation of nation states as a way of bringing the blessings of freedom to countries which had previously been under imperial rule?

And what is happening in Ukraine? That came too late for Fukuyama’s book, but Sameer Rahim has just asked him about it in an interview for Prospect magazine:

Rahim: “You hear people in the west say Ukraine is fighting our battle – fighting for liberalism and fighting for democracy. How true is that? Or is it really them defending their nation?

Fukuyama: “Well, look, I think it’s a meaningless distinction. Everybody that fights for a set of values, fights for it as embodied in a specific country. You know, nobody fights for the abstract principles of liberalism. They care about being an independent country. But I think that many Ukrainians, certainly all the ones I know, also take pride in the fact that they are a free country.”

In practice, Fukuyama admits, liberal values have to be “embodied in a specific country”. There are places in his new book where he also admits this.

For example, one wonders what he is going to say about Afghanistan, where so many western leaders preached liberalism, only to run away from the difficult task of upholding it. Here is one of the only two references to that country in Fukuyama’s book:

“There are many parts of the world in which identity politics is very pronounced. The Balkans, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Kenya, Nigeria, India, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Lebanon, and other countries are divided into clearly demarcated ethnic or religious groups, and loyalty to those smaller identities often takes precedence over larger national identities. Identity politics makes liberalism difficult to implement in such societies…”

As an account of what went wrong in Afghanistan, this is not much help. The ninth of Fukuyama’s ten chapters is devoted to a discussion of national identity, but here we find the admission that he has no idea what to say to “nationalist partisans” in Quebec, Scotland and Catalonia who seek “complete separation”:

“There is a big hole in liberal theory regarding how to deal with such demands and how to define the national boundaries of states that are fundamentally liberal.”

What we find in this book is an unwavering determination to argue for liberalism as a universal ideology, which must be defended against such aberrations as neoliberalism, on the right, and identity politics, on the left.

Abstractions pass before our astonished eyes, and many great thinkers are mentioned in a cursory way, but Fukuyama flees from the local, the particular.

He is, one might say, a liberal on the run, never stopping long enough in one place to be in danger of being pinned down, or to get to the bottom of the “discontents” that are mentioned in his title.

These are liberal discontents, and as far as one can tell, he is not really discontented at all. Optimism keeps breaking in. He is never at a loss for some sweeping generalisation of almost unbelievable banality:

“Liberalism by itself is not a sufficient governing doctrine on its own; it needs to be paired with democracy so that there can be political corrections made to the inequalities made by market economics. There is no reason to think that such corrections cannot occur within a broadly liberal political framework in the future.”

Jolly good. Fukuyama soars into the higher platitudes, where he is safe from contradiction, for he has said nothing concrete enough to be contradicted. What a contemptible evasion of responsibility.

On the Afghanistan point, here is Rory Stewart, towards the end of The Places in Between, his account of walking across that country, on the latter-day liberal elite which set out to create, in the words of the United Nations Assistance Mission, “a centralised, broad-based, multi-ethnic government committed to democracy, human rights and the rule of law”:

“Policy makers did not have the time, structures or resources for a serious study of an alien culture. They justified their lack of knowledge by focusing on poverty and implying that dramatic cultural differences did not exist. They acted as though villagers were interested in all the priorities of international organisations, even when those priorities were mutually contradictory.”

And here is Stewart’s furious footnote on the following page:

Critics have accused this new breed of administrators of neo-colonialism. But in fact their approach is not that of a 19th-century colonial officer. Colonial administrators may have been racist and exploitative but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing. They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation. They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language…”

They did not pretend, as culpably naive, self-regarding liberals like Fukuyama do, that we are all the same really, and we all believe in the same ineffably woolly, free-floating principles. What a disgraceful, third-rate book this is.

Crick shows how Farage forced the Conservative Party to pull itself together and get Brexit done

4 Mar

One Party After Another: The Disruptive Life of Nigel Farage by Michael Crick

There is a marvellous insolence about Michael Crick. Nobody questions the fleeing politician better than he does – see this highly enjoyable compilation of some of his greatest moments as a television reporter.

Crick adds insult to injury by sounding polite. He conveys an innocent desire to get the answer to some inquiry about which the politician, hastening along the pavement or through the conference centre, is too embarrassed to speak.

The vain attempt by Crick’s quarry to look at ease, the unconvincing pretence of deafness, the search for some lavatory in which to hide, gratify our desire to see our politicians taken down a peg or two.

And that is something which Nigel Farage, the subject of Michael Crick’s latest biography, is very good at too. Brexit felt so satisfying to its supporters because it was a way of confounding the prosy, prating liberals who thought they could tell everyone else what to think and how to vote.

Crick begins with high drama:

“Sweating heavily, the pilot put out a Mayday call. His passenger awaited his fate, having decided there was nothing he could do, or say, to help. He considered calling or texting his ‘nearest and dearest’, but didn’t see how that would assist much either. He thought about lighting a cigarette, but then remembered how a lot of fuel might be spilt if the aircraft had to crash-land.

“Which it soon did.”

That was Farage on election day in 2010, when he was standing against John Bercow in Buckingham, and went up in a small plane towing a banner which bore the words:


The banner got wrapped round the rudder, the plane crashed, and Farage and the pilot, Justin Adams, were extremely lucky to survive.

