How disgusting Cameron’s critics are. He is a decent man – as were Baldwin and Blair.

7 Apr

David Cameron is a loss to public life. This is not just now the received view, but Lord Lexden, the Conservative Party’s Official Historian, yesterday explained to ConHome why it is the correct one:

“Former prime ministers ought not to be entirely separated from the world of Westminster, which, apart from the benefits of proximity to power, would constantly remind them of the dangers of lucrative enticements which the press and candid friends will always be glad to see exposed in Commons or Lords.

“No ex-PM has wanted to go the Lords for nearly 30 years, the attraction much diminished by the creation of peerages on a massive and unprecedented scale, a process of degradation much assisted by Cameron himself following Blair’s lead. This is a loss to both Parliament and former Prime Ministers.”

Theresa May remains in the Commons, where she continues, when she wishes, to give the House the benefit of her experience.

Blair and Cameron resigned their Commons seats just after ceasing to be PM, while Gordon Brown and John Major each remained in the Commons until the general election after the one at which they had been defeated. All four have declined to go to the Lords.

Margaret Thatcher stayed in the House until the general election after her overthrow, and then accepted a peerage.

Edward Heath remained for over a quarter of a century in the Commons after losing the two elections in 1974 and the Tory leadership contest in February 1975.

Harold Wilson reverted to being Leader of the Opposition after his defeat as PM in 1970, entered Downing Street again in 1974, stepped down as Prime Minister in 1976, but stayed in the House until 1983, when he went to the Lords.

His successor as Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, who was defeated at the general election of 1979, remained in the House until 1987, when he too went to the Lords.

The most graceful example in modern times is afforded by Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who after leaving the Lords at the start of his brief prime ministership in 1963-64, remained in the Commons and served in 1970-74 as Foreign Secretary, his second term in that office, before going once more to the Lords.

Cameron had originally intended to remain in the Commons as a backbencher, but in September 2016, two months after stepping down as Prime Minister, announced he would also step down as an MP, saying in explanation:

“As a former Prime Minister it is very difficult to sit as a backbencher and not be an enormous distraction and diversion from what the Government is doing.”

To traditionalists, it seemed a great pity that Cameron had so quickly followed Blair’s example, cutting and running from Parliament as soon he was no longer the most important person, as if the only point of being an MP is to hold high office.

But just as Blair’s position was rendered excruciatingly uncomfortable by the opprobrium he continued to attract for having led Britain into the Iraq War of 2003, so Cameron’s position was rendered excruciatingly uncomfortable by the opprobrium he continued to attract from Remainers for calling and losing the EU referendum of June 2016.

All Cameron’s earlier achievements were forgotten. Modernising the Conservative Party, leading it back into power in 2010 in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, restoring the economy and governing the country well enough to win a narrow overall majority in 2015, now counted for nothing.

People find it hard to remember more than one thing about any Prime Minister, and all they now remembered about Cameron was that he had accidentally led Britain out of the EU.

He gracefully recognised at breakfast-time on the morning after the referendum that he must step down. There followed a period of silence from him, and this too seemed graceful.

In 2019 he brought out his memoirs, in which he confessed:

“The latent Leaver gene in the Tory Party was more dominant than I had foreseen.”

But his book was not candid enough to arouse any great interest. He had been only 49 when he stepped down, younger than any Prime Minister at the end of their term in office since Lord Rosebery, Prime Minister from 1894-95.

Rosebery was only 47, and for a long time his admirers hoped he would come back. He was a great orator, who could master huge crowds and who still displayed, at unpredictable intervals, star quality, and shafts of insight which showed an admirable independence of mind.

In 1904, when everyone else was cheering the entente cordiale with France, Rosebery greeted a rising Liberal star, David Lloyd George, with the words: “You are all wrong. It means war with Germany in the end.”

Cameron has less brilliance but a steadier temperament than Rosebery, and seemed to have mastered the awkward art of retiring before the age of 50.

In an interview by Emma Barnett with his wife, Samantha Cameron, in January 2021, we learned:

“Dave has shopped and cooked virtually every meal in the last few months.”

