A Political Life: The new Knights of the Order of the Boot, and why I'm worried about David Cameron

Is Cameron too butch?; The art of being overlooked;How to make Clegg look silly; One knighthood isn't enough
  • @ChrisBryantMP

I’ve taken to worrying about the Prime Minister. On Wednesday, he exposed a little bit of his inner turmoil when he accused Ed Miliband of not being “butch” enough. I don’t know what he really meant. “Butch” always seems rather more The Village People than Charlton Heston, a sort of faked manliness betraying a fear of being thought to be a sand-in-your-face wimp, or, worst of all, a limp-wristed fairy. It’s a word that reeks of 1980s clones with moustaches, medallions, extravagant chest hair, cowboy boots and lashings of Aramis and Old Spice. In short, butch is camper than camp. Not exactly what I thought the Prime Minister aspired to.

Yet Cameron does rather often affect this brash over-manliness. It’s been on evidence this week in the reshuffle, with a nice decision to sack people away from the cameras in the Commons, entirely overshadowed by the sharpness of the way in which some were sent to their political maker. So, the Army may euphemistically refer to being summoned for “an interview without coffee” as meaning a formal dressing down, but at least in the Army neither person gets a coffee. So ill at ease with himself is Cameron that he gave the Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan the sack in a meeting in the Commons during which he polished off a glass of wine, but never offered her one, and then proceeded to grant knighthoods to four of the 29 ministers who were sacked, but not any of the women.

These new Knights of the Order of the Boot have sharply divided MPs. Every single Tory MP I have spoken to, including one now ex-minister (who didn’t get a gong), thinks this is a brilliant idea. They say it will help to persuade people that politics is a form of public service. If anything, more MPs should be given knighthoods – “a knight in every shire”, goes up the Tory cry. Meanwhile, Labourites think that to sack a politician and simultaneously reward him with an honour makes politicians look grasping and politics tawdry. Even more importantly, it makes the PM seem limp.

Maybe Tim Yeo’s demand that Cameron prove himself a man or a mouse got to him – or maybe it was going to the judo with Vladimir Putin that got Cameron worrying about butchness. Either way, I hope we’re not going to see Cameron manifest his manliness, not least because Putinesque photo sessions shirtlessly slaughtering wild animals are likely to come across about as butch as Christopher Biggins in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s just a jump to the left, and then a step to the right.

The art of being overlooked

Mopping up after reshuffles is difficult. Blair reshuffled far too often, but he called me in to see him after one round in which, despite extensive pre-briefing that I might get a ministerial post, I was not promoted. I left happy enough with a promise of “definitely next year”. When the next round came and went and I was still a backbencher, though, I was rather less content to be summoned in and given the “definitely next year” treatment again. “What’s up, Chris?” he asked. “Well, it’s just that you said the same thing last year.” “But, Chris, you’re in your twenties. You’re one of our youngest MPs. You’ve your whole career ahead of you.” “Tony, I’m 42.” To this day, I don’t know whether he was flattering me or I was flattering myself.

How to make Clegg look silly

One curious aspect of the reshuffle is the fate of young Mark Harper, who for two and a half years had the extremely unenviable task of acting as (Conservative) parliamentary secretary to Nick Clegg, charged with political and constitutional reform, a capacity in which I shadowed him for the best part of a year. A year ago, I moved to the shadow immigration brief – and now he has shunted to immigration. He maintains he is not stalking me.

Even curiouser is the fact that Harper has not been replaced in his old job. So the Coalition Government has no minister for electoral administration, devolution, parliamentary reform or boundary changes. I suspect this is a not very cunning Cameron plan to embarrass Clegg, who has said that he will instruct his MPs to vote against the proposed boundary changes when they come before the House and that his mind cannot be moved on this. Without a junior minister, Clegg himself will have to lay the relevant order implementing the four Boundary Commissions’ reports – and then speak and vote against them. To be fair, Jim Callaghan did something similar as Home Secretary in 1970, but since Labour and Lib Dem candidates are now being selected on existing boundaries (to fight Tory MPs), even Conservatives are quietly clamouring (which is not the contradiction in terms that it sounds) for the vote to be brought forward as soon as possible. Which would mean that the two main Clegg/Harper Bills – on parliamentary boundaries/AV and on Lords reform – will have come to naught.

One knighthood isn’t enough

The sadly now ex-leader of the house, Sir George Young (for whom the word urbane was invented), was made a Companion of Honour, but he didn’t get a knighthood. You might think that since he is a baronet he couldn’t get one anyway, but the Clerk of the House tells me that Admiral of the Fleet Sir James Somerville received a KBE in October 1941 for his successful Naval command against the French navy in the Mediterranean, even though he had already been made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in June 1939. Apparently, his second-in-command signalled: “Congratulations. Twice a knight at your age isn’t bad.”