Profile: Grant Shapps, the blandly implausible Cabinet star who is taking on the RMT

24 Jun

When Grant Shapps was 13 he declared: “My name is Grant, I’m from Pinner, and my ambition is to be a Conservative Cabinet minister.”

Simon Johnson, now Chair of the Rugby Football League, heard him say this when they were both in BBYO, the Jewish youth organisation, and remarks: “At the height of Thatcherism in the 1980s that was a very brave thing for him to say – it exposed him to a lot of mickey-taking.”

Shapps is now a Conservative Cabinet minister. As Secretary of State for Transport, he is in the front line of the rail dispute, but well before that he was one of the few people trusted by Downing Street to put the Government’s case on the morning media round.

He continues to be exposed to a lot of mickey-taking, but mingled with that is a note of respect. As one former minister remarked this week to ConHome:

“In a normal Cabinet of quality he would be a minor chord. But in this Cabinet, where mediocrity is laced with incompetence, he’s a bit of a star.”

A serving minister went further:

“I love Grant. Pre-Christmas, when there was the possibility of a lockdown, he was completely pivotal in Cabinet in stopping it. His intervention was crucial.”

Another influential Conservative, who has seen a lot of Shapps over the years, said of him:

“I can’t help but like him, even though I wouldn’t trust him. He’s probably the Government’s best communicator in terms of the Cabinet. He exudes confidence. He’s absolutely right about the rail strike – he’s brilliant. He reminds me a little bit of Jeffrey Archer.”

Shapps is an odd mixture of ambition, boldness, implausibility, realism and professionalism. All front-rank politicians need the self-belief to recover from, or better still shrug off, what may seem to spectators like a knockout blow.

The Prime Minister possesses that quality, and so, in a different register, does Shapps. When Mick Lynch, General Secretary of the RMT, blamed the rail strike on “Old Etonians speaking Latin and Greek”, the jibe did not land on Shapps, educated at Watford Grammar School (by then already a comprehensive), Cassio College and Manchester Polytechnic, and as a teenager more interested in designing computer games and setting up small businesses than in academic work.

Class war cannot work against the classless Shapps. “He’s got much better on the media,” a close observer remarks. “He’s one of the few who talks normally.”

One might say Shapps talks blandly. He is not much given to coining memorable phrases. He makes his case in a reasonable, workaday tone of voice, which offers his opponents no weak point against which to counter-attack.

And because he has been Transport Secretary since July 2019, so for almost three years, he has had time to work out how to continue the modernisation of the railways, which began many years before he came on the scene.

ConHome revealed in November 2020 how Shapps proposed to seize the opportunity offered by the pandemic to give Britain world-class rail.

The vast sums of public money which were needed to keep the trains running through the emergency meant this was a moment of central control, when it became possible, as well as morally right, to sweep away obsolete working practices.

That argument has only become stronger since. As Shapps himself put it in a speech delivered on Thursday of last week:

“These strikes are not only a bid to derail reforms that are critical to the network’s future and designed to inflict damage at the worst possible time, they are also an incredible act of self-harm by the union leadership.

“Make no mistake, unlike the past 25 years, when rising passenger demand, year after year, was taken for granted by the industry, today the railway is in a fight.

“It’s not only competing against other forms of public and private transport, it’s in a battle with Zoom, Teams and remote working. In case the unions haven’t noticed, the world has changed.

“Many commuters, who three years ago had no alternative to taking the train, today have the option of not travelling at all. Wave them goodbye and it will endanger the jobs of thousands of rail workers.

“The last thing the railway should be doing right now is alienating passengers and freight customers with a long and damaging strike.”

The strike is about who wields the central power which has been reestablished over the railway. Lynch and his colleagues in the RMT wish to demonstrate they can bring the network to a halt, and that they will continue to be able to do so.

The union barons used to be a power in the land, a great estate of the realm, because they could shut things down. In the 1970s, neither a Conservative Government, led by Edward Heath, nor a Labour one, led by James Callaghan, could work out how to regain the initiative.

In the 2020s, the Government would have to be extraordinarily incompetent – never, admittedly, a possibility which can be excluded – for things to play out as badly as they did in the 1970s.

