Peel increased the burden of taxation on the rich – perhaps Sunak and Johnson will too

8 Jan

The Prime Ministers: 55 Leaders, 55 Authors, 300 Years of History edited by Iain Dale

The brief life can be one of the most delightful of all literary forms. While putting off the awkward task of writing this review, I turned for purposes of comparison to Alan Watkins’ volume, Brief Lives, a book it is impossible to open without within a few paragraphs bursting out laughing.

Here is Watkins on Anthony Crosland, who died in 1977 while serving as Foreign Secretary:

“He could also be very rude indeed. Tony Benn once publicly announced that he was concerned to lose the stigma of the intellectual. Crosland replied that, in order to lose a stigma, it was first necessary to acquire one. For some reason – maybe sexual, but it is profitless to speculate – he could be very rude to young and attractive women who intended no harm but were merely trying to make serious conversation to the best of their ability.”

We feel at once that we begin to know what Crosland was like. This is something a brief life can do better than a long one.

A pencil sketch often conveys a likeness, character, personality, better than the massive official portrait in oils. What a relief for the writer, and for the reader too, not to try to say everything.

Winston Churchill wrote brilliant brief lives in Great Contemporaries, as did Roy Jenkins in The Chancellors and elsewhere. Here is Jenkins on Bonar Law, Prime Minister from 1922-23, but a crucial political figure from 1911, when he became Tory leader:

“he was the first leader to exhibit some aspect of the ‘poor white’ mentality which has been a growing and marked feature of the Conservative Party in much more recent times. He was a partisan, sometimes a bitter leader, with a stronger sense of ‘we was cheated’ than of the natural (and sometimes tolerant) authority of an assured right to govern…

“On the long march back to the Commons after listening to the King’s Speech which opened his first session as leader, Law was reported as saying: ‘I am afraid I shall have to show myself very vicious, Mr Asquith, this session, I hope you will understand.’ Whether or not Asquith ‘understood’, Law certainly succeeded in being ‘vicious’…”

Again, one begins to get an idea of Law, and indeed of Jenkins.

But to write a brief life can be even harder work than to write a long one. I know this from personal experience, having written brief lives of the 40 Kings and Queens since 1066, the 55 Prime Ministers since 1721, and the 44 American Presidents from George Washington, inaugurated in 1789, to Donald Trump (known as the 45th President, but the Americans double-count Grover Cleveland, President in 1885-89 and 1893-97, as both the 22nd and the 24th President).

Iain Dale had the bright idea, on the 300th anniverary of Sir Robert Walpole becoming Prime Minister, of getting 55 writers to take one Prime Minister each.

He has recruited an eclectic mixture of academics, historians, politicians and journalists. Looking down his list, one thinks repeatedly, “I’d like to see what he makes of him”.

Each entry begins with a drawing of the Prime Minister in question by Zoom Rockman, which should have been printed larger, for they are generally more accomplished than the words that follow.

Few of the 55 authors have given much thought to the art of writing a brief life, or appear to have devoted much time to the task of doing so. It is one thing to recruit good people, quite another to get them to do their best work.

The liberation of being able to throw away 99 per cent of what one knows, keeping only the most vivid and characteristic material, has itself been thrown away by those writers who conceived it their duty to provide a digest of every not very exciting transaction in which their Prime Minister was involved.

Many of the authors suffer from a tendency to exaggerate the importance, or lament the obscurity, of whichever Prime Minister they have agreed to cover. Nor could the entanglement of these careers – for many PMs have done more remarkable things during the ascent than when they reached Downing Street – have been sorted out except by a prodigal application of editorial time.

But there are wonderful things in the book. Robert Saunders brings the stiff figure of Sir Robert Peel to life:

“Peel grew up under the shadow of the French Revolution, and was perhaps the last British statesman to hear the whirr of the guillotine in his dreams… For Peel, the ‘Dantons, and the Marats, and the Robespierres’ of revolutionary history were not ‘monsters peculiar to France’. They were ‘the foul, but legitimate spawn of circumstances’, born of the same volcanic passions that boiled beneath British society too. At any moment, a breakdown of political authority could produce ‘the same consequences, the same men, and the same crimes, here as in France’.