Now the Lex Greensill affair threatens to supplant the EU referendum as the one thing for which Cameron is remembered. The audacity which carried him to the Tory leadership, and into Downing Street, also led him to back an Australian banker who promised to make him rich beyond the dreams of avarice, but has instead gone bust, leaving thousands of jobs in the British steel industry in peril.

Greensill had been granted an unusual degree of access to Downing Street, and even a No 10 business card, while Cameron was Prime Minister, and Cameron has since lobbied Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on Greensill’s behalf, though without managing to extract any funds.

On Sunday, the first signs of a fight-back by Cameron could be detected, in a piece by Dan Hodges for The Mail on Sunday:

“David Cameron has let himself down. And he knows it. ‘He was adviser for a company that went bust in a very public way. And he’s told me he recognises that’s embarrassing,’ says a sympathetic Cabinet Minister who spoke to the former Prime Minister last week.

‘”But he does think all the other stuff is way over the top. This idea he was getting No 10 business cards printed out for all these dodgy people. His attitude is that he had a lot of responsibilities as PM and dealing with the Downing Street stationery wasn’t one of them.'”

It is just possible that by refusing to respond in person to the Greensill story, Cameron will so starve it of oxygen that it dies out.

But the story serves also as a reminder of how hellish it can be to be an ex-Prime Minister. As long as one is in office, one can at least indicate to potential critics that if they start to chuck mud, they can abandon all hope of promotion.

That sanction falls away as soon as one falls from power. From then onwards, anyone who wants to take a crack can do so with impunity.

Consider the case of Stanley Baldwin, Prime Minister in 1923-4, 1924-29 and 1935-37, the dominant figure of the inter-war years, who in 1936 with masterly skill united the British and Imperial Establishment behind the policy of replacing the feckless Edward VIII with the dutiful George VI.

The following year, Baldwin at a moment of his own choosing stepped down, became a Knight of the Garter, and was elevated to the Lords as Earl Baldwin of Bewdley, an earldom being the usual reward for a PM.

Three years later, he became one of the guilty men who had left Britain unprepared for the fight for national survival against Nazi Germany. George Orwell wrote of him:

“As for Baldwin, one could not even dignify him with the name of stuffed shirt. He was simply a hole in the air.”

Baldwin was by now so unpopular that he did not care to appear in public, and despite being old and infirm was denied a seat while travelling on a train. Lord Beaverbrook, in an act of spite, had the gates removed from Baldwin’s house, a gift from Worcester Conservative Association when their leader retired, under the pretence that the metal was needed to make Spitfires.

At Baldwin’s final appearance in public, for the unveiling in 1947 of a statue of George V, a feeble cheer was raised in his honour, and he asked whether he was being booed.

What a fearful warning to Cameron. We write about these things as if they were fair, but that is seldom the case.

We find instead an overwhelming desire to blame someone. The most liberal-minded people are particularly liable to yield to this urge to flog some poor wretch, and to feel better about themselves as they inflict the punishment.

It is especially satisfying to flog someone who formerly adopted a high moral tone. Baldwin liked to strike that note, as did Blair and Cameron.

They were very good at it, but their critics saw the discrepancy between the high-sounding rhetoric and the slightly less elevated behaviour, and pounced.

How disgusting those critics are. Cameron is a decent man, and so were Blair and Baldwin. All three did about as well as anyone could do in the circumstances, and all three, so far as one can see, are doomed.

How to advise Lord North, or Heath, or Thatcher, or Johnson

5 Mar

Political Advice: Past, Present and Future edited by Colin Kidd and Jacqueline Rose

The press is excited by stories about Boris Johnson’s advisers. Who is in, who out? Who is briefing against whom? Carrie Symonds is running the country from her sofa! The news that leopards are to be reintroduced into St James’s Park shows she is. And anyhow, who paid for the sofa?

Readers who wish to take a longer view of political advice are advised to get hold of this book. But be warned: it does not offer a crib, a cut-out-and-keep guide to how to be an adviser.

The lesson of the book is that there are no lessons. If this volume were by a single author, we could perhaps deduce from it a doctrine, but it is actually the work of 14 different contributors, who on 8th June 2017 met for a one-day conference on Political Advice at All Souls College, Oxford.

