Book review: Things Can Only Get Worse? by John O’Farrell

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Things Can Only Get Worse? Twenty Confusing Years In The Life Of A Labour Supporter by John O’Farrell, Published by: Doubleday

In 1998, John O’Farrell published, Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter, 1979-1997. It was an enjoyable and genuinely funny political memoir of O’Farrell’s life from his teenage defeat as Labour candidate in his school’s 1979 mock election to the happy ending of the New Labour landslide in 1997. Eighteen years is a long time: by 1997, O’Farrell was well into his thirties, balding, married with children and thanks to his work on the likes of Spitting Image and Radio 4’s Weekending, an established comedy writer.

The book was a big hit. But now twenty years have passed again since Blair’s first big win. The story of the two decades since as covered  in this sequel is rather more complex.

On the one hand, New Labour won yet another landslide in 2001 and a third big win in 2005. The Tories have never really recovered from their 1997 trouncing, winning a  majority in only one of the last six General Elections and even then a very small one (in 2015). And as O’Farrell says, things undeniably got better under Labour, with the government “writing off the debt of the world’s poorest countries…transforming the NHS by trebling health spending and massively reducing waiting lists…the minimum wage, and pensioners getting free TV licences and the winter fuel allowance…peace in Northern Ireland… equality for the gay community…all the new schools…free entry to museums and galleries…” The list goes on (and on).

John O'Farrell, Labour's prospective parliamentary candidate for Eastleigh

On the other hand, as O’Farrell admits, there are certainly grounds for pessimism too. O’Farrell often felt conflicted defending the Blair Government as a Guardian columnist in the early 2000s particularly after the build-up to the Iraq War. He had a bit of a laugh campaigning as the Labour candidate for the hopelessly Tory seat of Maidenhead in the 2001 second Labour landslide election running against a notably unimpressive Opposition frontbencher called Theresa May. But the disintegration of Labour under first Gordon Brown and then Ed Miliband was hardly a joy to behold, either for him or anyone else who backed Labour. O’Farrell’s candidature in the 2013 Eastleigh by-election in which he came fourth, was less fun too with the Tory tabloids attacking him by using out of context quotes from his first book. By 2016, with O’Farrell despairing after a year of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Brexit result and the election of Donald Trump, the celebrations of victory night in May 1997 start to seem like a very long time ago indeed.

Thankfully, O’Farrell is always a funny writer, remaining upbeat even when for others, things would only get bitter.

After all, even at their worst, Labour have never been as bad as the Tories. Yes, the Tories: a party who supported the Iraq War far more enthusiastically than Labour did (and indeed, whose support ensured it happened), a party who fiercely upheld Labour’s spending plans in the early 2000s at the time (rightly) only to attack them endlessly (and wrongly) later, a party whose membership enthusiastically chose Jeffery Archer as its choice for London mayor in 2000 and Iain Duncan Smith as their party leader in 2001. The Conservatives were, are and will always be “the Silly Party.”

This is an excellent book. And thanks to Theresa May’s calamitous General Election miscalculation, it even has a happy ending.

Sort of.

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Book review: The Conservative Party by Tim Bale

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With all the publicity about Labour  recent and genuine problems, it’s easy to forget that until comparatively recently, the Tories were in similar dire straits. Tim Bale’s provides an excellent reminder of this.

Perhaps some of you disagree? Well, let’s us consider the electoral hole Labour currently finds itself in. Certainly, the loss of Scotland has been a disaster for the party and opinion polls currently offer few encouraging signs of any nationwide recovery. On the other hand, the Tories have one of their smallest parliamentary majorities since the war. In 2010, at the height of the slump, they didn’t even win a majority at all. Labour have not suffered a heavy General Election defeat since 1987, close to thirty years’ ago.

Compare this to the Tories. In 1990, John Major became Prime Minister inheriting virtually all of Thatcher’s majority from that same 1987 landslide, by then around a 100 with nearly 400 Tory MPs. By the time Major stood down from the leadership in 1997, the party was in opposition, many of the traditional Tory papers had turned on it and barely 160 MPs were left. The Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, the former Chancellor Norman Lamont and Defence Secretary and until that point, presumptive Tory leadership successor Michael Portillo had all lost their seats in the May 1997 Tory bloodbath. Of all the party leaders in the 20th century, only David Lloyd George presided over a similar decline.Things could only get bitter.