This strikes home in part because it uses Peel’s own words. He is allowed to speak directly to us, without, as happens in so many of the entries, the writer substituting a banal paraphrase of the original. We are given the story of how this Prime Minister strove to avert revolution:

“Peel took office in the summer of 1841, amid some of the worst economic conditions of the century. A prolonged industrial depression was producing horrifying levels of suffering: in just one Scottish town, Paisley, 17,000 workers were at risk of starvation. Chartism was resurgent, and in 1842 an attempted general strike swept across the north. A year later, Peel’s secretary was shot dead by an assassin, who had mistaken him for the Prime Minister…

“Peel began with a daring financial stroke: the reintroduction of the income tax. This had previously been thought of as a wartime measure, and its introduction in time of peace was hugely controversial. Since it was only levied on the highest earners, it marked a significant shift in the burden of taxation towards the Government’s own supporters. Yet Peel insisted it was ‘for the interest of property that property should bear the burden’. The goal was not simply to close the deficit, but to send a signal about the willingness of the propertied elite to make sacrifices for the public good. Accepted ‘voluntarily and with a good grace’, the tax would be ‘a cheap purchase of future security’.

This is interesting both for its own sake, and for the light it throws on what Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson might decide to do about the burden of taxation on the rich. I hazard a guess that they will decide to increase it, while at the same time bringing in, as Peel did, measures to promote growth, and to relieve the burdens on the poor, so that, as Peel put it, “thoughts of the dissolution of our institutions should be forgotten in the midst of physical enjoyment”.

The one thing most Conservatives remember about Peel is that he split the party by repealing the Corn Laws. Saunders conveys the mentality which estranged the Prime Minister from his followers:

“As relations with his party deteriorated, Peel became increasingly contemptuous of his own backbenchers: ‘men with great possessions and little foresight…whose only chance of safety is that their counsels shall not be followed’. After a collision with his party in 1845, he boasted privately that ‘people like a certain degree of obstinacy and presumption in a minister. They abuse him for dictation and arrogance, but they like being governed.’ It was an approach that would soon bring the destruction of his government.”

There are many other good things in the book. Julia Langdon describes what it was like travelling as a journalist with Margaret Thatcher:

“In the course of her years in office, she attended 32 European summits, 12 Group of Seven (G7) summits of the leading economic nations, seven Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM) – ‘This place Choggum,’ said one of my colleagues, arriving in the Bahamas, ‘is it the capital?'”

That is worthy of Evelyn Waugh. The parliamentary lobby “once went round the world backwards in six days” with Thatcher. Before another extraordinary expedition, with no more than one night anywhere for about ten days, Langdon asked the Prime Minister what she thought of the schedule that lay ahead. Thatcher replied: “We can’t do any laundry until Bangkok!”

Such small touches bring the stateswomen closer to us. She too thought about laundry, and about the difficulties that not being able to wash clothes would inflict on her staff, and even on the accompanying journalists.

Dale himself has dashed off a life of Johnson, whom he describes as “the most intellectually capable Prime Minister Britain has seen”. That sounds unfair to Peel, Derby, Gladstone, Salisbury and quite a few others.

Profile: Carrie Symonds, experienced Tory adviser turned Prime Ministerial consort – loyal to her friends, detested by her enemies

17 Nov

Mary Wilson, Audrey Callaghan, Denis Thatcher, Norma Major, Cherie Blair, Sarah Brown, Samantha Cameron, Philip May and Carrie Symonds are the nine people who over the last half century have borne the often heavy burden of being the Prime Minister’s consort.

The world does not yet know what to make of Symonds: which of two competing narratives, one highly favourable, the other almost unbelievably dismissive, to accept.

A minister for whom she worked as a special adviser told ConHome: “She was fantastic – utterly loyal, very sound and great fun.”

He pointed out that long before she met Johnson, she was a dedicated Conservative activist: “Carrie is a Tory through and through – not some arriviste.”

