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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Book review: The Eye of the Storm: The View From The Centre of A Political Scandal by Rob Wilson

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What is it like to be at the centre of a political scandal? We are all keen enough to criticise our politicians when they fall into difficulties, but how many of us would have the strength of character to withstand the ensuing media storm which usually follows?

Although never the victim of such a scandal himself, Tory MP Rob Wilson is well placed to provide an insight into the behind the scenes action which has provided the backdrop to a number of the scandals which have been endured by a number of his colleagues in the last decade. It is a well written and well researched book which goes some way to redressing the balance towards the currently much maligned political class,

Wilson’s political leanings occasionally show, however. Andrew Mitchell of Plebgate in a chapter on the scandal called “Andrew Mitchell’s heartbreak” is described as being “now viewed sympathetically across the political spectrum as the victim of a dangerous conspiracy”. This isn’t true. There is definitely a lot of murkiness surrounding the police allegations about Mitchell but his reputation has certainly been at least as tainted as the Met’s by the affair. Terrible as his ordeal may well have been, a cloud still hangs over Mitchell’s character. The book was published before Mitchell lost his libel case against News Group Newspapers in November 2014, however, so on this Wilson can perhaps be excused.

It is frequently clear, however, where his sympathies lie. Labour MP Tom Watson is labelled as a “witch-finder general” for his perfectly legitimate and necessary investigations into the phone hacking scandal. Lib Dem Vince Cable is portrayed as “never lacking in self confidence in his own ability”. Tory Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, meanwhile, who somehow survived suggestions of improper collusion with the Murdoch press presumably because his Prime Minister felt vulnerable on the same ground himself, escapes the same criticism even though he was assured enough to say goodbye to another promising colleague on leaving university with the words, “see you at Westminster!” Both did indeed become MPs before long.

In fairness most of the chapters in here though are thoroughly researched and compelling reading. Anyone interested to know more about the falls of Liam Fox, Chris Huhne or Jacqui Smith should check it out.

But the inclusion of “William Hague’s four-year ordeal” as Opposition leader seems dubious in a book about scandal. Hague undoubtedly had a hard time as everyone does as Opposition leader and was not a great success. But despite the inclusion of some now forgotten gossip about his relationship with his special advisor when he first became Foreign Secretary in 2010, Hague has never yet been at the centre of a major scandal. Hague certainly has experience of being at “the eye of the storm” but so has every major politician. He should not have been included in this otherwise decent book.

Published by: Biteback, 2014

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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 falsely believing himself to be dying of cancer 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 after losing the 1964 General Election and begins devising the mechanism for the coming contest.

1965:

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

The right choice?: Probably. Heath at least won the 1970 General Election. Maudling fell foul of his business connections. Powell with his inflammatory Rivers of Blood speech (and his 1974 pre-election decision to urge voters to support Labour) was ill suited to front bench 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 Fras and John Peyton for the top job. Heath goes 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 backbencher 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)

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In a hugely dramatic coup, Margaret Thatcher is challenged by former defence secretary Michael Heseltine. She wins but not by enough and resigns. Little known John Major beats Heseltine and 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 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.

Troubled 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 his own private target below which he would have resigned. Bigger guns Ken Clarke, Michael Portillo and Heseltine again, thus do not enter the contest.

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 William Hague beats Clarke, Peter Lilley, Redwood and Michael “something of the night about him” Howard after their devastating election defeat. Heseltine’s heart condition rules him out. Portillo famously lost his seat.

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 deposed in favour of an unelected Michael Howard in 2003. Any of the other candidates would have been better.

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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General Election memories 6: 2001

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Peterborough, June 7th 2001

One of the big myths Tories that like to make up about the Blair-Brown years is that they were an unholy period of tyranny in which the nation was held to ransom by a debauched and malevolent cabal of godless devils and perverts.

Or at least this is what Michael Gove says.

There are a few problems with this theory, however. Namely:

  1. Barely anybody seems to have felt this way at the time.
  2. Secondly, if the government was so horrible, why on Earth did the people re-elect the government not once but twice by fairly hefty margins?

Take 2001, usually considered a fairly dull General Election. Labour were re-elected with a majority of 166! This is only slightly less than their famous victory in 1997 and still more than any other victory achieved since 1945, including those won by Thatcher, Attlee or anyone else.

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This was partly the Tories’ own fault. No one had had time to forget the balls up they’d made of attempting to run the country under Major. They had also foolishly rejected the popular and experienced Ken Clarke as their leader, opting instead for the foolish and inexperienced young William Hague. These days, Mr Hague is held in high regard after his stint as Foreign Secretary. But he was viewed as geeky and weak when he was party leader. The best that can be said of his leadership is that he was slightly better than his successor Iain Duncan Smith. The main Tory complaint at this time was that Labour was crippling the stock markets with unnecessary restrictions. The Tories would give the markets all the power they wanted. What could go wrong?

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But, it should be said, the first Blair Government was a big success too. If I was largely politically inactive for a Politics student at this time, perhaps it’s because I had little to complain about. The government achieved a lasting peace in Northern Ireland, introduced the minimum wage, reformed the Lords, introduced devolution, steered us away from the recession which engulfed most of the world at the start of the century and launched a well meant intervention in Kosovo. To quote the film, The Wild One if asked: “What are you rebelling against?” I too, would have replied: “what have you got?” as it turns out, not much. Labour were barely even behind in the polls for a whole decade.