Shapps was born in 1968, so remembers the 1970s. He not only announced in the early 1980s that he wished to be a Conservative minister, but at that time showed precocious gifts as a campaigner by getting himself elected National President of the Jewish youth organisation to which he belonged.

In an interview given to The Jewish Chronicle in September 2010, Shapps said:

“I feel totally Jewish; I am totally Jewish. I don’t eat pork, we only buy kosher meat and we don’t mix meat and milk. I like being Jewish and I married a Jewish girl. It’s like a way of life and it’s good to be able to instil some of that sense of being in your kids.

“All of that makes me seem as though I am quite observant but actually the flipside of this is I don’t know if there is a God or not. But one thing I am absolutely certain of is that God wouldn’t care if you were Jewish or Christian or Muslim.”

Although there are many politicians who, while nominally Christian, Muslim or Jewish, don’t know if there is a God, few actually say this.

Shapps is not merely undogmatic on his own behalf: he says God, if He exists, would be undogmatic too.

As a politician, Shapps does not preach doctrine, but is instead keenly interested in practice. “His approach has been generally sensible in a department that isn’t sensible,” as one Tory transport expert put it.

A railway specialist was less complimentary: he feared that Great British Rail, set up by Shapps, will become “another vast government bureaucracy that no one will be able to manage”.

But most observers think Shapps has done quite well at leading a department which is extraordinarily difficult to lead. One may compare and contrast him with Gavin Williamson.

Both men were desperate to get back into the Cabinet, both were astute enough to realise that Johnson was the horse to back in 2019, but Williamson, rewarded with the post of Education Secretary, soon found himself in serious difficulties, which Shapps, rewarded with Transport, has not.

The road to the fulfilment of his boyhood ambition has been a long one, strewn with obstacles, including a car accident in America in which he almost lost his life, and a bout of cancer which could also have proved fatal.

His recreation, when he can find time, is to fly his own Piper plane, made in 1985. His department has to deal with the airline industry, formidable at lobbying though not always good at hiring enough staff or treating them properly.

Shapps, son of a graphic designer, as a young man set up a printing business, but also sought to become an MP. He failed first in 1997, when he stood in North Southwark and Bermondsey, coming a distant third, and next in 2001, when he lost by 1,196 votes in Welwyn Hatfield.

In 2005, he won Welwyn Hatfield by 5.946 votes, and threw his support behind David Cameron, whose nomination papers he signed.

Under Cameron, steady promotion followed: Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party in 2005, shadow Housing Minister in 2007, Minister of State for Housing and Local Government in 2010, Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party in 2012.

But the other Chairman was Lord Feldman, who when profiled on ConHome was described as “the more important” of the two, with much closer ties to Cameron.

There are eight references to Feldman in David Cameron’s memoir, For The Record, and only two to Shapps, one of which reads, in its entirety:

“Grant Shapps became Chairman. He was loyal, energetic, and really wanted it.”

Shapps was sometimes known to the Cameroons as von Schnapps, a nickname which perhaps suggests he was not taken with complete seriousness. He made valiant and for a time successful attempts to get Conservative activists bussed to wherever they were most needed.

But after the general election victory of 2015, he was demoted to the post of Minister of State for International Development, no longer attending Cabinet, and in November of that year he stood down because of  grave bullying allegations which had been made about Team2015, the scheme to move young activists around.

There had also been unwelcome publicity about Shapps’s business activities, touched on in this recent piece for ConHome by William Atkinson, including the use of the pseudonym Michael Green and the promotion of a get-rich-quick scheme which seemed unlikely to make anyone better off.

In October 2017, Shapps  said the Conservative Party could not “bury its head in the sand”, and called for the resignation of the Prime Minister, Theresa May.

The plot was a flop and she did not resign until the summer of 2019, when Shapps backed Johnson to succeed her, and became celebrated for the accuracy of the spreadsheets which he prepared for the Johnson campaign.

“He successfully adumbrated the weaknesses and venality of his colleagues,” as one Johnson supporter put it. Shapps had again proved his usefulness, and made sure everyone knew it.

He also makes sure everyone knows that Mick Jones, lead guitarist of The Clash, is his cousin.