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This was not all Major’s fault. In fact, he was generally more popular than his party. Thatcher had been leading the party to certain defeat. Major probably saved them in 1992.

The Tories comforted themselves with three things. One,the 1997 New Labour victory was a defeat for the Conservatives, but a victory for conservatism. This turned out not to be true.

Secondly, they tried to pretend they hadn’t really lost by much. The result was a statistical fluke. This wasn’t true either. Labour had won by the second biggest margin in the percentage share of the popular vote achieved since 1945. Their majority of 179 was bigger than any achieved by Attlee or Thatcher. The Tories now had no MPs in Scotland or Wales. The result had been a calamity for them.

However, after their big 1906 and 1945 defeats, the Tories had bounced back quickly. This third point was certainly true.

But it didn’t happen this time. William Hague was a disaster as leader. In the 2001 election, the party made only one net gain. They then compounded their error in 1997, by rejecting more plausible candidates like Ken Clarke or the returned Portillo in favour first of the disastrous Iain Duncan Smith in 2001 and then Michael Howard in 2003! They came tantalisingly close to rejecting David Cameron in favour of the un-electable David Davis following the third substantive Tory defeat in 2005.

Today Labour undeniably have leadership problems. But Tories take heed: within a decade the tables may have turned just as dramatically again.

The Conservative Party From Thatcher To Cameron: Tim Bale (Polity, 2016)

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Fifty years of Tory leadership contests

Margaret Thatcher and John Major in 1991

It is easy to forget amidst all the current Labour leadership hoo-hah, that it is fifty years this month since the very first Conservative leadership contest. Generally more unpredictable than their Labour equivalents, let’s recall this and every such contest since…

1963: Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan resigns on the eve of the party conference. The resulting chaos convinces most that the “magic circle” process of consultation needs to be replaced by an election of MPs. Macmillan’s successor Alec Douglas-Home resigns as Tory leader after losing the 1964 General Election and begins devising the mechanism for the first Conservative leadership contest to be held amongst MPs.

1965

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Edward Heath beats the favourite, former Chancellor, Reginald Maudling to win the leadership. Enoch Powell comes third.

The right choice?: Probably. Heath at least won the 1970 General Election. ‘Reggie’ Maudling ultimately fell foul of his business connections and resigned as Home Secretary. Powell with his inflammatory 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech (and his 1974 pre-election decision to urge voters to support Labour) proved ill-suited to frontbench politics.

1975

Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher

Former Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher unexpectedly deposes Heath (now back in Opposition) and proceeds to beat Geoffrey Howe, Willie Whitelaw, Jim Prior, Hugh Fraser and John Peyton for the top job. Heath descends into “the incredible sulk” for the next thirty years.

The right choice?: Undoubtedly. Whatever else she may have been, Thatcher was a boon to the Tory party, ultimately delivering them three landslide election victories. This wasn’t obvious in 1975, however, and Heath’s popularity with the public continued to outstrip hers until the early Eighties.

1989

Margaret Thatcher resigns, Guardian front page 23 November 1990

Unknown pro-European back-bencher Sir Anthony Meyer (dubbed “Sir Nobody” by the press) mounts a “stalking horse” challenge to Prime Minister Thatcher’s leadership. He loses, but the number of abstentions is high, a fact largely overlooked at the time.

The right choice?: Could the brutality of Thatcher’s departure have been averted had she gone a year earlier? Who knows?

