Political Commentary: Gosh, Jeffrey has got himself into another scrape

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JEFFREY ARCHER often reminds me of P G Wodehouse's character Stanley Ukridge. Ukridge was constantly devising ingenious schemes to make colossal sums. Invariably they went wrong. Lord Archer has, however, been more fortunate. He has become a rich man through labouring at the wordface. Ukridge likewise dabbled in politics. In the story 'The Long Arm of Looney Coote' he goes to a by-election to assist one of the candidates, Lawlor, an old schoolfriend.

'I sometimes conjure up a dreadful vision,' said Boko Lawlor, with a slight shudder, 'of one of his creditors suddenly rising in the audience and denouncing him for not having paid for a pair of trousers or something.'

As things turn out, Ukridge borrows a car belonging to another old friend, Looney Coote, and is arrested for theft at a meeting.

'A confused uproar broke out in every corner of the hall, and, hurrying on to the platform, I perceived that the hand of the Law had fallen. It was grasping Ukridge's shoulder in a weighty grip in the sight of all men.'

In her memoirs, Lady Thatcher writes that Lord Archer, like Ukridge (though she does not specifically draw the comparison), has a propensity for getting into what she calls scrapes. 'Scrapes' is something of an Angela Brazil word which suggests nothing more serious than being caught out cheating in the egg-and-spoon race. Only loveable - at the very least, likeable - characters, of whom William Brown is perhaps the outstanding example - find themelves in scrapes.

Lord Archer is now in a scrape with inspectors from the Department of Trade and Industry who are investigating alleged insider trading in the shares of Anglia Television. With what the poet Blake called fearful symmetry, the minister who authorised the inspectors to do their inspecting - who, if you like, set the dogs on Lord Archer - was none other than Mr Michael Heseltine. Mr Heseltine has announced on the wireless that he does not want to be Chairman of the Conservative Party. Lord Archer has made clear to his friends in the newspapers that he would like nothing better than to occupy that post. He has gone on to hint that if it (or some equivalent ministerial appointment) is not forthcoming at the reshuffle, he intends to retire from active politics and devote his energies to making even more money.

Accordingly, before Lord Archer found himself in his latest scrape, Mr John Major was confronted by two over-mighty subjects. One of them had said that on no account would he accept a post to which his leader might well want to appoint him. The other had indicated with equal force that he wished to be apppointed to the same post, to which his leader might equally well not want to appoint him. Mr Major was thus in a difficulty.

His natural response would have been to follow the Nonconformist preacher who, in his sermon, said: 'And here, my friends, I see a difficulty. Let us look it boldly in the eye, and pass on.' He would probably have appointed someone else anyway, most likely Mr David Hunt. This solution would have amounted to spurning Lord Archer but satisfying Mr Heseltine. In fact Mr Hunt is a long-standing admirer of the President of the Board of Trade, having supported him, despite his own absence in Tokyo at the time, in the terrible events of November 1990. There is a sense, therefore, in which the appointment of Mr Hunt would be a dual victory for Mr Heseltine. He would successfully have defied, or appeared to defy, the Prime Minister; while an old friend and admirer of his would have been appointed in his place.

The same considerations apply today. The difference is that Lord Archer, though he may still be in the squad, is no longer in the team. He may emerge from the investigations without a stain on his football shirt: but for the moment he cannot, sadly, be allowed to put in an appearance on the pitch. This may be disappointing for Lord Archer but it simplifies the most important decision which Mr Major has to take in the next few days: who is to be party chairman?

Indeed, it is the only important decision, for with Mr Douglas Hurd not wanting to move, or not just yet, and Mr Kenneth Clarke and Mr Michael Howard being for different reasons immoveable in the immediate future, the reshuffle is a second team affair. Still, it will be interesting to see whether the fiendish Mrs Virginia Bottomley manages to effect her escape to another department (an ambition almost as well advertised as Lord Archer's to become chairman). And it will be instructive to discover whether Mr Major wishes to retain the services of Mr John MacGregor, Mr Tony Newton, Mr John Patten and Mr William Waldegrave.

Only a year or so ago both Mr MacGregor and Mr Newton were spoken of, not perhaps as coming men, but certainly as safe pairs of hands, who could each be positioned with equal advantage to all concerned at the Home Office or even the Treasury. They are still as competent as they ever were, no more so and no less. But they have somehow fallen out of fashion. They are seen as 'grey men', which of course they are, the colour in question having been the source of their initial attraction.

Then again, does Mrs Gillian Shephard get a leg up? She is even duller than Mr MacGregor and Mr Newton, but for some reason she is considered to have been a howling success at Agriculture. I witnessed her literally skipping with joy at the news of Denmark's 'No' in the European referendum. Why she is spoken of as a Euro-enthusiast, as she sometimes is, continues to elude me. As for those people who are supposed to be getting a leg up from outside the Cabinet - here a Dorrell, there an Aitken, now a Mawhinney - their promotions will be gratifying to themselves and their familes, and irritating to their colleagues. But no one outside Westminster and the political press will take much notice one way or the other.

The chairmanship is different, even though the difference may be more of degree than of kind. For once, Mr Major has a completely free hand. He does not have to do any juggling. Sir Norman ('Interesting') Fowler having created a vacancy, the leader can do as he likes.

The new chairman will have to carry the party into the next election. The most successful chairmen have rarely been politicians of the first rank. The exceptions were Lords Thorneycroft and Hailsham. R A Butler disliked the job, Iain Macleod hated it, while Lords Carrington and Whitelaw tolerated it. The best chairmen were Lords Woolton and Poole.

If Mr Major were more self-confident he would reappoint one of two more recent successes, Lords Tebbit and Parkinson. But the choice of either, particularly of the former, would tear away the sticky tape which is currently covering the party's divisions over Europe. What the party now needs is a little style, a bit of fun. I should appoint Mr Nicholas Soames instead, with Mrs Bottomley as his deputy and drinks carrier, which would jolly well serve her right.