Johnson is a fan of The Clash, and especially of Joe Strummer, the band’s lead vocalist. In November 2005, when Johnson was asked by Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs for “record number seven”, he replied:

“Right. Ah, this is fantastic. It is The Clash, “Pressure Drop”, and the great thing about The Clash, of course, was apart from anything else, Joe Strummer was towards the end an avid Telegraph reader and it was the highest moment in my journalistic career when Joe Strummer actually sent me a letter saying how much he’d admired a column I’d written, about hunting funnily enough, and he was a fantastic man, a great hero of mine, a good poet as well as a fantastic rock musician.”

The Prime Minister will be excited to have appointed a Transport Secretary whose cousin performed with Strummer. Here is not the least of Shapps’s implausibilities.

The post Profile: Grant Shapps, the blandly implausible Cabinet star who is taking on the RMT first appeared on Conservative Home.

Gerry Lyons: How the Bank of England has failed to control inflation. And what should be done to reform it.

3 May

Dr Gerard Lyons is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. He was Chief Economic Adviser to Boris Johnson during his second term as Mayor of London.

This week sees the Bank of England celebrate 25 years of independence. Quite rightly, the current rise in inflation has raised questions about whether it is time to reassess its remit and governance.

There has been a rise in inflation across western economies. That this is more than a UK issue should not divert attention from where the problem lies.

If you are driving a car and approach a red light and decide to not only ignore the signal to stop but put your foot down on the accelerator, you are driving dangerously. That some other cars may do the same does not change that fact. It is not safety in numbers, but is more likely to cause greater carnage. Last year, in monetary policy terms, central banks went through the red light – with their feet down on the accelerator. The Bank of England was near the front.

At that time, it was clear that our economy was recovering and inflationary pressures building. The supply-side shock triggered by the pandemic was already evident. The correct policy would have been to tighten policy, not add fuel to the fire by increasing Quantitative Easing to a mammoth £895 billion.

The question I posed then was: which ‘p’ was this inflation? Would it pass-through, persist or become permanent. The Bank strongly believed it would pass through quickly. It was evident it would persist. It was unlikely to be permanent because of intense global competition but, even if inflation persists, once it then eases it may settle at a higher level than before, say nearer three per cent to four per cent than one per cent to two per cent.

The danger, as was clear at the time, was that even if the initial cause of inflation is a supply-side shock, action needed to be taken to prevent cost-push inflation by which firms raise prices to pass on higher costs, or second-round effects allowing prices and inflation expectations to creep higher. Effective communication as well as clear actions were called for. We got neither.

What are the lessons and implications?

Consider the 1970s. It may be hard to believe, but Britain began the 1970s as the low inflation country of Europe. Monday 15th February 1971 was Decimalisation Day, when we moved from 240 pennies in the pound to 100 new pence.

Ahead of that day, I remember paying my bus fare with pennies that had been minted not just in the early part of the twentieth century but some in the nineteenth century too, with Queen Victoria’s head on them. That such old coins were still legal tender was testimony to how well Britain had kept inflation under control.

Apart from the First World War, when annual inflation averaged 15.3 per cent in the UK, only the 1970s saw high inflation, averaging an annual 12.5 per cent during that decade. There is no reason why, with the right policies we cannot return to being a low inflation economy.

The 1970s showed that inflation is deadly. That’s why the complacency with which the Bank treated it last year was wrong. It is felt by everyone, with the poor and those on fixed incomes like pensioners suffering the most.

Another lesson is that the measures necessary to control inflation are deeply uncomfortable, often requiring sharply higher rates, with damaging economic consequences. Nowadays, with borrowing higher, the economy is not only vulnerable to higher rates, but can be impacted sooner as policy tightens.

UK policy rates are currently only 0.75 per cent, while annual consumer price inflation in March was seven per cent, ten times higher than its rate of 0.7 per cent a year ago. And it will head higher.

Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and Jim Callaghan all lost elections because of their inability to control inflation. A central feature of the two general election campaigns in 1974, and even of that of 1979, was the use of a shopping basket to show how the Government had failed. Don’t be in any doubt as to who pays the price for a failure to control inflation.