1990

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 9:  British Prime Minister John Major (L)  and  his deputy  Michael Heseltine answer questions at the morning election conference, 09 April in London,  as sleaze promised to dominate the 22 days left to May 1 elections after local party bosses thumbed their noses at the national leadership and retained   MP Neil Hamilton accused of taking bribes. Mr Major said that Mr Hamilton had the full support of the Conservative Party and hoped he would return to the House of Commons to carry out his work,    and he called on the voters of Tatton to stand behind    Hamilton and elect him as their MP at       elections.  (Photo credit should read JOHNNY EGGITT/AFP/Getty Images)

In a hugely dramatic coup, Margaret Thatcher is challenged by her former defence secretary, Michael Heseltine. She technically wins but not by a wide enough margin and reluctantly resigns. Little-known Chancellor John Major beats Heseltine and Foreign Secretary Douglas “too posh” Hurd in the second round.

The right choice?: In the short run, yes. Major replacing Thatcher saved the Tories from certain defeat in 1992. In the long run? Perhaps not. Thatcher – a woman with no interests outside politics – became a perpetual thorn in Major’s side and the scars of the contest took many years to heal.

1995

John Major PM talking to journalists in Downing Street before leaving for Waterloo.

By now perpetually embattled PM Major pre-empts ongoing leadership controversy by resigning as leader and inviting people to “put up or shut up” and challenge him. He defeats former Welsh secretary John Redwood but only narrowly beats the own private target set by himself below which he would have resigned. Bigger guns Ken Clarke, Michael Portillo and Heseltine again, thus do not enter the contest, as might have been expected otherwise.

The right choice?:  It seems doubtful anyone could have saved the Tories from electoral disaster in 1997 by that stage.

1997

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Little-known 36-year old former Welsh secretary William Hague beats Clarke, Peter Lilley, Redwood and Michael “something of the night about him” Howard after the party’s devastating election defeat. Heseltine’s heart condition rules him out. Portillo famously loses his seat, preventing him from participating in the contest.

The right choice?: Probably not. Hague proved an inexperienced and inadequate leader. Voters would have preferred the more effective and experienced Ken Clarke.

2001

Iain Duncan Smith beats Clarke in a ballot of party members. Michaels Portillo (now back in parliament) and Ancram all lost out early on in a ballot of MPs as did David Davis.

The right choice?: Definitely not. IDS was a disaster as leader and was deposed in favour of an un-elected Michael Howard in 2003. Any of the other candidates would have been better. Clarke’s election as Tory leader might also have prevented UK involvement in the Iraq War after 2003.

2005

In the year of Ted Heath’s death, David Cameron beats David Davis for the leadership. Liam Fox and an ageing Clarke lose out early on.

The right choice?: Probably, yes. Cameron finally delivered victory this year. their smallest post-war majority, yes. But a win is a win.

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Book review: Closet Queens: Some 20th Century British Politicians by Michael Bloch

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As of May 2015, there are more openly gay members of parliament than there have ever been before. But how many are still “in the closet”? And what about those who kept their sexuality under wraps in the past, perhaps before the homosexual act itself was legalised in 1967?

Michael Bloch’s book is extremely gossipy but also highly informative revealing that far more of the British politicians who shaped the last century were gay than was commonly thought. In some cases, it was just a phase: Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland’s very intense early relationship fizzled out into mere friendship by the time both had began their careers as Labour politicians. They later became fierce rivals. The still homosexual Crosland was bitterly disappointed when the now keenly heterosexual Jenkins was appointed Chancellor in 1967. Jenkins felt the same when Crosland became Foreign Secretary seven years later. Jenkins left the Callaghan government in 1977 to become President of the EEC. Crosland, a heavy drinker, died soon afterwards. But it was Jenkins, who as Home Secretary oversaw the legalisation of homosexuality. Bloch points out many of the key architects of the change in the law, in fact, had secret homosexual pasts themselves. Bloch even suggests the bisexual Lord Boothby (for many years, the lover of Lady Dorothy Macmillan) may have blackmailed the notoriously homophobic Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe into permitting the Wolfenden Report which urged legalisation in the Fifties.