Adams did not remain lucky. His mental health deteriorated, his business and marriage collapsed, and he threatened to kill Farage, whom he blamed for ruining his life.

In 2013, Adams committed suicide. It is characteristic of Crick that he relates these unhappy events in some detail.

Crick writes of Farage:

“This is the extraordinary story of one of the most important politicians of modern British history; he’s been a more significant player than most leaders of the traditional political parties, more influential than quite a few prime ministers. Nigel Farage is the only man ever to have won a nationwide election as leader of an insurgent party. And he managed that astonishing feat twice, five years apart, leading two different parties. Yet Farage has never been elected to the House of Commons, never served as a government minister and will almost certainly never achieve either role. He will go down as one of the great political communicators of our age, a man with a rare instinctive feel for public opinion, yet someone who managed to fall out with many of those, in his parties and beyond, who were committed to the very same cause.”

All this is true. I am well aware that Farage is still alive, still communicating via GB News, and that politics is full of surprises. But for the purposes of this review I shall follow Crick and assume that Farage’s political career is probably over.

Why was Farage such a success, and such a failure? The success sprang from his ability to attack the Establishment prigs from the opposite direction to the one they expected.

They assumed that any young firebrand would be even more progressive, even more pro-European, even more susceptible to every bit of fashionable claptrap than they were themselves.

Instead of which, Farage came before the British public as a City trader, a man in a pin-striped suit and a covert coat, with an unconcealed love of golf, cricket, fishing and military history, and at the end of a hard morning on the London Metal Exchange utterly delighted to go for a proper, old-fashioned lunch with any amount to drink. According to Crick,

“The favourite venue was the eighteenth-century Simpson’s Tavern, in Ball Court, a narrow alleyway off Cornhill, which served traditional steaks and chops, and spotted dick for pudding, and which boasts of being ‘the oldest chophouse in London’.”

Crick reminds us that the City in the 1980s was a mixture of public-school types such as Farage and barrow-boys from Essex. Farage himself has written:

“I liked the mix in the City – nobody cared how posh or how rough you were; you were rated on how much money you could make.”

Huge energy, high-stakes risk-taking, the go-for-it spirit and a complete absence of cant: these were useful qualities if you wanted to go into politics, where many of the established figures suffered from low energy, risk aversion, the safety-first spirit and an incurable addiction to spouting high-minded platitudes, usually in order to conceal even from themselves their reluctance to get to grips with things.

Just as he had plunged straight into the City without first having his head filled with nonsense at university, so Farage plunged straight into politics, and discovered what worked, and what didn’t, by actually having a go, indeed by having many goes, during none of which did he manage to gain election to the House of Commons, for he provoked enmity as well as adulation.

There is far too much in Crick’s book – far too much for this reader, at least – about the details of UKIP’s internal intrigues. David Cameron sought, as Conservative leader from 2005 and Prime Minister from 2010, to finesse the European issue, and to get his MPs to stop banging on about it.

Farage at the head of UKIP prospered in this empty space; forced Cameron to concede, in the Bloomberg speech of January 2013, a referendum on EU membership; and continued ten weeks later to advance in the local elections.

Here’s what a certain newspaper columnist wrote just before those elections in The Daily Telegraph:

“Take Nigel Farage, whom I met years ago and who has always struck me as a rather engaging geezer. He’s anti-pomposity, he’s anti-political correctness, he’s anti-loony Brussels regulation. He’s in favour of low tax, and sticking up for small business, and sticking up for Britain.

“We Tories look at him – with his pint and cigar and sense of humour – and we instinctively recognise someone who is fundamentally indistinguishable from us. He’s a blooming Conservative, for heaven’s sake; and yet he’s in our constituencies, wooing our audiences, nicking our votes, and threatening to put our councillors out of office. We feel the panic of a man confronted by his Doppelgänger…

“Rather than bashing UKIP, I reckon Tories should be comforted by their rise – because the real story is surely that these voters are not turning to the one party that is meant to be providing the official opposition. The rise of UKIP confirms a) that a Tory approach is broadly popular and b) that in the middle of a parliament, after long years of recession, and with growth more or less flat, the Labour Party is going precisely nowhere.”

Crick quotes part of this, which impelled me to reread the whole piece, in which one finds Boris Johnson – at this time Mayor of London – indicating how under a new leader – who will need to be a showman and a risk-taker as unabashedly old-fashioned in manner as Farage – the Conservatives can win back those UKIP voters.

The second to last chapter in this 550-page book is called Nigel versus Boris. We have reached the showdown between the showmen.

Farage, who has an unfortunate tendency to fall out with his allies, is by now leading a specially created vehicle, the Brexit Party, which in the European elections of May 2019 took 30.5 per cent of the vote, while the Conservatives fell to fifth place (the Greens were fourth) with a derisory 8.8 per cent.

This was the death zone for the Tories. May announced she was stepping down, and Johnson won the leadership race because he was the only candidate who could be relied on to beat Farage.

“The moment Boris was elected our support started to slip away,” the then Chairman of the Brexit Party, Richard Tice, told Crick.

Johnson had reunited the Tory tribe, an achievement overlooked by those who focus on his ability to woo Labour voters.