Given this background, and how important monetary policy is in everyday life, one might think Westminster would pay more attention to the Bank of England – to how it is governed and keeping inflation under control. It is now as the cost-of-living crisis bites and the economy slows sharply.

The weekend saw much coverage of the 25th anniversary of the Blair landslide in 1997. An early decision – on 6th May 1997 – was to award operational independence to the Bank of England.

Although a surprise – having not been mentioned in the campaign – independence had been a topic of discussion for some time among economists. Indeed, I remember a well-attended Society of Business Economists debate early in 1997 where David Currie gave the case for central bank independence and I argued against. There were pros and cons. It would embed low inflation expectations, but there was a need for transparency and democratic accountability.

Even the Bank’s own Quarterly Bulletin in 1995 had carried an article by a leading economist, Robert Barro, showing that it was not independence but often an external factor that was the driving force behind inflation. Indeed, China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation in 2001 contributed to intense competition – helping to drive inflation down globally and in the UK for much of this century.

Inflation has averaged two per cent over the last quarter century. While welcome, this should not divert attention from how the economy has suffered the consequences of three major policy mistakes from the Bank.

First, monetary policy has fed rampant asset price inflation, in financial markets and property. Alongside low property supply, this has fed intergenerational inequality.

Second, a cheap money policy through low interest rates and Quantitative Easing has fed financial instability as markets do not price properly for risk.

Third, the Bank’s recent policies have fed inflation.

Attention usually focuses on the Monetary Policy Committee and interest rates. Thus, the Bank’s other policy committees on prudential regulation and financial policy are too often freed from scrutiny – as is the interaction between these policies. The economy, after all, is significantly affected by the prudential controls placed upon on banks, and peoples’ ability to borrow has been impacted by micro-prudential regulations.

While the Bank, in recent years, has played a welcome role in how finance can help achieve the green agenda, there are other important areas that the Bank should confront. Not least among these is the low level of commercial lending to small firms. It should also be more of a cheerleader for the Square Mile.

Now, it is time to ask whether the Bank’s inflation targeting regime has run its course. I favour a new remit based on a target for nominal GDP. An anti-inflationary monetary policy remains critical, but change is well overdue.

In this much-needed review of the Bank there needs to be a reassessment of its governance, transparency and accountability.

The Bank’ governance is overseen by the Court, but this is rarely held to account, and would appear to pay only lip-service to diversity, not least in thought. Groupthink can be a problem with policymakers. In my view, one might ask if the Bank’s historic underrepresentation of those from working class backgrounds in senior positions hinders how it sees its policies affecting those on low incomes. Its communications too have caused problems. Yet, effective communication is critical – not only to the public and financial markets, but to global audiences too.

Bim Afolami: Get ready for interest rates to rise – with all the shock to homeowners, savers and borrowers that this will entail

29 Nov

Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.

My father came to this country during the 1980s, from Nigeria, to complete his training as a junior doctor. Thankfully this country is where he chose to make his home, and it is the only place that I, and my younger brother and sister, have ever known and loved.

Yet we grew up hearing a lot of stories about what it was like growing up in a country so different to our own; partly to give us a firm understanding of the journey that our family has taken, but also to demonstrate the importance of sensible government and basic, competent management of the economy – something which in Britain, regardless of our political differences, we take for granted.

He told me a story of how he, as a junior doctor and son of an Anglican cleric, was rather impecunious, but had carefully saved the Nigerian equivalent of £24,000 then (about £94,000 now), which he wanted to use as a deposit for a home.

However, during the late 1970s, the Nigerian oil boom meant huge inflation, which, combined with continuing military rule, killed the value of the Nigeria naira – which meant that within a year, he was left with cash worth under £1,000.

It is not an exaggeration to say that his experience of the social and economic experience of the late 1970s in Nigeria was so negative it made him leave the country and seek a better life elsewhere. From this family story I was taught the importance of inflation which has stayed with me ever since.

Inflation may become a defining feature of politics over the next few years.

Inflation was a significant political issue from the 1960s until the early 1990s. There were a series of energy crises between 1967 and 1979 caused by problems in the Middle East, but the most significant started in 1973 when Arab oil producers imposed an embargo.