What about Downing Street? Bloch repeats the rumours that the 1890s Liberal Prime Minister Lord Rosebery may well have been homosexual, rumours which ultimately wrecked his career at the time. As for Edward Heath, one of only three bachelor Prime Ministers in the UK, Bloch re-enforces the growing conventional wisdom that Heath (a misogynistic mummy’s boy) was essentially homosexual but chose to suppress his sexuality as he knew it would destroy any chance of a political career. This throws an interesting angle on the brief coalition talks Heath went through with Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe in 1974. Heath knew from the security services that the married Thorpe was a promiscuous homosexual and indeed that the younger man was already in difficulties with the Norman Scott affair which would ultimately destroy him. Heath kept his knowledge to himself, however.

Some might raise eyebrows at the inclusion of Winston Churchill in a book entitled “Closet Queens” though. Yes, Churchill reportedly had a low sex drive, had misogynist tendencies and enjoyed a number of close friendships with young men. This does not, in itself, make him a “closet queen,” however, and this chapter should have been expunged from the book.

However, with the wealth of biographical information on the likes of such characters as “Chips” Channon, Bob Boothby, Tom Driberg, Harold Nicolson and Peter Mandelson and the like, this is a useful book even if you choose to ignore the bits about their sex lives.

Closet Queens: Some 20th Century British Politicians by Michael Bloch. Published by: Little, Brown

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General Election memories 5: 1997

tony_blair_1997-cherieAberystwyth, May 1st 1997

“Bliss it was that dawn to be alive. And to be young was very heaven.”

William Wordsworth on the French Revoution.

Why was the 1997 election so great?

Was it simply because I was young? It was not only the first time I was able to vote in a General Election (I was twenty) but the first election where Labour had won in Peterborough or nationwide in my entire life. Indeed, it was the biggest Labour victory ever and still the biggest victory achieved by any party since the Second World War. But just as everyone tends to like the music that was popular when they were young, is my own memory of the election blighted by similar nostalgia?

Perhaps. But, if so, I am certainly not the only one. Many people, some much older than me, seem to have fond memories of it too. Ultimately, it may be the best election many of us ever experience in our entire lives.

It is easy now to forget just how hated the Tories were by 1997. Blair never came close to being anywhere near as unpopular, nor has David Cameron (yet). Gordon Brown and Margaret Thatcher did come close, Thatcher particularly towards the Poll Tax lunacy of her final year in office. But neither were as widely disliked as the Major Government in 1997. The proof is in the results: Labour won a majority of 179, bigger than any other party since 1945 (including any victory by Attlee, or Thatcher). Their margin of victory in terms of share of the vote was also the second greatest since the war (nearly 13% over the Tories).

The problem with the Tories wasn’t so much John Major himself, an amiable figure, despite being a very weak leader. It was the fact that the Tories had been in power for eighteen years and had given everyone a reason to dislike them.

True, if you hated their poor treatment of the NHS, schools and public services, you would probably have already been against the Tories before 1997. Many more were converted to Labour after 1992 by the total catastrophe that was rail privatisation. Nobody wanted it, it was clearly a stupid idea. The Tories did it anyway. The Major government even sold off the railways at knockdown prices. It was a disaster. One we are still living with today.

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Even traditionally Tory groups had cause to hate the Tories. If you had been in the services, you resented the defence cuts and the shoddy treatment of those with Gulf War Syndrome. If you were a farmer, you were furious over the government’s disastrous handling of the Mad Cow crisis. If you were in the business community, you were grateful the economy was doing so well. But after the economic incompetence of Black Wednesday in 1992, many felt our economic recovery had occurred in spite of the Tories not because of them.

If these things hadn’t put you off the Tories, the sleaze, the hypocrisy of the Back to Basics campaign and the government’s total paralysis as the Tories waged a bitter civil war with itself over Europe would have done. The Major Government was a worthless, hateful  shower of mediocrities and richly deserved the fate which befell it.

British Prime Minister John Major (L) and his de

Some deduce from this that Labour thus barely needed to lift a finger to win in 1997. This isn’t true. Contrary to popular legend, governments do not lose elections, oppositions win them. Nobody elects an alternative government without being sure that as the great political philosopher Kylie Minogue put it they are better than “the devil you know”. And Tony Blair and New Labour didn’t put a foot wrong in the three years leading up to 1997.