Many Conservatives, including many Conservative MPs, believe Symonds showed excellent political judgment by urging Johnson to sack two of the most senior members of his Downing Street staff, Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain, at the end of last week.

For although Cummings had masterminded the Vote Leave campaign, and Cain had worked for it, neither of them had any respect for Conservative MPs, and both of them tended to erupt in fury when their orders were questioned.

Last Friday, out the turbulent advisers went, but not quietly. They and their friends briefed most bitterly not against Johnson, or against the many others who wanted them gone, but against Symonds, who in many ways presented a softer target, for she could be accused of getting ideas above her station, harassing the Prime Minister and impeding the proper running of the Government.

“Close pals” of Cummings and Cain told David Wooding of The Sun on Sunday:

“Carrie wants to be a new Princess Di character. She’s already got her own spin doctor and own team of people and seems to think she is the most important person in No 10.

“It’s all about the court of Carrie. She’s not helping Boris at all. Everything she does is about her and not him.”

According to Simon Walters, writing in yesterday’s Daily Mail:

“Insiders said the acrimony between Miss Symonds and Mr Cummings and Mr Cain was obvious as far back as March.

“It was then that she allegedly tried to stop the Prime Minister hosting a Covid crisis meeting to deal instead with a newspaper report claiming she wanted to get rid of their beloved Jack Russell cross Dilyn.

“Mr Cummings ‘forced’ Mr Johnson to overrule his fiancée, it was claimed. He told No 10 officials to block any phone calls from Miss Symonds to the Prime Minister about the dog…

“Miss Symonds was said to be livid at a report in The Times which claimed that she no longer liked the animal.

“She went on Twitter to denounce it, saying: ‘Total load of c***. There has never been a happier, healthier and more loved dog than Dilyn.'”

A second source yesterday told ConHome that Symonds would ring Johnson over and over again until he did what she wanted, and insisted that Cummings and Cain had defended the Prime Minister against an unreasonable demand: “It’s pretty bad to be calling the editor of The Times on behalf of your girlfriend’s dog.”

Millions of dog lovers will understand why Symonds was so distressed, and if Auberon Waugh, founder of The Dog Lovers’ Party, were still with us, he would surely contend there could be no better reason to ring the editor of The Times.

H.H. Asquith, Prime Minister from 1908-16, remarked in his memoirs:

“The office of the Prime Minister is what its holder chooses and is able to make of it.”

The same could be said of the role of Prime Minister’s consort. Symonds can make it up as she goes along, is indeed obliged to do so.

She is 24 years younger than Johnson, and the first person to live openly at Downing Street with the Prime Minister without being married, though they are engaged.

In early April, when he went into intensive care, Symonds was terrified he was going to die. At the end of that month, she gave birth to their first child, Wilfred. She hopes to have more children.

Her own parents, Josephine Mcaffee (née Lawrence), a lawyer who did some work for The Independent, and Matthew Symonds, a founder of that paper, were not married to each other.

Anne Symonds, mother of Matthew, and his father John Beavan, later Lord Ardwick, were likewise political journalists of note, and unmarried to each other.

So for Carrie Symonds to feel an affinity with a political journalist of bohemian habits is not entirely surprising.

She was born in London in 1988, and educated at Godolphin and Latymer School and at Warwick University, where she took a First in Art History and Theatre Studies.

Symonds has referred in a tweet to one of her formative early experiences, at the International Fund for Animal Welfare: “It was my internship at IFAW, many moons ago, that first got me hooked on all things animal welfare and wanting to do my bit.”

She is a passionate environmentalist and defender of animal rights. In her first speech after moving into Number Ten, delivered at Birdfair 19, she said:

“Trophy hunting is meant to be a prize… Trophy hunting is the opposite of that… It is cruel, it is sick, is is cowardly, and I will never ever understand the motives behind it.”

That is pretty much her only recorded speech. Last Saturday afternoon, when the PM programme on Radio 4 did a profile of her, it found there are “relatively few recordings” of her.

