'These appointments are symbolic and may well increase the tension between the factions'
"The conference will go on as usual. Did you get that John?" said a defiant Margaret Thatcher into the microphone of the former BBC correspondent, John Cole. It was the beginning of the final day of the Tory conference at Brighton in 1984, after an IRA bomb had hit the Grand Hotel.
Tony Blair might not agree, however, that this is the appropriate sentiment that should apply to the forthcoming Labour conference, in view of the current international circumstances. Indeed, the Prime Minister has every reason to give serious consideration to cancelling the Labour conference. With the possibility that he, the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary and the Defence Secretary will be otherwise occupied with affairs of state, the annual conference shenanigans seem strangely irrelevant and will certainly find little resonance with the general public. There is a growing suspicion at Westminster that, at the very least, the conference may be truncated.
The implications of this would undoubtedly spill over to the Tories as they contemplate the possibility that their conference would be seen as inappropriate and irrelevant to the national mood. Iain Duncan Smith, the new leader, faces a dilemma. On the one hand, a full-scale party conference would enable him to establish himself and his new Shadow Cabinet in the public mind.
On the other, while the Prime Minister would be seen playing to his strengths as national leader unifying the nation, it would look bad if the Tories were, instead, engaged in party political point scoring. Mr Duncan Smith also has the complicating factor of anger in sections of his party over some of the appointments to his shadow team. If that anger were to become public it would not make a pretty spectacle during the media coverage of the event.
The best hope, therefore, is for a short conference so that the senior figures – the leader, the new chairman David Davis, and the new shadow Foreign Secretary, Michael Ancram – can be seen throwing the weight of the Tory Party behind the Government's support for the United States. There seems little to be gained from the usual debates when the Tories have, rightly, promised to go back to the drawing board to devise new policies for health, education and welfare.
The less opportunity there is to give aggrieved and wounded opponents within the party the chance to dominate the airwaves during their conference, the better. There is no doubt that the appointment of Bill Cash as the shadow Attorney General, in particular, along with some of Mr Duncan Smith's more zany supporters to junior posts, threatens any honeymoon the new leader might have expected.
These appointments are either reckless or extremely bold. So far I too tend to the latter view. I do not actually think the Shadow Cabinet itself is as "hard-line", "extremist" or "right wing" as some commentators have portrayed. It is certainly Euro sceptic but of the original 39 MPs who publicly supported Mr Duncan Smith on the first ballot, there is only Bernard Jenkin, the shadow defence spokesman, who serves as a full member of the Shadow Cabinet. Most of the others were either rival candidates (David Davis and Michael Ancram) or initial supporters of rival candidates.
Seen from the perspective of Mr Duncan Smith's original supporters, and members of his campaign team, there is some valid criticism that he has, in fact, rewarded his rivals, more than his own people, with the top jobs. The evidence for this is strong. His chief whip, David Maclean and the shadow Leader of the House, Eric Forth, were both campaign managers for David Davis, who is now the new chairman. As I predicted a fortnight ago, in a sense Mr Davis is the real winner of the leadership campaign.
Michael Ancram, as a leadership rival, had to be accommodated in a senior job. He is a former Northern Ireland Minister and cannot be described as right wing. No one can doubt his diplomatic skills and he is the obvious choice for the post of shadow Foreign Secretary. Similarly, the decision to recall Michael Howard to face Gordon Brown has much to commend it. Mr Brown, I suspect, might recognise that he could meet his match with Mr Howard, whose lawyerly forensic skills cannot be denied.
Going further down the batting order, Damien Green is a clear gain for the Clarke camp (although he dallied briefly with the Portillistas until their campaign hit the buffers). But he has a top job at education that promises to be at the forefront of the Tory agenda. Portillistas abound in the shape of Liam Fox at health, Oliver Letwin at home affairs, David Willetts at social security, Tim Yeo at culture and John Bercow as the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
Further appointments such as Jacqui Lait (Scotland), Caroline Spelman (international development) and James Clappison (work) validate a technical claim to have rewarded Clarke supporters. There is truth, however, in the view that these latter posts are hardly the most influential – but then their man was soundly beaten in the membership ballot.
So while Mr Cash's appointment raises the most eyebrows, it has to be stressed that he is not actually in the Shadow Cabinet and attends only to advise on legal matters. At a stroke, his removal from the backbenches also removes his 200 amendments to the bill to ratify the Treaty of Nice. Mr Cash is now under armed guard and "inside the tent" in a way he would not be if he was left to roam across the backbenches. Similar arguments can be used to defend the appointments of Julian Lewis and Julian Brazier to the whips' office. More difficult to swallow is the whips' office job to Laurence Robertson who had to apologise for some pretty unpalatable views on race during the John Townend furore before the general election. But, here again, there may be some method in the apparent madness. None of these can now speak out except in support of official party policy.
These junior appointments are, however, like a red rag to the Clarke wing of the party. While they will have little influence on policy, they are symbolic and may well increase, rather than reduce, the tension between the various factions. For this reason, if I were Mr Duncan Smith, I would seek an opportunity to truncate the conference where, on past form, disunity and trouble tend to flourish.Reuse content