This is what made the General Election night in 1997 so glorious. The odious Hamiltons: gone, in one of the strongest Tory seats in the country. Sleazemaster David Mellor: gone. Norman Lamont: gone. Thatcher’s old seat Finchley: gone to the Lib Dems. Peterborough gone to Labour. My future home of Exeter fell to Labour’s Ben Bradshaw after a bitterly homophobic campaign by his Tory opponent Dr. Adrian Rogers backfired. The Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind gone.

And best of all,  the most likely next successor to the Tory leadership, Michael Portillo was gone! Today he is an amiable TV presenter who wears odd pink clothes. Readers have indeed proven fascinated by his sexuality making my earlier post https://chrishallamworldview.wordpress.com/2013/05/24/the-rise-and-fall-of-michael-denzil-xavier-portillo/ The Rise and Fall of Michael Portillo (which barely mentions his personal life) consistently the most read piece on this blog.

But in 1997, Michael Portillo was a power-hungry Thatcherite yob. Trust me: we had a narrow escape there.

Major had left the Tories with fewer than half of the number of seats he had inherited in 1990. Justice had been done. New Labour had been elected. A new era had begun. “Bliss it was that dawn to be alive” indeed!

But what about me? I was twenty and as youthful and energetic as ever. I was finishing my first year at the University of Aberystwyth, a seat which actually fell to Plaid Cymru not Labour in that year. And, yes, I was as apathetic as ever.

On the one hand, I met the Labour candidate Robert “Hag” Harris. He seemed decent and looked a bit like Lenin, which at the time I took to be a good sign. I was sorry to tell him I was registered to vote in Peterborough and so could not vote for him. I am disappointed to see now that he has never become an MP in the years since.

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I also wrote letters to friends and family about the election: yes letters! Remember them? My brother even got a pager for his 16th birthday that year! I would not send many more letters, however. I sent my first email the following year.

I saw the New Labour battle bus while travelling between Peterborough and Aberystwyth, presumably with many of our nation’s future leaders on board.

I studied History and in 1997 switched to International Politics. I know I argued with lots of people about politics during that period and who knows, may have even convinced a few instead of pushing them in the other direction.

But officially, yes. I was lazy. I spent the last and one of the most important UK General Election nights of the 20th century, drunk in either the Student Union building or watching the results in one of the hall TV rooms (I am not confused, I was in both of these places).

And yes. I did vote Labour but I was registered to vote in Peterborough not Aberystwyth. There, Labour’s Helen Brinton replaced Tory Party Chairman Brian Mawhinney who, in a huge show of confidence for the party whose national election campaign he was officially running, had fled the seat he had represented for eighteen years for a neighbouring safer Tory seat. It was known as “the chicken run”. So he remained as an MP even though Peterborough was won by Labour.

And even in this, I was lazy. I had arranged for my father to vote on my behalf by proxy. He cast my first fateful vote, not me.

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10 things which would have astonished you about 2014 had you known about them at the Millennium

1. Britain’s leading astronomer is now someone from D:Ream.
2. The US president is black. And the next one may well be a woman.
3. Onetime rising Tory star Michael Portillo is now best known for hosting a TV series about railways.
4. Rolf Harris is in prison.
5. Edwina Currie and Ann Widdecombe are now stars of reality TV.
5. Slavery and piracy are major international problems.
6. Doctor Who is one of the BBC’s biggest shows (it was not on between 1989 and 2005).
7. Take That, Peter Andre, Noel Edmonds and Ant and Dec are rarely off our screens.
8. Tony Blair is best remembered for joining former President Bush’s son in starting a war with Iraq.
9. The Euro is widely seen as a failure. Britain never joined the Euro and is now seriously considering leaving the European Union.
10. Boris Johnson is seriously being considered as a likely possible future Prime Minister.