We are not fed anything so misleading as a theory of advice, but in these 14 essays we do find intimations, continuities and recurrences as we travel with these authors from Periclean Athens via the Renaissance, Tudor England, the Scottish Enlightenment, British orientalists in Persia, Edward Heath’s managerialists in Whitehall and astrologers at the court of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, to an account of the impossibility of advising Donald Trump.

Nobody can govern alone: every ruler needs help, and as the editors, Colin Kidd and Jacqueline Rose, remark in their introduction, the people running the show today “have no more time or concentration than their predecessors in antiquity”.

There is a limit to how much advice anyone can take in, let alone make use of. William Waldegrave writes, in this volume, about his experience of being a member of the Central Policy Review Staff (CPRS) from 1971-73.

Heath, both as Leader of the Opposition and from 1970 as Prime Minister, had a tremendous appetite for policy advice. He was a man of his time, for as Waldegrave reminds us,

“the late 1960s had seen much discussion of whether Britain’s institutions had sufficiently modernised themselves: the civil service was among those subject to criticism, including self-criticism. This had led in 1966 to the establishment, after a select committee of the House of Commons had levelled the accusation of amateurism at the modern service, of the Fulton Committee…it made trenchant criticisms of what it saw as the cult of the generalist, the lack of influence by scientists, poor training and recruitment practices and other matters.”

The CPRS was one way in which Heath was determined to modernise the machinery of government, by creating a central strategic staff who would engage in long-term thinking and apply the latest management techniques, many of them imported from the United States, to which “two exceptionally able younger Conservatives”, David Howell (now Lord Howell) and Mark Schreiber (now Lord Marlesford) had been despatched on a mission to find out what was happening there.

In 1970, Howell made, in his pamphlet A New Style of Government, the first use in the United Kingdom of the word “privatisation”. According to Waldegrave, these British experts “linked management theory to political doctrine in a more interesting way than is found in most of the American work of the time”, relating “managerial efficiency…to the development of modern liberal free-market doctrines”.

What happened? Heath made a complete hash of things, and in February 1974 the British people threw him out of office. His administration had been characterised, not by long-term thinking, but by desperate short-term expedients which culminated in the lights going out.

And yet all that advice was not entirely wasted. After 1979, privatisation became, with Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, one of the Government’s most significant and successful policies.

She too was tremendously keen on getting good advice. She and her advisers learned from Heath’s mistakes, and for a long time her judgement of what was politically possible proved better than his.

But as Waldegrave goes on to say, both Houses of Parliament continue to feel “a deep suspicion of Bonapartist tendencies on the part of the Prime Minister”.

We don’t want a presidential system in this country, and got the central staffs created by Lloyd George and Churchill to fight the two world wars disbanded as soon as those conflicts were over.

Waldegrave, who served as a minister from 1981-97, regrets “the steady erosion” in recent times

“of a sense of Cabinet collectivity. Mr Blair is perhaps most to blame for this, but Mr Cameron is not innocent either. What the press has called ‘sofa government’ – combined with an over-intrusive regime of freedom of information – has taken us back to the time before Maurice Hankey and the establishment of the Cabinet Secretariat in 1916. Some major items of policy are not discussed collectively at all, and if they are discussed, little is recorded for fear of an immediate and politically driven application under the Freedom of Information Act. This is a recipe for bad decision-taking, as well as for ultimate lack of accountability.”

Boris Johnson became Prime Minister too recently for his behaviour in office to be considered in this volume. But one can’t help wondering whether his critics have been asking the wrong question.

They have assumed he is too weak: that he will soon be swept from office. Perhaps they should have been asking, instead, whether he is too strong: whether Bonapartist tendencies are beginning to manifest themselves.

For whoever occupies Number Ten has a near monopoly of the political advice which other ministers would need in order to make forceful arguments in Cabinet, or Cabinet committee, about any subject beyond their departmental responsibilities.

Sajid Javid refused, on being told he would not be allowed to choose his own advisers, to continue as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Jesse Norman, currently serving as Financial Secretary to the Treasury, contributes to this volume an essay entitled Smith as SpAd? Adam Smith and Advice to Politicians.