By November 2019 the Brexit Party was pitifully weak, and as a source at the centre of the party told Crick at the time:

“Now the whole house is coming down; now the recriminations begin; now it’s an absolute bloodbath. It is like in Downfall where Hitler is dismissing his generals…It’s total chaos.The Tories have absolutely outmanoeuvred Tice and Farage. It’s over.”

On 11 November 2019 Farage was forced to announce the withdrawal of the Brexit Party’s candidates in all 317 seats won by the Conservatives in 2017. In the general election held on 12 December Farage’s party got a derisory two per cent of the vote.

What a reversal of fortune! Crick’s admirable account shows us a man who was brilliant at disrupting, but no good at co-operating, and whose greatest achievement may well have been to force the Conservative Party to pull itself together and get Brexit done.

A generous idea of the British nation is needed in order to keep the UK together

5 Feb

The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland – Realities and Challenges edited by John Wilson Foster and William Beattie Smith

The other evening I was having dinner in London with three liberals and when the subject of Northern Ireland happened to come up, all of them said that of course within the near future, Irish unification would take place.

I said this was not my opinion, which surprised them. They wondered how I could be so oblivious to the way the world is going; so at odds with the progressive consensus.

And I was unable to think, on the spur of the moment, of any arguments for the continued Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland which might have the slightest impact on my companions.

In his introduction to this collection of essays, John Wilson Foster laments that my inarticulacy is widely shared:

“What swells unionist alarm is the absence of influential support for the pro-Union cause from anywhere outside the Northern Irish pro-Union political parties. Irish republicanism (by which I mean nationalism that actively seeks a united separate Ireland) suffers no such political privation; it enjoys assent and promotion around the world even from those who know nothing about Ireland north or south…

“Reviewing a Sean O’Casey autobiography in 1945, George Orwell asked: ‘Why is it that the worst extremes of jingoism and racialism have to be tolerated when they come from an Irishman?’ His answer was ‘England’s bad conscience… It is difficult to object to Irish nationalism without seeming to condone centuries of English tyranny and exploitation.’ Northern Irish unionism has unjustifiably inherited this dilemma.”

Hence the production of this admirable collection of essays. Its 21 authors throw much light on various aspects of the problem, but less on how to solve it.

Indeed, an earlier version of the collection was published in 1995, without, so far as I know, doing more than to make existing supporters of the Union better informed.

As Foster remarks, within Northern Ireland itself, landowners, and senior figures in business and the professions, who used to make the case for the Union, have generally fallen silent:

“For some decades, public defence of the Union has cascaded down the social scale. It has now fallen through classless academia and come to rest mainly with loyalists (i.e. working-class unionists), whose reflex is to assert rather than articulate the Union. And they are targets for those who wish to denigrate the Union and dismiss the culture of unionism as all bonfires and marching bands.”

The London media generally feels “no warmth or enthusiasm” for the Union. The cultural riches of Ireland, wonderful poets from Yeats to Heaney, add lustre to Irish nationalism, whatever reservations those writers may actually have expressed.

The cultural riches of the British isles don’t count in the same way, are indeed discounted. Some Remainers wanted quite consciously to reject Britishness and to declare their European identity, and felt bereaved when they were told they could not remain in the European Union.

In vain Boris Johnson pointed out to them that it was still feasible for them to learn French and German if they wish – two languages of which the teaching had actually declined in our schools while we were in the EU.

Nationalism of every kind includes a strange process by which the bogus comes to be seen as genuine. The House of Windsor has been brilliant at doing this. We observe with pride an immaculate ceremonial which satisfies our craving for ancient splendour, much of which was invented between 1901 and 1910 under the joint patronage of Edward VII and the Daily Mail, founded in 1896 and eager for royal pageantry with which to fill its pages and sell newspapers.

Arthur Aughey remarks in his essay, The Idea of the Union, first printed in the 1995 version of this book, that it was at about the same time that the Union commanded close attention:

“The question of the Union was one which for two decades either side of the turn of the century concentrated the mind of the entire British Establishment and encapsulated the preoccupations of an empire. It brought forth a vast literature on the value of the Union as a political idea. Like conservatives in 1789, unionists in both Great Britain and Ireland had been ‘alarmed into reflection’. They were forced to make intelligible that which hitherto had been instinctive and natural.”

When the convulsions of that time were over, the Ulster Unionists found they had both won and lost:

“They had been able to prevent their absorption into a narrow and authoritarian Catholic, nationalist state. What they had not been able to assert convincingly, and what they had been unable to make the British Government in London fully acknowledge, was their full and unequivocal membership of the United Kingdom. After 1920 Unionists were cast back upon their own resources. They depended on their capacities and strength of will alone to ensure that Northern Ireland remained a part of the Union. What ensued was a dialectic of stubborn self-righteousness within Northern Ireland between Unionist and Nationalist.”

He wants to get beyond this self-righteous Unionism to one which is founded on equal citizenship:

“The idea of the Union is the willing community of citizens united not by creed, colour or ethnicity but by a recognition of the authority of the Union. Its relevant concept is citizenship and not nation.”

Aughey asserts at one point that there is “no such thing as the British nation”, and there are “only British citizens who happen to be English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish and some who would be none of these”.

This seems to me to be plain wrong. There is a British nation, comprising not only the four home nations, but people from all over the world who have chosen to live here, and to become British citizens.