The decision by OPEC to punish the West in response to support for Israel during the Yom Kippur war against Egypt led the price of crude to rise from $3 per barrel to $12 by 1974. Consequently, the price of petrol rocketed, making all transport more expensive as well as making British industry uncompetitive.

Ted Heath’s government was already struggling to cope with high food prices caused by global shortages, so the oil shock fed into an inflation rate which, by August 1974, hit more than 24 per cent. Inflation never hit quite those heights again, but it averaged about 10 per cent between 1974 and 1992.

This potted history matters, because the politics of that period were completely shaped by the impact of inflation – the wage and incomes policies, the wage demands of the unions, the extremely high interest rates, the currency crisis which precipitated Jim Callaghan’s Labour Government going to the IMF in 1976, the three million unemployed in 1983 – and much else besides.

I am not, for even one moment, suggesting that history is about to repeat itself in any of the above respects. However, I am trying to demonstrate that when inflation is high, governments find it incredibly difficult to bring it down, because many of the causes for inflation are typically global, and high inflation results in tricky political choices.

The 2021 version of the 1973 oil shock is Covid 19. The world shutdown of economic activity and trade hugely affected supply chains, and literally shut them down in many parts of the world.

When almost all economies fully opened earlier this year, the demand for goods worldwide skyrocketed, and has continued to do so. It is this imbalance between supply and demand that has caused the bulk of the inflationary spike.

In addition, huge amounts of necessary government spending to cushion the blow of Covid on households and businesses increased the disposable income of millions. All of this extra spending power and demand is chasing fewer goods. It is worth noting that, notwithstanding the global factors, there is one major driver of inflation that Governments do indeed control – public spending and public sector wages. It is clear that th Treasury will be monitoring these carefully over the coming years.

As a result of all of these factors, inflation is up. The Bank of England’s latest forecast projects inflation to peak at around five per cent in the second quarter of 2022, and many City figures I know think this could be an underestimate.

Though that may be relatively low compared to the 1970’s, with interest rates still below one per cent (though these will creep up slowly), this inflation will erode the spending power of households to a noticeable extent. Interest rate rises may not be very effective at dealing with the inflation we are seeing now, because the causes of inflation are largely driven by a combination of exogenous factors that are not affected by them; ranging from global supply chain problems and energy supply disruption to a build up of excess money supply (through quantitative easing).

Amongst economists, a debate is currently raging about how transitory, or permanent, the inflationary spike will be, and this debate is being played out within the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee – with regards to how quickly they raise interest rates.

I do not intend to get into the weeds of that debate here, but as a politician thinking about the political impacts, we should start planning for an elevated inflation rate (three to five per cent) for at least the foreseeable future. This will mean three key things.

First, interest rates will be going up, and that will mean higher costs of not just mortgages, but anything bought on finance, such as cars, household goods, and furniture. More importantly, it will affect the cost of our daily bread and basic foodstuffs.

We should never forget about the millions of people who are “just about managing” – they will find it harder to budget for their families over the next few months. In addition, any interest rate rise will curtail consumer spending – which may dampen down the speed of our remarkable economic recovery post Covid.

Second, energy prices are already rising and are likely to rise further. Again, this will be very directly felt by the electorate.

Third, there is the impact of rising interest rates on government debt repayments and the Government budget overall. The OBR says that just a one per cent increase in rates would add £20 billion to government debt repayments each year, and interest rates could rise further than that if inflation stays at an elevated rate for a while to come. £20 billion is roughly half the defence budget. Interest rate rises will make the Chancellor’s life even harder here – especially when coupled with ever increasing demands for more public spending, itself a domestic driver of inflation.

As higher inflation and rises in interest rates starts to bite, this will get to the heart of voters’ experience of the economy. They won’t care about statistics but, instead, will think about whether they can manage to pay for their daily costs, and whether they might be able to save enough to buy their kids a nice birthday present, or replace the car that keeps breaking down.

Wages are rising fast in some sectors, particularly for lower paid workers and for workers with scarce skills, but this won’t be for everyone and millions of households will have to tighten their belts. Our Plan for Jobs has been a resounding success, but after the winter we may need to plan for managing inflation.