The first part of this title has a Wodehousian ring. It prompts the thought that in modern English literature, the greatest provider of advice is Jeeves, and the greatest recipient Wooster.

Adam Smith often advised politicians:

“In 1766-7, he supplied information about French taxes to, and corrected the calculations of, Charles Townshend, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, in relation to the Sinking Fund designed to repay debt incurred during the Seven Years’ War; the fund was topped up in Townshend’s 1767 budget. He also advised Lord Shelburne on colonial policy at this time. Lord North thanked Smith for his advice on his 1777 Budget, when he took ideas from The Wealth of Nations for two new taxes, on manservants and on property sold by auction. He took two more ideas in 1778: the malt tax and a very Smithian duty on the rentable value of buildings. Also in 1778, Smith wrote ‘Thoughts on the State of the Contest with America’, a long and considered memorandum setting out different options for British policy towards the American colonies, then in revolt, at the request of his friend Alexander Wedderburn, the Solicitor General.”

We also find Smith advising on trade between Britain and Ireland. Just now his help would be invaluable. He recognised, as Norman puts it, “that the world was an imperfect place, in which evils could exist and persist”.

Smith was not the laissez-faire ideologue for which he has sometimes been mistaken. Nor was he the kind of generalist with which the Fulton Committee, and latterly Dominic Cummings, considered the civil service to be over-provided. Smith was a Commissioner of Customs, active in the regulation and suppression of smuggling.

Colin Burrow remarks, in his essay entitled How Not To Do It: Poets and Counsel, Thomas Wyatt to Geoffrey Hill:

“The figure of the frank speaker condemned to the margins of political life, and thus unable to deliver counsel to his monarch, became one of the major literary personae of the later Henrician period.”

Twitter is just now infested with such frank speakers, who do not turn out to be gifted poets, but spend their days denouncing with hysterical self-righteousness anyone with whom they disagree.

The adviser has to be willing to compromise; often works for palpably inadequate leaders; but is at least on the field of play.

Profile: Tony Blair. Driven, unrepentant and urgent – the leader who took us to war in Iraq is reborn as our saviour from the pandemic.

25 Feb

It is always difficult to know what to do after being Prime Minister, unless one can become PM again. In recent times, Harold Wilson managed that, and so did Winston Churchill, while Sir Alec Douglas-Home returned as Foreign Secretary.

In June 2007, when Tony Blair’s prime ministership was terminated by his own party (cf. Margaret Thatcher), he ruled out a comeback by standing down from the Commons too.

He didn’t have to do this. It would, of course, have been painful to remain in the House, for it enforces proximity, and he would have had to rub shoulders with those who had overthrown him. But Theresa May has shown it can be done, as did Edward Heath.

Blair has chosen another path, for which it is hard to find any precedent. What furies drive him? Why this frantic activity?

Almost 14 years after he left Downing Street, he addresses us, not as an elder statesman, but with the energy and urgency of a man who has persuaded himself he would be a better Prime Minister now, as a 67-year-old, than he was on entering Downing Street at the age of 43.

It is possible he is right. Not for him the error, committed by some on the losing side in the EU referendum, of issuing ever more hysterical denunciations of Boris Johnson, and supposing that these shrieks amount to an adequate position.

Here is Blair in a speech delivered on 15th January, telling Remainers why they must accept Brexit and make a success of it:

“I campaigned so long and so passionately against Brexit because I believed it to be a strategic error not just of policy but of destiny. I haven’t changed my mind about its wisdom. But reality is reality. We have done it. We must live with it. We should make the best of it. And as I have said recently, if a return to Europe is ever to be undertaken by a new generation, Britain should do it as a successful nation Europe is anxious to embrace, not as supplicant with no other options.”

But it is on the pandemic and how to deal with it that Blair is just now most audible. A Blairite apparatchik explained to ConHome why Blair can so often be heard urging swifter and bolder action:

“I think the simple fact is that he sees a vacuum – he doesn’t see Boris Johnson as the chief-executive-type Prime Minister, and sees Matt Hancock as very receptive to some of his stuff. He’s put a lot of the resources of his Institute into this – it’s a do tank as well as a think tank. 