In another tweet, posted on 2nd December 2016, the day after Zac Goldsmith lost the by-election in Richmond Park where he stood as an Independent, having resigned his seat as a Conservative in protest at the go-ahead being given for the third runway at Heathrow, Symonds declared:

“My first job in politics was working for @ZacGoldsmith & not sure I’d have worked for the Tories if it hadn’t been for him. Owe him a lot”

She worked in 2010-11 as Campaign and Marketing Director for Goldsmith, followed by a series of increasingly senior press jobs at CCHQ, and spells as a special adviser to John Whittingdale and Sajid Javid.

One observer recalled that during the general election of 2015, when she was Head of Broadcasting at CCHQ, Lynton Crosby regarded her as “the best thing since sliced bread”.

In 2016 Symonds demonstrated her independence of mind by becoming one of the handful of SpAds to back Vote Leave, at whose headquarters she appears first to have met Johnson.

During the general election of 2017 she ran Goldsmith’s campaign to regain Richmond Park.

CCHQ believed Goldsmith was going to win easily, so turned off VoteSource in Richmond Park and commanded that resources be redeployed in order to hold off the Lib Dem challenge in Kingston & Surbiton.

Symonds, who worked extremely hard and knew Richmond Park was on a knife-edge, had the wit to defy CCHQ, and had copied VoteSource – a precaution which as Mark Wallace reported for ConHome, other associations were to take before the local elections of 2018, in order to guard against another withdrawal of this essential record of canvass returns.

Goldsmith scraped home in Richmond Park by 45 votes, while Ed Davie recaptured Kingston & Surbiton for the Lib Dems by 4,124 votes. Symonds had made the right call, and was made Director of Communications at CCHQ.

Here she soon fell out with one of Crosby’s protégés, Iain Carter, who was at this time Political Director, and is now Director of Research.

“They both wanted to run the show,” one observer said. “Carrie had very strong views about people. She was unspeakably bad news.”

Symonds resigned in August 2018, after being reprimanded for poor performance. She was also accused of briefing against the Government of the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, and questions had earlier been raised about her expenses claims.

In January 2018, she had learned that John Worboys, the taxi cab rapist, was due for early release. She had herself been drugged by Worboys in 2007, when she was only 19 years old.

The Ministry of Justice said nothing could be done to challenge the Parole Board’s verdict. Symonds was one of the women who had the courage to launch a crowd-funded bid to overturn the decision, which they succeeded in doing.

Soon after she left CCHQ she joined Oceana, a global marine protection charity funded by Bloomberg.

In September 2018 Johnson and Marina Wheeler, to whom he had been married for 25 years and with whom he has four children, announced that they were to divorce, and Johnson’s new relationship with Symonds became known.

Her entry into Downing Street, and exceptional access to the Prime Minister, will have disconcerted those at CCHQ who had formed a low opinion of her.

A Government source yesterday ridiculed Symonds’ critics for moving from describing her as “a bimbo” to calling her “Lady Macbeth”, and added that both of these descriptions are “absurd”.

The source added that she does not see official papers, cannot block appointments, “is not in the slightest bit regal”, but is instead witty, charming and self-effacing, and has good judgement: “The PM has said the reason he’s PM is that she’s there.”

A former colleague at CCHQ is less impressed: “She’s well versed in making people feel good about themselves, but she’s more obsessed with status than with achieving anything.

“When she was having a very torrid time at CCHQ, she talked round lots of Cabinet ministers to support her.”

The media finds it impossible to reach a just assessment of Johnson’s strengths and weaknesses, because it order to appreciate his virtues, it is necessary to approach him in a spirit of sympathy, whereupon one is immediately open to the charge of sycophancy, and of overlooking his faults.

But if, in order to guard against sycophancy, one begins by enumerating his faults, one is liable never to get round to admitting that he has any virtues.

A version of this problem may apply to Symonds. If you are her friend, and she can trust you, she will be all sweetness and light.

If she sees you as an enemy, or suspects you are going to come between her and the Prime Minister, she will brief against you with a ferocity which may seem unhinged, but which is born, perhaps, from an acute awareness of her vulnerability.