Not everything was perfect, of course. I disliked the introduction of tuition fees even though they were nowhere near the obscene levels the Cameron-Clegg coalition hiked them up to. I was lucky to be unaffected by them (I started my degree at Aberystwyth in 1996). My four older nephews and nieces were all born while I was at university during this time. Thanks to Cameron AND Clegg, any of them who go to university will pay a far greater price than I or indeed Cameron and Clegg themselves would have done themselves.

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I was nearing the end of my academic career in 2001 anyway. I was 24 and about to return to Aberystwyth for the summer to finish my final Masters dissertation on the historiography of the Cold War (zzzzz). In the meantime, I was working part-time at home in the privatised section of Peterborough Passport Office (woeful). I had enough free time to see William Hague entering the Bull Hotel on a campaign visit. His visit was ineffective. Helen Brinton (later Clark) beat the Tory candidate Stewart Jackson to win the seat for Labour for a second time. As the late  Simon Hoggart reporting on Hague’s Peterborough visit put it: “The local Labour MP is Helen Brinton, whom I like personally but whose wide mouth, always slathered with scarlet lipstick, makes me long to post a letter in it.”

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2001 is the only election I stayed up all night to watch to date (2017 update: this is no longer true). My parents must have been on holiday as I camped out downstairs with a female friend (not in a rude way) in the living room and watched the whole thing why she mostly slept. I don’t entirely blame her. Compared to 1997, it was a fairly dull night even if the “Prescott punch” during the campaign is still one of the best things to happen in the world ever.

Boris Johnson, David Cameron and David Miliband all became MPs for the first time that year. My old Head Boy David Lammy was already an MP. September 11th was just around the corner. The 2001 campaign already seems to belong to a more innocent bygone age.

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The nearly men: Ken Clarke

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Some reacted with alarm to the news that Ken Clarke had been appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1993. Some were simply he worried that he wasn’t up to it. He had been a bad gaffe-prone Health Secretary and little better in Education. Others were simply worried about Clarke’s seemingly unstoppable rise to power. Had John Major, like Anthony Eden promoting Macmillan in 1955, unwittingly appointed his successor?

In fact, neither group need have worried. Ken Clarke (he had previously been Kenneth but like Anthony Wedgewood Benn and Anthony Blair, this was seen as too posh) was a successful Chancellor as he had been a successful Home Secretary in the year before 1993. It is true, the Tories never regained their reputation for economic competence under him, but this was hardly his fault. The shambles of Black Wednesday in 1992 during which interest rates rose fifteen times in one day put paid to that. Major was very lucky to survive.

Why then didn’t Clarke become Tory leader after the 1997? His two main rivals had disappeared after all, young Michael Portillo losing his seat in the electoral b deluge, old Michael Heseltine declared unfit after an angina attack soon after. Ken Clarke was surely the obvious choice, the most popular, experienced and credible candidate?

The simple answer is that the Tories had been driven bonkers by their 1997 defeat and were prepared to follow whatever their elderly ex-leader Lady Thatcher said. And she endorsed the former Welsh Secretary William Hague.

William Hague might well make a good Prime Minister today. But he was an appalling choice in 1997, only 36, little known to the public, gaffe-prone and looking and sounding weird. He never shook off the fallout from the blunder of wearing his baseball hat at the Notting Hill Carnival (a desperate attempt to look cool) or the memory of his teenage appearance at the Tory Party Conference in the 1970s. His error in letting through Blair’s Lords reform measures, his enthusiastic endorsement of Lord Archer as London’s 2000 mayoral candidate, all testified to his poor judgement. He was redeemed slightly by strong performances at Prime Minister’s Questions. But even this merely strengthened the impression that he was a political geek. Little wonder the Tories made only one net gain in 2001, a disastrous follow up to their worst election defeat of the 20th century.

Hague, had however, been anti-European and endorsed by Lady Thatcher. Even more crazily, this was enough to push Tories towards Iain Duncan Smith instead of Clarke in 2001. This proved an even more bonkers choice than Hague had been. IDS totally lacked the charm of his predecessor and was turned out in favour of a temporary caretaker leader Michael Howard in 2003.

In their desperation for unity, the Tories had appointed Howard without an election, something they would vilify Labour for with Gordon Brown just two years later. Howard had also been a disaster as Home Secretary in government and had come last in the 1997 leadership contest in which Hague had beaten Clarke. He did perform more effectively in 2005, reducing Blair’s majority to a still substantial 66.

Determined not to see, his irritable colleague David Davis succeed, Howard postponed his resignation as leader until later in 2005. Clarke on his third run as leader seemed to stand a good chance at first but was ultimately harmed by revelations of his business links with British tobacco. He was at any rate, now too old. Tories probably made the right choice in selecting David Cameron, still not yet forty in 2005 and only an MP for four years.

Today, old Ken Clarke remains in government. In earlier, less youth-fixated times (all three party leaders are now in their forties), he might still stand a chance.

His misfortune was to be in the ascent during a decade when the Tories had rarely been loopier.

Other nearly men…

RA  (“RAB”) Butler:  The founder of the famous Butler Education Act. Why not PM?: Screwed over by colleague Harold Macmillan in both 1957 and again in 1963.

Tony Benn: Long standing Labour MP and diarist. Why not PM? Went ultra-left wing after 1973 and was probably too unpalatable even for 1970s/1980s Labour after that. Might have led Labour had he not lost his seat in 1983. Kinnock won instead.

Neil Kinnock: The longest serving Opposition leader since World War II (1983-1992). Why never PM? Came close in 1992, but the public and especially the press never warmed to him. Arguably saved Labour from destruction though.

David Davis: Briefly the front runner in the 2005 Tory leadership contest but notoriously moody. Cameron triumphed when Davis’s electoral address fell flat.

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