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The rise and fall of Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo

ImageAs Michael Portillo approaches his 60th birthday this weekend, it’s easy to forget that this gentle, amiable TV presenter was not only the fierce young embodiment of a resurgent Thatcherite Right but also a prospective Prime Minister. But flashback to twenty years ago and it was a very different story…

With the possible exceptions of Boris Johnson and Michael Heseltine, Portillo excited Tories more than any other post-Thatcher politician. The son of a left-wing refugee from the Spanish Civil War, Portillo was an unlikely Tory hero. Like William Hague, he was vulnerable to charges of teenaged political geekery. But it was Labour’s Harold Wilson, Portillo idolised, not Thatcher. He even had a picture of him in his school locker. This only changed when hr began experimenting with conservatism at university.

By the time of John Major’s surprise victory in 1992, Portillo’s Thatcherite credentials were impeccable. He had been close to the lady herself since the Seventies. Although not yet forty and as Chief Secretary of the Treasury, the most junior cabinet minister, Portillo began being touted as a possible successor to the already troubled Major. He was younger and healthier than Heseltine and more agreeably Eurosceptic than the other apparently most likely successor, the Chancellor, Ken Clarke.

Portillo was certainly a mischief-maker and a party conference rabble rouser even if his absurd “Who dares wins” speech was poorly received. A panel of disillusioned Tory voters on Newsnight who had never seen him before, universally backed him as exactly the sort of leader they would like to see. On Spitting Image, the puppet of Jeremy Paxman was endlessly distracted by Portillo’s “nice hair”. Malicious rumours flew elsewhere that he was having a gay affair with colleague Peter Lilley (untrue). Portillo was appointed Employment Secretary, a decision likened to “putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank”. Portillo was undoubtedly one of the Eurosceptic “bastards”, John Major in an off the record moment complained he could not sack. There seemed to be no stopping him.

That said, in 1995, when Major resigned, inviting opponents to “put up or shut up” and stand against him, Portillo dithered just as David Miliband did over whether to challenge Gordon Brown a decade or so later. Portillo came off badly – telephone wires were seen being installed at his potential campaign HQ, presumably installed as a precaution if Major fell suddenly. John Redwood, another Rightist, boosted his profile immeasurably by standing against Major and losing. But Redwood, unlike Portillo, had never stood a chance. Portillo was given the post of Defence Secretary, a tricky position to cause mischief in (Thatcher had appointed her nemesis, Heseltine to the same position in 1983). Portillo was surely sensible to wait until the Tories lost in 1996 or 1997 as was universally expected and then stand for leader then?

Few expected the Tories to lose as heavily as they did, however. The opinion polls were actually quite accurate but even Labour’s leaders, cautious after the 1992 shock, only expected a majority of about 40. They in fact achieved 179, the largest majority won by any party since the war.

Portillo certainly wasn’t expecting to lose his Enfield seat although had steeled himself by the time the result was aired on TV, a clip later voted one of the “best TV moments ever.” Unlike the disgraced former Heritage Secretary, David Mellor who had a public row with Referendum Party leader Sir James Goldsmith when he lost his seat in Putney, Portillo maintained an air of dignity. But Portillo’s defeat to Labour’s young Stephen Twigg was a total surprise. He had been widely expected to be elected as the next Tory leader. In a night of big Tory scalps (Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, ex-Chancellor Norman Lamont) Portillo’s was the biggest. “Were you up for Portillo?” became the big question of the next day. Subsequent elections threatened to have “Portillo moments” – Peter Mandelson almost fell in 2005, Ed Balls came close in 2010. But none delivered. Blair, born in the same month as Portillo had proven his political nemesis.

The subsequent 1997 Tory leadership contest must have been especially galling for Portillo as had he been an MP, he would have surely won the leadership. Heseltine, Portillo’s main prospective rival, did not stand due to health concerns. Clarke, the most popular and well-known candidate was rejected by Tories as too pro-Europe. Lady Thatcher’s endorsement and the support of Tories went to a young right-winger, William Hague. At thirty-six, Hague was eight years younger than Portillo, little-known, inexperienced and unpopular. On the other hand, with such a huge Labour majority to overturn, the likelihood of anyone, even Portillo, leading the Tories to victory within a decade looked slim. The job was a poisoned chalice.