As Henry Hill remarks in his contribution to this book, entitled The Re-emergence of Devosceptic Unionism,

“an underlying sense of nationhood is the essential cement of any long-term political union – especially if it cannot avail itself of near-universal elite buy-in as the EU can.”

Hill challenges, as ConHome readers will know, the fatuous assumption that the only way to deal with any failure of devolved government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is to devolve yet more powers.

Brexit is the beginning not the end of making the positive case for the British nation. I have sometimes done this in conversation about the Union with Scotland, contending that if it were to end, both England and Scotland would be diminished, becoming narrower and less generous places.

In Northern Ireland, as various contributors to this volume remark, there are almost certainly many people who are content to remain part of the United Kingdom, but have no words in which to express that preference.

A generous Unionism, of a kind which can be commended at dinner even to London liberals, requires a generous understanding of Britishness, and that in turn cannot be the creation of politicians alone, but must depend, as any nation does, on poets, novelists, historians and essayists.

Book review: Francois describes how the unfashionable side won Brexit

8 Jan

Spartan Victory: The Inside Story of the Battle for Brexit by Mark Francois

“Nothing has more retarded the advancement of learning than the disposition of vulgar minds to ridicule and vilify what they cannot comprehend,” Dr Johnson once wrote.

A variant of this problem blighted the furious debates since 23rd June 2016 about how and indeed whether to implement the verdict handed down by voters in the EU Referendum.

People like Mark Francois were ridiculed and vilified. Little attempt was made to understand either him or his Essex constituents, who in the referendum had voted by a margin of 67 to 33 per cent to leave the EU.

Now Francois has written a book which anyone who is interested in why and how Brexit happened should read. An Essex man speaks, and tells us not only about the parliamentary manoeuvrings of the last few years, but about the character of a part of the British nation which cannot bear being bullied or preached at.

Pugnacious, patriotic, loyal, hard-working, quick-witted, emotional, able to distinguish immediately between friend and foe, unworried by class distinction, uninterested in correct spelling, fond of a good joke and a pint: these are among the characteristics of Essex man which leap out from Francois’s account.

He has an unfashionable love of World War Two analogies, as in this passage when he is standing against Ken Livingstone in Brent East in the 1997 general election, and a message arrives from the Conservative Party chairman, Brian Mawhinney, which informs them that the campaign is going “extremely well” and they just need to make “one last great effort in order to secure John Major a record fifth term in office for the Conservative Party”.

“What do you make of this, Mark?” the Chairman of the Conservative Association in Brent East asks Francois, to which he replies:

“Chairman, of course if you and I were in front of the rest of the Association we would have to maintain morale. However, as I have come to respect you over these last two years and we are alone, I interpret this message to mean three things: One: Berlin will never fall. Two: Our great counterattack across the Oder River begins at 05.30 tomorrow and Three: We will break the will of the enemy to resist with the use of the terror weapons and fight on to ultimate victory.”

No mainstream publisher wanted to bring out this book, so Francois with the help of Amazon has brought it out himself. This in some ways makes it a more authentic expression of his point of view: no editor has smoothed away the rough edges, corrected the grammar, toned down the jokes which might be regarded in metropolitan circles as tasteless.

One could be having a pint with Francois, perhaps in an establishment “which is about to kick off massively in about 15 minutes”, as a friend who can sense such things warned him on one occasion: the riot actually started in 12 minutes.

But this is a deeply serious book. Francois really means what he says. He wants so much to work out what Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement means that he reads it: something very few people could face doing.

One of the many virtues of this book is that he quotes the actual words of speeches and other important documents: he realises that the actual words matter, and in the case of the Withdrawal Agreement he concludes that in Article 174, the superiority of the European Court of Justice in the dispute resolution mechanism means that once ratified, this provision cannot be “over-trumped” even by Act of Parliament.

For a long time the European Reform Group of Eurosceptic Tory MPs maintained internal discipline, thanks in part to a secret whipping operation run by Francois which he takes great pleasure in describing.

The ERG split on the question of whether, on 29th March 2019, to vote for the Withdrawal Agreement, or to hold out against it. Some, like the Chairman of the ERG, Jacob Rees-Mogg, thought it was better, in this third Meaningful Vote, to accept the only version of Brexit that was on offer, rather than risk losing everything.

Others, such as Francois and Steve Baker (whose fiery speech to the ERG is printed in this book, and was quoted in the recent ConHome profile of him), decided to fight on to the bitter end.

These are the 28 Spartans, who got their name because, as Francois relates, soon after the second Meaningful Vote he was having dinner with Paul Goodman, editor of ConHome, who said how stressful it must be to be holding out so doggedly against unremitting pressure from the media and the Whips.

Francois agreed, and said “we have felt like the 300 Spartans guarding the pass at Thermopylae.” Goodman proceeded to use the term in a piece for ConHome, “Enter – or Rather Exit – The Spartans” (also reprinted in this book), and the word entered general use.

Goodman predicted, correctly, that “this time round, the Spartans may actually win”. May failed to get Brexit done, and Boris Johnson then got it done in a form more acceptable to the ERG.

This history is so recent that it has obscured earlier events. Francois entered the Commons in 2001 as Member for Rayleigh, in Essex, having cut his teeth as a councillor in Basildon, was soon on friendly terms with George Osborne, and served on the front bench under David Cameron both in Opposition and in Government.