“And he’s prepared to be quite bold publicly – he was the first person to advocate giving the second jab not in four weeks but in 12. He’d done the homework.”

When ConHome remarked to the apparatchik that Blair became more hated by Labour activists than any leader of the party since Ramsay MacDonald, he replied:

“The party felt we need a Clause Four moment to rescind Blairism and apologise for winning three elections in a row. The biggest problem with the Labour Party is it doesn’t like success. The darlings of the Labour Party, Neil Kinnock and Jeremy Corbyn, were complete losers.”

There is an unrepentant quality about Blair which can render him utterly repugnant. Democracies expect, in those who aspire to rule them, a degree of humility.

The Commons, though full of hierarchies, enforces a brutal equality: no one who fights to win in that Chamber “can keep himself out of the reach of a knock-down blow” (as Sir George Otto Trevelyan puts it at the end of The Early History of Charles James Fox).

In 2007, Blair chose to leave that Chamber, where he had enjoyed an almost unbroken series of triumphs. Our democracy is designed to bring politicians back to earth, so they do not get too big for their boots, or at least not for long (see the careers of Peel, Disraeli, Gladstone, Lloyd George, Churchill and many others).

Blair by a fluke of timing was spared the devastating reverses suffered by most of his predecessors. The last election he lost was the Beaconsfield by-election of 1982. The following year, a bad one for Labour, he entered the Commons as MP for Sedgefield.

It is true that Labour continued for some time after that to lose general elections. But Blair himself was on the upward track, at first as apprentice to a gifted and altogether more experienced and better known member of the 1983 intake from Scotland, with whom he shared a windowless Commons office.

When Blair became shadow Home Secretary, his former room-mate, Gordon Brown, drafted an impregnable soundbite for him:

“Tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime.”

What decent person could object to that? Blair was on his way, and two years later, in 1994, when John Smith died, had the audacity to snatch the Labour leadership from under Brown’s nose.

Whoever became Leader of the Opposition in 1994 was pretty much bound to become Prime Minister, for the Conservatives had already lost the next general election. After Black Wednesday, 16th September 1992, when Britain was ejected from the Exchange Rate Mechanism, the Tory Party’s share in the polls fell to 30 per cent, where it stuck for the next five years.

Blair and his coterie naturally claimed, and came to believe, that Labour’s landslide victory in 1997 reflected their own brilliance. But as William Waldegrave, a minister from 1981-97, remarks in his memoir, A Different Kind of Weather:

“We Conservatives created their, and Blair’s, reputations for electoral genius; and we bequeathed them an economy that let them ride the boom years in populist style. Blair simply had to look like a renewed and more attractive version of us. He was able to do it – if his book is to be believed (and on this subject it should be) – because that was precisely what he was.”

In his early years, Blair possessed a self-deprecating sense of humour which preserved him against the charge of having become too big for his own boots.

Robert Harris – author of The Ghost, the rudest novel about a recent Prime Minister – has described the favourable impression which Blair used to make:

“I think when one knew him first off one of the charms of him was that he seemed, as he said, ‘a regular sort of guy’. I met him first in 1992, I think, and he seemed very much like the sort of man who would live next door to you – a fellow professional, commonsensical, friendly, approachable.

“Well, little did we know. It’s impossible to see the man he is now in the man that I knew. Who knew that he would become a great friend of George Bush and would want to keep bombing people and would become so passionately interested in making money? I mean maybe someone more perceptive than I would have seen it, but I never saw that at the time, nor – knowing a lot of the people who know him very well – did they.

“It’s a cliché to say that most politicians go mad if they’re in office for more than about six or seven years, and they become a member of a club and you become quite disconnected from reality, and I think there were in Tony things we perhaps didn’t realise at the time – of narcissism, a messiah complex, that had merely accelerated this impulse in him.”

For many, the disastrous outcome of the Iraq War in 2003 destroyed their faith in Blair. He had enjoyed an unnaturally prolonged honeymoon as PM, but this was followed by an even longer period in which few people could bear the sound of his voice.