Duncan Simpson: With the Covid bill standing at £372 billion, the Government’s spending spree looks increasingly unsustainable

26 Jul

Duncan Simpson is Research Director at the Taxpayers Alliance.

Two recent reports from the public accounts committee should give politicians plenty of food for thought over recess. The first looks at the expenditures associated with Covid-19 (whose lifetime costs are now expected to reach £372 billion).

The difference between the outlays already made (such as for the furlough scheme) and those expected to be made in the future can partially be explained by the liabilities that taxpayers might face for commercial loans backed by the Government. The committee was “alarmed to learn” that of the £92 billion worth of loans guaranteed by the HM Treasury, £26 billion might not be paid back.

Separately, the committee has also shed some light on the procurement of personal protective equipment. The committee identified waste levels as being “unacceptably high”, with £2.1 billion worth of items being unsuitable for medical settings. Fast decisions are crucial in a crisis, but bad decisions leave taxpayers shortchanged.

When you put the PAC reports into the wider context of the public finances, things get even more alarming. Public sector national debt stood at £2.2 trillion in May 2021 – or just under 100 per cent of GDP. That’s the highest level it’s been since March 1961.

Quantitative easing – the Bank of England bond-buying programme – has now grown to £0.9 trillion. The House of Lords economic affairs committee recently noted that “no central bank has managed successfully to reverse its asset purchases over the medium to long-term, and the key issue as they look to halt or reverse quantitative easing is whether it will trigger panic in financial markets that spills over into the real economy.” If we weren’t into the unknown before Covid-19, we very much are now.

There is some reasonably good news on the debt stock, however. The UK’s gilts are much longer-dated than many other advanced economies: just shy of 60 per cent of those in issue (excluding index-linked bonds) don’t mature for at least another seven years. This means that the Government is relatively unaffected by short-term interest rate increases. And since advanced economies’ central banks have not indicated any sharp ratcheting up of rates, this could well provide (some) welcome respite.

Inflation, however, could throw a spanner in the works. The main measure of inflation – CPIH – was last this high in February 2018. If this trend continues, higher general prices could well force the Bank of England into tighter monetary policy. This will make both debt servicing and government spending plans harder still.

But the big policy debates leave even more dark clouds on the horizon. Much of Westminster seems hell bent on pursuing net zero without considering the costs. What this will likely entail is a whacking up of families’ outgoings.

For instance, one potential plan to prohibit the sale of gas boilers – thereby eventually forcing most households to switch to heat pump alternatives – could cost between £6,000 and £18,000 apiece. A standard gas boiler retails for around £2,000. The well-heeled don’t seem to appreciate the everyday pressures on their finances that most households face.

Equally, banning the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030 could cost families dear. The market for electric vehicles will of course grow and the costs come down as new models and competitors enter the market.

Likewise, many US car manufacturers have seen the writing on the wall and have all but stopped research and development into new internal combustion engines. But again, the thought of coughing up for a new motor will rightly worry millions of Britons. After all, 61 per cent of journeys were still undertaken by car in England during 2019.

Levelling up too presents risks to taxpayers. Though still quite ill-defined (something to do with being near a football pitch, I think), plans to increase investment spending are eye-popping.

Forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility show that public sector net investment will reach £70 billion by the end of this parliament. In real terms, it will have increased by two thirds in ten years. Relative to the size of the economy, that is the same as the heady, free market paradise that was Jim Callaghan’s administration or the final year of Clement Attlee’s.

When you mix together Covid spending, a large and growing debt stock, quantitative easing, potential inflation risks and enormous spending commitments, the Government’s future choices risk putting taxpayers onto an even more unsustainable footing than they currently are on.

And politics is all about choices. Some of them are difficult, but taking the easy route – spending lots of money you don’t have – can vanquish a reputation for economic competence.

So the Government must be upfront about the trade-offs in its policy programme. It should also be responsible. Perhaps it’s an excellent idea to embark on an infrastructure spending programme; but we need to hear more about where the Government will save money to pay for it, instead of endlessly raiding taxpayers’ pockets for more cash when the tax burden is already at a 70-year high.

The Comprehensive Spending Review in November gives the government a chance to do exactly that.

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.