He was not, as the more ignorant of his critics may imagine, a crank who refused ever to be satisfied with what the leadership was doing.

During the referendum campaign, he at first thought “the odds were very much against us winning”, but started to change his mind when he heard Osborne on the Today programme “effectively threatening the British people with a ‘punishment Budget’ if we were to vote to Leave the EU”:

“Both George and I had read history at university, and one thing that runs as a golden thread through British history is that you cannot bully us. Many have tried and all have failed. The British are an inherently reasonable people, often far more patient than many of their counterparts, but there is a point beyond which they simply will not go. And what sounded like a blatant attempt to bully or frighten the British people to vote to Remain in the EU, seemed to me a fundamental error…”

A free people cannot be coerced: Francois at this point showed a better grasp of the temper of the British people than Osborne did.

Francois was born in London in 1965, but when he was only six his parents took him to live in Basildon, a new town in Essex, to a house on an estate which looked like a prison, so was known as Alcatraz. His father did heavy manual labour, such as scrubbing out the inside of large industrial boilers.

His mother was from Italy, where they went on holiday each summer. Mark was sent to the local comprehensive school, and was one of two pupils out of the 226 who arrived that term who went to university.

When he was 13, his father gave him a copy of If, by Rudyard Kipling, and told him that “if ever I was anxious or uncertain and for whatever reason he was not around to offer advice, then I should read the poem again and it would help me decide what to do.”

The following year, his father died of a heart attack, a sudden and terrible blow from which his mother never recovered.

Before the third Meaningful Vote, Francois looked out a copy of If, read it, and found by the time he got to the end that “I was absolutely settled in my mind about what to do”.

The next day, when the ERG met to debate how to vote, Francois quoted the first stanza in his speech:

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, 

But make allowance for their doubting too

Kipling is not a fashionable poet, but If still has claims to be the nation’s favourite poem, and one can imagine the emotion with which he would invest Brexit if he were alive now.

The people who take pleasure in mocking Francois will never read his book, but if they did, they might learn something.

Cockerell’s greatest hits remind us that many of our PMs have been extremely odd

11 Dec

Unmasking Our Leaders: Confessions of a Political Documentary-Maker by Michael Cockerell

Short of a Christmas present for a friend who is interested in politics? Buy this book.

Michael Cockerell, born in 1940, has asked nine of our leaders, beginning with Harold Wilson,

“Do you have any doubts about your ability to fulfil the role of Prime Minister?”

A simple but brilliant question, for the respondent is in danger of avoiding insufferable arrogance by veering into the admission of inadequacy.

Edward Heath just said: “No.”

Boris Johnson, at the time Mayor of London, replied:

“I think people who don’t have doubts or anxieties about their ability to do things probably have something terrifyingly awry. You know, we all have worries and insecurities. And I think it’s a very tough job being Prime Minister. Obviously, if the ball were to come loose from the back of a scrum – which it won’t – it would be a great, great thing to have a crack at.”

Cockerell had induced Johnson to go further than ever before, and the bit about the ball coming lose from the scrum became a big story.

How does one encourage a politician, or indeed anyone else, to reveal bit more of themselves? A contradictory set of qualities is required.

Many political interviews are sterile because the interviewer has an agenda; wishes to be regarded by colleagues, and also by viewers and listeners, as a noble seeker after truth, never afraid to pose the tough, newsworthy questions.

The interviewee has a different agenda; is determined to stick to the line previously agreed with colleagues, and to give no hint of frailty or division.

These two agendas seldom bring out the best in each other. Self-righteous stridency intensifies official obduracy, which in turn provokes greater stridency.

How is the interviewer to handle a politician who has decided exactly what to say, regardless of what he or she may be asked? Cockerell recalls,

“On one occasion, as Sir Robin Day set off for one of his major Panorama interviews with Mrs Thatcher, he said to me: ‘Why don’t I start the interview, “Prime Minister, what’s your answer to my first question?”‘”

Wit helps, and so does a kind of sympathy with the subject. If one simply belabours a politician, one is unlikely to understand much about them, or to receive much in the way of confidences.

Cockerell is mischievous, and his programmes are so enjoyable to watch because he sees that politics is often a theatre of the absurd, but he also has a kind of fellow-feeling with his subjects.

Heath could be wonderfully rude. On one occasion he asked Cockerell, “do you have any training at all for this?” Cockerell arranged to interview him in Broadstairs, where Heath was born and brought up.

Rather unusually, Heath was in a good mood: “Smell that air – wonderful isn’t it – the best in the world,” he says as he steps from his car. Cockerell goes on:

“He had never before talked publicly about his girlfriend from Broadstairs. She was Kay Raven, the daughter of the local doctor, who went out with Heath before the war and for six years waited patiently for his return from the front. Heath did take up with her again after the war and his friends expected the couple to marry. But he never got round to proposing. Why was that? I asked. ‘She decided she would marry someone else, but I don’t discuss these things,’ said Heath.

“‘Did you get over it?’


“‘It was said you kept her photograph by your bed.’


“‘Did you?’

“‘Yes,’ and Heath looked away, as if he was close to tears.”

This goes a long way beyond conventional political interviewing, as do all Cockerell’s documentaries. He wants in each of them to find the person as well as the politician.