Had Portillo stayed where he was ideologically, he would probably have succeeded Hague as leader. He won a by-election in Alan Clark’s rock solid Kensington and Chelsea seat in 1999 and quickly moved to Hague’s front bench. The Tories barely gained any ground in the 2001 General Election and Hague quit. Surely now was Portillo’s time?

But Portillo was no longer the right-winger he had once been. He had genuinely had a rethink during his time out of parliament and had re-positioned himself basically as a “compassionate conservative” similar to David Cameron today. This and revelations about homosexuality in his student days, harmed his standing with the notoriously homophobic Tory Party. In a notoriously eccentric decision, Tories plucked for Iain Duncan Smith over the more popular, experienced and well-known Portillo and Ken Clarke. Smith turned out to be the worst Opposition leader in living memory and was ditched in 2003. Not yet fifty, Portillo grew disillusioned, concentrating instead on a career in the media. He stood down in 2005 and is no longer a Tory Party member today.

Perhaps Portillo’s misfortune was simply timing. Tony Blair was born in the same month as Portillo and ultimately proved his nemesis. Portillo would probably never have overthrown Major in 1995 but had more Tories voted for Redwood, Major might have fallen and Portillo, hampered by his youth (he was then only forty-two) might have succeeded him. But would he have wanted to be PM for just two years with New Labour’s ascent in 1997 so inevitable by that point anyway? He would surely have been blamed forever for the Tory defeat.

Alternatively, had Labour won by less in 1997, Portillo would have maintained his seat and probably won the leadership. But the “what if…?” scenario does not help. Although a leading member of the government, the scale of the defeat was largely beyond Portillo’s control.

Portillo’s third chance in 2001 was effectively wrecked by his new moderate position. This was sincere and not a tactic. Besides Portillo was not to know just how eccentric the Tories would be by 2001. A shallower politician would have become leader. It seems unlikely but not impossible he could have beaten Blair in 2005 anyway.

Perhaps he could have stayed on and won the leadership in 2005 instead of Cameron? Or maybe, had he become leader in 2001, he would have done well enough in 2005 to stay on as leader and then won in 2010? He would still have been two years’ younger than PM, Gordon Brown.

But one senses his heart was no longer in it. Ultimately, Portillo’s failure to become Prime Minister was not wholly down to ill-judgement. He was also unlucky.

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House of Cards Revisited

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“Nothing lasts forever,” muses Francis Urquhart as he looks at a picture of Margaret Thatcher. ”Even the longest, the most glittering reign must come to an end someday”. 

So begins House of Cards, one of the finest political dramas in British TV history. It has recently been remade for the US by Netflix.

Based on a book by Tory insider Michael Dobbs and brought to the screen by the more left wing British dramatist Andrew Davies in 1990, House of Cards centres on Francis Urquhart, the Tory Party Chef Whip superbly played by the late Ian Richardson. Taking the audience into his full confidence – Urquhart has a disarming and involving tendency to talk directly to the audience, often offering nothing more than a wry smile or a raised eyebrow in response to events – we become fully involved and even complicit in Urquhart’s activities as he skilfully manoeuvres his way to the top of the Tory tree an into Downing Street.

The action opens in the aftermath of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s apparent retirement (at that point, an event still in the future). Indeed, Thatcher is the only real life figure (other than the Queen) referred to at any point. Urquhart assesses the likely candidates for the succession:

“Plenty of contenders. Old warriors, young pretenders. Lord Bilsborough, say — party chairman, too old and too familiar, tainted by a thousand shabby deals. Michael Samuels — too young and too clever. Patrick Woolton — bit of a lout, bit of a bully-boy. Yes, it could well be Woolton. Henry Collingridge — the people’s favourite, a well-meaning fool, no background and no bottom.”

Urquhart with splendid false modesty rules himself out:

“What, me? Oh, no no no. I’m the Chief Whip, merely a functionary. I keep the troops in line. I put a bit of stick around. I make them jump. And I shall, of course, give my absolute loyalty to whoever emerges as my leader.”

In fact, when the new leader Henry “Hal” Collingridge reneges on a promise to appoint Urquhart to the Cabinet, Francis turns against him, constructing a bogus scandal involving the Prime Minister’s wayward brother and demolishing all other rivals to not only bring down Collingridge but to ensure that he, Francis Urquhart, shall succeed him.