For he sounded so vain, so pleased with himself, so impervious to criticism. Not a word of true regret escaped his lips. Everything he had done had been done in good faith.

This was intolerable. He did not stay in the Commons, where criticism would have been unavoidable, but floated off into the world of the super-rich, with whom he had long enjoyed taking holidays.

Here was a man who stood up for the rich and powerful. Even before he became Prime Minister he had described Pontius Pilate as “the second most interesting character in the New Testament”, and explained:

“The intriguing thing about Pilate is the degree to which he tried to do the good thing rather than the bad. He commands our moral attention not because he was a bad man, but because he was so nearly a good man. One can imagine him agonising, seeing that Jesus had done nothing wrong, and wishing to release him. Just as easily, however, one can envisage Pilate’s advisers telling him of the risks, warning him not to cause a riot or inflame Jewish opinion. It is a timeless parable of political life.”

So it is, but after 2003 Blair’s sympathies were seen, by many of his former Labour supporters, to lie with warmongering plutocrats such as George W, Bush and Rupert Murdoch.

Blair continued to insist on his own highmindedness. His moral vanity became intolerable. When he was right about things – and his biographer, John Rentoul, has the courage to point out that Blair was often right – that only made him more annoying.

Rentoul concedes that Blair’s first office after stepping down as Prime Minister, in Grosvenor Square, “was so obviously just a replica of 10 Downing Street”, while “that place in Great Missenden is a replica of Chequers”.

Here was a man who could not admit to himself that he was no longer in office. He was pretending to himself that he was still a mover and shaker. And in Rentoul’s words,

“He thought that if there was a problem, the way to solve it was for him to roll up his sleeves and apply himself to it. He was restlessly looking for really difficult problems only he could solve.”

The first of these really difficult problems was the Middle East, where from 2007-15 Blair served as Special Envoy for the United Nations, European Union, United States and Russia.

But his efforts are nowadays concentrated on the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, on whose website we read, in words which might have been drafted by Stephen Potter, President of the LIfemanship Correspondence College at Yeovil:

“Tony Blair is Founder and Executive Chairman of the Institute. The Institute is a not-for-profit organisation. The Executive Chairman plays a hands-on role in the strategic development of the organisation, and actively engages with leaders, organisations and debates that he believes are critical to our mission. Tony Blair and the executive staff run the organisation of over 200 staff based in 14 African nations, the UK, the United States, United Arab Emirates, Serbia and Israel. Tony Blair is the sole owner and Executive Chairman of the Institute, as set out in the Articles of Association, and he receives no remuneration for his work at TBI, to which he devotes at least 80 per cent of his time.”

We are reminded that as Prime Minister, he was already “a central figure on the global stage”, and “a passionate advocate of an interventionist foreign policy”, a claim which might also be made for Genghis Khan.

The word “Iraq” is omitted from this autobiography, which displays the author’s gift for careful drafting. Here he is on an earlier occasion, defending his record in office:

“For prime ministers today, a lot of the job is about getting things done, it’s about delivery… And unless you have a powerful centre, unless the prime minister has the power to do things, things just don’t happen…with things like foot and mouth and so on, these crises that hit you, the fuel protests, if I hadn’t gripped that and run it, never mind Cabinet government, run it myself with the ministers sitting round the table gripping it, salvaging it, it just would not have happened.”

This former Prime Minister knows how to create his own drama.

Blair was keen on the European Union, yet when the chips were down, he sided with the United States.

Disillusioned Remainers observe that as Prime Minister, Blair encouraged business to import as many workers as it liked from the EU, while taking no trouble to train British workers: behaviour which prepared the way for the No vote in 2016.

The Third Way used to be fashionable, but its leading figures – Bill Clinton, Gerhard Schröder, Blair himself – have not aged well.

Yet it is still possible to find oneself listening, as the day begins, to Blair holding forth on Radio 4, giving us the benefit of the latest ideas developed for him by the bright young policy wonks at his Institute.

Blair the Man of Destiny steps forward to save the nation. He has somehow forgotten that if one really wants to save the nation, one must work, as once he worked, with a political party that can win a general election.