But this book also works as a survey, delightfully brief and unportentous, of our politics since the 1960s: a sort of “greatest hits” compilation, and none the worse for that.

There is always a temptation to regard the embarrassments of the present day as the most dreadful we have ever had to endure.

“The worst since the Second World War” and “the worst since Suez” are two phrases indispensable in the reporting of any diplomatic setback.

And the present Prime Minister’s failings are quite frequently discussed, by his critics, as if these eclipse the failings of any previous holder of the post, and public life has fallen to the lowest level ever known.

Cockerell reminds us that after Harold Wilson called the 1970 general election, he appeared on a BBC TV programme, Election Forum, which had solicited questions from viewers, and Robin Day began the programme by saying:

“This question represents an angry theme running through many of these cards. In view of your past record of lies and broken promises, do you really expect the electorate to place any reliance on your word?”

Wilson’s Press Secretary, Joe Haines, suspected BBC dirty tricks, for the studio was “intolerably hot”, which meant sweat was pouring down Wilson’s face and he seemed untrustworthy, whereas the studio had been so cold for his opponent, Edward Heath, the floor manager had to send out for a cardigan.

Lies, or alleged lies, are by no means a new feature of British politics, nor is suspicion of the BBC.

In the “hysterical era” of the late 1960s, “all kinds of lurid rumours about conspiracies against Wilson were circulating, many involving high public figures such as Lord Mountbatten”.

Cockerell gives an enjoyable account of the 1975 referendum on whether Britain should stay in Europe. The big money, some of it supplied by the European Commission, favoured staying in, so Cockerell asked Alistair McAlpine, Treasurer of the Yes campaign, who ran things from a top-secret headquarters in the Dorchester Hotel, whether his lot were in danger of being seen as fat cats who wanted to stay in Europe.

“We were the fat cats,” McAlpine said. “But we were the intelligent cats.”

McAlpine explained how they set out “to depict the anti-Marketeers” – figures such as Enoch Powell, Tony Benn and Dr Ian Paisley – “as unreliable people, dangerous people who would lead you down the wrong path.”

David Cameron remarks that because of what Europe was doing to his party, “Not once during 11 years as Conservative leader did I feel secure for any length of time.”

This sense of transience ought to be felt by every Prime Minister. We have the right to throw the rascals out at any moment of our choosing.

But not, one hopes, before their oddities have been recorded by Cockerell.

Barwell’s memoir. The more conscientious he becomes, the less illuminating this book is

13 Nov

Chief of Staff: Notes from Downing Street  by Gavin Barwell

Advisers, Gavin Barwell says, are too important. That is an admirably un-self-important conclusion for an adviser to reach.

Barwell served as Theresa May’s Chief of Staff from just after the disastrous general election of 2017 until at last she sank beneath the waves in the summer of 2019.

At the end of his 400-page account, he says:

“If I were to do it all again, my first piece of advice to Theresa would be that she should invest more time in her relationships with senior colleagues. The Thatcher ministry was sustained by the support of people like Cecil Parkinson and Norman Tebbit; the Blair ministry by John Prescott and Peter Mandelson; the Cameron ministry by George Osborne and William Hague. Theresa didn’t have key lieutenants of this stature around her. Thirty or forty years ago, the House of Commons sat late most nights, but today it only sits late on Mondays. This has helped to make it more family-friendly, but at the expense of ministers spending more time together. At the same time, there has been an explosion in the number of political advisers. They are the people ministers now spend most of their time with, and that’s a mistake.”

He makes a good point. There has been a growing tendency, when anything goes wrong, to call in new advisers, to replace or supplement those already there.

The deficiencies in the Downing Street machine, its inability to run smoothly under Boris Johnson and the frequency with which faulty decisions have to be reversed, have become a staple of political commentary.

But as Barwell observes, “When the chips are down, politicians depend on the support of their [ministerial] colleagues.”

At Chequers, in the summer of 2018, May’s problem was that she could not carry David Davis and Boris Johnson with her.

It is impossible as Foreign Secretary – the post to which she appointed Johnson in the summer of 2016 – to achieve much unless the Prime Minister of the day takes you into his or her confidence.

This May never did with Johnson. When she was in her pomp – a period hard to recall, but it lasted until she made a hash of the 2017 general election – she made jokes at his expense and shut him out of any serious discussion of how to get Brexit done.

Barwell was not at this stage at her side, but one doubts whether he would have been able to get her to behave in any other way. As Home Secretary, she was notoriously disinclined to confide in colleagues, and this habit served her well.

In Number 10, it did not serve her well. Before Chequers, a row blew up about the Northern Ireland backstop, and she held meetings with several senior ministers in order to try to square them:

“The conversation with Boris was probably the worst meeting of her premiership. He was so rude that I came close to interrupting and asking him to leave. He said we’d made a massive mistake in signing up to the Joint Report. Why had we agreed to all this mumbo jumbo about Northern Ireland? He was normally the person telling us to get a move on, but now he was arguing that we shouldn’t publish anything.”

One begins to see Barwell’s limitations as an historian. He doesn’t give us the actual words spoken by Johnson, which must have been vivid. We are fobbed off with a paraphrase: more scrupulous, but less illuminating and enjoyable.