In this the role of young journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) proves crucial. It is to her that he leaks information answering her questions not n the affirmative but couched in the coded evasive standard political answer: “You might very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.”

 

Timing

The series was blessed by remarkable good timing. In real life, Michael Heseltine announced his intention to stand against Margaret Thatcher, just five days before the first episode went on on November 18th 1990. By the time of the fourth and final episode, Thatcher had been toppled and John Major had beaten both Heseltine and Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd to become Prime Minister. House of Cards thus became very topical indeed. The series had the good fortune to go out during the first change of Tory leadership in fifteen years and one of the most dramatic ends to a Prime Ministerial reign ever.

 

Real life parallels?

House of Cards is obviously fiction but some have suggested similarities to real life figures. Make of them what you will. I couldn’t possibly comment.

Francis Urquhart: Urquhart does not obviously resemble any one real life person strongly. He is nothing like Edward Heath, another Chief Whip who went onto Downing Street. Urquhart’s upper class background was also distinctly unfashionable by 1990. Douglas Hurd, would in fact be embarrassed by his posh background in the leadership contest that took place while House of Cards went out and no Tory leaders emerged from upper class background between 1965 and 2005 (between Alec Douglas Home and David Cameron). Urquhart’s ideological position seems to be closest to Thatcher. Yet unlike any of these figures, he is a murderer and probably closer to Shakespeare’s Richard III than anyone in real life.

Henry Collingridge: Both Dobbs and Davies were right to predict domineering figure like Thatcher would be succeeded by a moderate more conciliatory figure. A harsh critic might say Urquhart’s summary of Collingridge: “a well-meaning fool, no background and no bottom,” applied equally well to Thatcher’s actual successor John Major (or indeed, David Cameron). Major also won the 1992 election with a majority of 21 (Collingridge manages about 30). Unlike in the series, there are few immediate problems resulting from the Tory majority dropping so dramatically. John Major’s Tories had anticipated defeat in 1992 and were happy just to win at all. Major’s premiership would prove similarly troubled although more enduring than Collingridge’s. If anyone fatally undermined Major’s leadership, other than Major himself, it was his predecessor Lady Thatcher.

Bob Landless: A crude American media magnate. Clearly a composite of and Robert Maxwell, then still alive (although unlike Landless, a Labour supporter) and Rupert Murdoch.

Lord Bilsborough: Seems similar to William Whitelaw, who ran against Thatcher in 1975 but ultimately became her most loyal servant. But Whitelaw was much nicer than Bilsborough and much less tainted by “shabby deals”.

Michael Samuels: In some ways similar to Michael Portillo, then a dashing rising star in the party and with a history of left wing support and some homosexuality (then not known about) in his past. Portillo, although half-Spanish, isn’t Jewish as Samuels is though. In this respect, Samuels is more like another rising Tory Michael of the time and future leader, Michael Howard.

Peter Mackenzie: Health Minister. Physically very like John Major (he is played by Christopher Owen) although unlike Major seems to be racist and accidentally runs over a disabled protester.

Afterwards

(SPOILER ALERT) Two TV sequels To Play The King and The Final Cut are worth seeing although neither quite scaled the heights of the original. Dobbs wrote two books which followed the first series. The first book ends differently with Urquhart, consumed by shame choosing to hurl himself to death rather than Mattie.

Michael Dobbs served as Deputy Tory Chairman under John Major and is now Baron Dobbs in the House of Lords. He has written many novels.

Already a prolific author Andrew Davies (A Very Peculiar Practice), Davies has become something of an adaptation-writing machine since the huge success of 1995’s Pride and Prejudice (which featured Mattie Storin from House of Cards as Jane). Incredibly, Davies has written over twenty series since including Mr Selfridge, Bleak House and Middlemarch.

Ian Richardson died in 2007.

A new US series of House of Cards (much altered) starring Kevin Spacey as House Majority Whip Frank Underwood is is available on Netflix.