Matthew Norman: Power, money and megalomania

Malign aspects of the Thatcher legacy linger and need cauterising
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Finally, this party is coming back to life, like Oliver Sach's bemused patients in Awakenings. The obvious question now is whether, like those narcoleptics, the Tories quickly slip back into the coma; or whether they can sustain and build on these stirrings of renaissance.

If this depends largely on the eventual choice of leader, it relies also on that new leader's capacity to break with the past, and to be seen doing so. The Thatcher grip on Conservative hearts may have weakened, but malign aspects of her legacy linger and need cauterising. High among these is the influence exerted over the party by arrogant and dictatorial businessmen consumed by the rabid Europhobia of which she remains the patron saint.

Admittedly, Conrad Black, whom Lady T sponsored when he took his seat in the Lords, isn't quite the player he was. However, even while the leadership candidates rehearsed their billets- doux earlier this week, two would-be kingmakers unveiled their usual threats.

The bookmaker Stuart Wheeler, erstwhile donator of a £5m lump sum, and an occupant of the Jimmy Goldsmith end of the political spectrum, plumped for Liam Fox, adding that he might decline to unbelt in future should Mr Clarke get the nod. Meanwhile, Lord Stanley Kalms, a David Davis fan, went one further. The former chairman of Dixons promises to leave the party entirely if it exercises its democratic right to choose Ken as its leader.

It grieves me sorely to be rude about Stanley, since his parents were among my grandparents' closest friends. Indeed, some years after the death of his father Charlie, I came within an ace of proposing to his mother Cissie. Marriage was on my mind one night in 1990, in the dog days of Mrs Thatcher's reign, when a last-minute change of placement kept me from Cissie's side at a family wedding. Would I have found the courage to propose? Honestly, I don't know. Would she have accepted me if I had? Very possibly not. Back in that unenlightened era, a 55-year age gap might have upset her sense of the social niceties. And yet there was a fleeting moment when I felt close to becoming Stanley Kalms's stepfather, and had every ambition of being a good paternal influence.

The one thing I most wanted to teach young Stan was that no one loves a bully. Being vastly rich is a fine thing for a chap, and wishing to use some of that dosh to advance the causes in which he believes might just about pass muster as philanthropy. But using your money, and the threat of withholding it, to impose your will on a political movement is in no way charming. Nor is it helpful to that movement.

All the leadership challengers took trouble this week to espouse their meritocratic instincts. Whether or not they plagiarised the Blairite mantra of "the many, not the few", each appears to understand the central importance of rebranding the party as an institution no longer in the hands of powerful commercial interests.

To speak of wanting to attract a wider electoral base is marvellous, and the reaction to David Cameron's speech in particular suggested the membership has finally grasped that you cannot hope to form a government without seducing people with no ambition ever to drive a Lexus. So what message will it emit if the new leader preaches inclusivity while continuing to be bankrolled by a few Croesuses, or Croesi, with agendas wilfully and diametrically at odds with the stated philosophy of his new regime?

Somewhere here, you begin to sniff the potential Clause 4 moment the Tories have lusted after for years. Imagine the publicity generated were Mr Cameron, Mr Clarke or even Mr Davis to mark his accession by telling Mr Wheeler and Lord Kalms to stick their millions up their jacksies.

The New Conservatives, he might declare, are a party to be funded by the many, not the few. We thank our benefactors sincerely for their past generosity, but never again will we allow ourselves to be manipulated, threatened, cajoled, bribed or blackmailed by a tiny cabal of domineering plutocrats.

The psychological effect could be just as potent as the removal of Clause 4. In fact, it might dwarf it. Ditching Mr Wheeler and Sir Stanley, on the other hand, would be a practical masterstroke as well as a symbolic one. In the short term, it would cause problems, and Central Office might have to be relocated in a Portakabin in a service station forecourt off the M4 near Didcot. But even that would convince doubters, perhaps many millions, that the leadership meant what it said about ushering in a more honest and altruistic age of conservatism.

It would also be an exceedingly cute political move. Although political funding is one of those ancient chestnuts that only get roasted during election campaigns, so long as Mr Blair insists on clinging to office Labour will remain extraordinarily vulnerable to accusations of corruption.

It is pretty scandalous that Lord Sainsbury, who seems to give Labour £2m cheques with the sort of insouciance with which you or I might tip the hairdresser a fiver, is a Labour science minister when he and his family have large investments in developing GM foods.

The speed with which another major donor went from Paul Drayson, major donor, to Paul Drayson, recipient of a £32m government contract to supply smallpox vaccines, to Lord Drayson, and finally to Lord Drayson, the minister of defence, took the breath away.

As for any tenuous links between Bernie Ecclestone's million and the reversal of policy on tobacco advertising in Formula One, between Lakshmi Mittal's unbelting and the PM's enthusiastic endorsement for his fabulous steel plant deal in Romania, between the Hindujas' largesse and the swift delivery of their British passports... Banging on about these dodgy dealings may seem like flogging dead horses, but dead horses have their value too. Dead gift horses may have even more.

Sending the megalomaniac Tory donors off to the metaphorical glue factory would realise more than enough political capital to compensate for the lack of actual readies from the unlovely likes of Stuart Wheeler and Stanley Kalms.

Comments