And this is a problem throughout the book. Barwell was there, but is too well-behaved to tell us what he heard.

We instead find ourselves wading through an official report in which any dramatic moment is deliberately rendered less dramatic. Here is part of his account of how at the end of 2017 the Joint Report came about:

“Then, just a few days before the Prime Minister was due to meet President Juncker, the EU negotiating team presented our team with revised text on Northern Ireland, which went much further than we were expecting. The key section was what would become paragraph 49 of the Joint Report that was published a week later. It said that the UK was committed to protecting north-south co-operation and avoiding a hard border, and that we hoped to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK future relationship, but should this not be possible, we would propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland; in their absence, we would maintain full alignment with those rules of the internal market and the customs union which supported north-south co-operation…

“The Prime Minister was hugely frustrated when Olly told her about this text. She was exasperated at being asked to make commitments about what we would do if we couldn’t reach an agreement about our future relationship before we’d even had a chance to talk about it…

“Nevertheless, it was clear that if we rejected the text outright, we would not be able to achieve ‘sufficient progress’. What, then, should we do? We were the ones under time pressure; the EU could stick to its position, safe in the knowledge that a parliamentary majority was opposed to no deal, so the UK would have to compromise sooner or later. The Prime Minister began to think about whether we could live with the text…”

One would not guess, from Barwell’s dreary language, that a fatal concession is being made. This stuff goes on for page after page, and what is particularly infuriating is that the book has no index, which makes it of far less value to historians and other researchers.

If one wishes to check some particular point, or to see whether Barwell has anything illuminating to say about a particular individual, one has to wade one’s way through bureaucratic language which has the effect of obfuscating, unless one is a bureaucrat, what is actually going on.

The whole sorry story is set out in Roderick Crawford’s authoritative account, The Northern Ireland Protocol: The Origins of the Present Crisis, published at the start of this month by Policy Exchange.

Lord Frost’s preface to that account has already appeared on ConHome. Frost was at that point a special adviser to Johnson. It was immediately clear that “a crucial pass had been sold”, but also that if the Foreign Secretary resigned, on what could be made to seem like a horribly dull technicality, it would be impossible to explain to the public what all the fuss was about.

May persuaded herself that “we could live with the text”, even though it failed to take account of relations between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

It is easy, of course, to be wise after the event, and to forget how weak her position had already become. At the time, it seemed bizarre that she could stagger on for as long as she did.

Why this life in death? Barwell reminds us that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act “had taken away the Prime Minister’s ability to call an election at a time of their choosing, removing the ultimate threat with which a government could get rebel MPs to back its key policies”.

But May had already fired that weapon without any pressing need to do so: in 2017 she called an election and was then unable to present the public with a convincing reason for asking their opinion, which they reckoned they had made clear in the 2016 referendum.

Barwell came on board after that election, in which he lost his seat, Croydon Central, held since 2010. May evidently felt at ease with him, and it is clear that he possesses many of the same virtues as her: he is honest, conscientious, masters the detail and has a deep knowledge of Conservative politics, in which he has been engaged in various capacities since leaving Trinity College, Cambridge in 1993.

These are valuable qualities, but as May demonstrated, they are not sufficient.

At the start of a chapter entitled Media Relations, Barwell remarks: “Theresa wasn’t very interested in communications.” He adds that “Part of me admires her for this”: he would prefer a Prime Minister “who was focussed on getting the decisions right to one who was more interested in photo opportunities”.

But part of the trouble with putting off the moment of communication is that you can suppress your doubts about whether you are doing something which, when presented to the public, will prove justifiable.

In his memoir, Barwell gives scant sign of being interested in communications. Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, texts him after they have attended the weekly meeting of permanent secretaries to say: “All my colleagues think you would make a great perm sec.”

The compliment is deserved, but is perhaps why this book reads like a civil service training manual, with virtually no attempt to interest the general reader.

Andrew Mitchell’s entertaining memoir shows the British Establishment riven by dissent

23 Oct

Beyond a Fringe: Tales from a Reformed Establishment Lackey by Andrew Mitchell

A distinguishing feature of present-day members of the Establishment is their insistence, usually quite sincere, that they do not belong to it.

Andrew Mitchell says in his Preface that he “resigned” from the Establishment in 2013. He makes it sound like the Garrick Club, from which it is indeed possible to resign.

Leaving the Establishment is more complicated. Mitchell was born into it: his father, Sir David Mitchell, was a Conservative MP for 33 years.

And Mitchell himself has passed, as he writes, “through most British Establishment institutions”, including prep and public school, the Army, Cambridge, the City of London, the House of Commons and the Cabinet.

His account of his experiences is often highly entertaining, though there are moments, oddly enough, when one could have wished for more detail, as in this scene from 2007 after David Cameron had addressed the Rwandan Parliament:

“Inevitably tempers frayed and later in the day David had to intervene physically to stop a fight breaking out between me and Steve Hilton, who has a ferocious temper. In spite of being nearly a foot shorter than me, he was poised to spring into a violent attack.”

In this vignette, we begin to see that the Establishment, which may seem from the outside, or in lazy journalistic usage, to be a monolithic organisation with a single Establishment view, is actually riven by dissent.

Hilton wants to beat up Mitchell. No doubt from Hilton’s point of view, Mitchell had been unbelievably annoying, probably by insisting on some point with which Hilton disagreed.

All three men were under severe strain, for there were floods in Witney, Cameron’s constituency, and the press was attacking him for instead being in Africa, advertising the Conservative Party’s new approach to international aid.

The Establishment engages in continual argument. Its greatest institution, the House of Commons, is set up for argument, so too are the law courts and so is the press.

The Conservative Party has survived, indeed flourished, by having the necessary arguments, including the argument about Europe.

This is something which people who see disagreement as a sign of failure – who presume, in their innocence, that politics can be reduced to an ideology, a set of immutable principles – will never understand. To them, Boris Johnson will remain incomprehensible, and so will the Conservative Party.

Mitchell has an amusing chapter entitled “Boris: My Part in his Ascent”. In 1992, John Major had made Mitchell the Vice-Chairman in charge of the Candidates’ Department at Conservative Central Office.

In June 1993, Johnson applied to become a Conservative candidate. He wanted at that point to be an MEP, not an MP.

Richard Simmonds, the senior MEP on the selection board, said Johnson would be admitted to the candidates’ list “over my dead body”. At the crucial meeting of the assessors, the merits of the 47 other applicants were quite quickly decided, but a tremendous argument developed over Johnson:

“Ned Dawnay was firm: Boris was a most impressive applicant; he was clearly a proper Conservative; his intellect, knowledge and energy marked him out; he must be admitted. Richard Simmonds, supported by the other five MEPs, was adamant: Boris was a cynical journalist, a chancer, a brand not a politician, a less than honest political thorn in Prime Minister Major’s side; taking him into the party’s candidates list would be embarrassing for the Conservative group in the European Parliament. Were he to be elected as an MEP it would be a nightmare.”

Mitchell gets Johnson on the list by one vote; tells the Party Chairman, Norman Fowler, that he, Mitchell, will resign if the decision is overturned; but is summoned to see John Major in the Prime Minister’s office behind the Speaker’s chair in the House of Commons:

“The meeting did not start well. As I entered his office, he was standing by the fireplace. ‘Ah, Andrew, thanks for coming: what the fuck do you mean by putting Boris Johnson on the candidates’ list?'”

As part of his explanation to Major, Mitchell says he has extracted an agreement from Johnson not to stand in a winnable European seat. Johnson scrapes through onto the list, soon afterwards tries to stand in a winnable European seat, is dissuaded by Mitchell from doing so, but in 1997 stands instead for the then unwinnable Commons seat of Clwyd South.

We see the Conservative Party having the necessary argument about whether or not Johnson is a fit and proper person to become one of its candidates, and perhaps, in due course, a senior member of the Establishment.

Anyone thinking of embarking on a political career could with profit read Mitchell’s memoir, and so could anyone who wants to know how Conservative policy on international aid was revolutionised after 2005, with the author serving first as Shadow International Development Secretary and then from 2010 in the actual job.

A paradox of elective systems is that one needs, generally speaking, to possess more than normal push in order to put oneself forward. A reluctant sense of public duty is not generally speaking enough.

Mitchell is a gung-ho character: he goes for things; at an early stage runs for and gets the Presidency of the Cambridge Union, a school of argument.

The question in politics, perhaps in life generally, is when, having gone for something, to settle, as the lawyers put it. And this is what goes wrong in Plebgate, the wretched altercation in 2012 between Mitchell and the police officers guarding the Downing Street gates.

Some of the officers behaved abominably: that was established by, among others, the journalist Michael Crick. There was a public interest in having the necessary argument about this: almost a decade later and after much worse failings have come to light, the condition of the Metropolitan Police continues to be a cause of grave concern.

But Mitchell overplayed his hand: as he himself says, instead of walking away with his reputation “largely restored”, he made the “fatal mistake” of suing The Sun for libel, and lost. The ordeal is set out here.

Part of the delight and terror of politics is the sheer unexpectedness with which one can rise and fall, the snakes and ladders aspect to it. Perhaps that unpredictability is one of the things people like about Johnson.

In 2019 Mitchell obtains various assurances from Johnson – the preservation of the 0.7 per cent aid target, DfID to remain an independent department, Mitchell himself to play some key though not quite specified role – and backs him for the leadership:

“I was genuinely surprised and dismayed at the incredibly strong and angry reaction of many of my closest friends who regarded my support for Boris as simply unconscionable. The reaction of my children was unprintable. At a Robert Harris book launch attended by many of my old friends from Cambridge days I was literally put up against a wall, interrogated and denounced.”

The Establishment was divided against itself. In the 1990s Mitchell served as a Whip, and one evening was told to go and give Sir Peter Tapsell “a bollocking” for voting against the Government. This Mitchell could not do: Tapsell was far too senior and dignified a figure to be bollocked.

So Mitchell instead walked silently at Tapsell’s side, in the early hours of the morning, down the stairs through the Members’ Lobby and out through the cloakroom at the Members’ Entrance, hoping “he would feel the reproach of a younger colleague through my silence”.

As they left the Members’ Entrance, Tapsell turned to him and said:

“You see, Andrew, there is nothing I want from your office. I am rich – very rich – I advise central bankers around the world; I am already a knight and I certainly have no wish whatsoever to be a member of this benighted government. The only thing I want is to have my dead son back, and there is nothing you can do about that.”