Political Commentary: Not the type to box himself out

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The Independent Online
On Christmas Eve, Tristan Garel-Jones went to three Madrid art galleries, his first such visits for five years, and took an untroubled afternoon siesta.

All this was perfectly consistent with the explanations that the Minister of State at the Foreign Office gave for announcing his resignation on Tuesday. Mr Garel-Jones has what Denis Healey calls a 'hinterland' - a life beyond politics - which encompasses not only his family but also collecting Spanish art and European literature.

But the explanation still leaves a question mark. Does a successful minister - highly successful by present government standards - leave his job at 51 simply to buy a few pictures? Particularly when he is as relentlessly political as Mr Garel-Jones? People are reminded of Talleyrand's question about a diplomat who died suddenly in the middle of a peace conference: 'What did he mean by that?'

With Mr Garel-Jones, things are rarely what they seem. He is associated, among politicians and the public, with Machiavellian intrigue, partly as the result of the BBC serial House of Cards, which portrayed a ruthlessly devious and ambitious Chief Whip at the very time when a real-life drama, involving the fall of Margaret Thatcher, was being played out at Westminster. Mr Garel-Jones was then Deputy Chief Whip. He guaranteed himself a place in the history books by holding a meeting of selected ministers in his elegant Queen Anne house at Catherine Place, London, on 20 November 1990. The meeting agreed that Mrs Thatcher could not win a second ballot in the leadership contest and decided that the task was to stop Michael Heseltine from succeeding her.

Mr Garel-Jones would manage to give the impression later that he had simply bumped into a few friends in the members' lobby, looked at his watch, and said words to the effect of, 'Well, I'm going home - anyone want a drink?' Some recollect events rather differently. For example, one participant recalled proposing names of two colleagues who should join them; Mr Garel- Jones's disapproval suggested at least a degree of premeditation.

But the meeting was not a conspiracy. Nor was Mr Garel- Jones's transition from loyal Thatcher aide-de-camp anything like as dishonourable as his many Thatcherite enemies have argued. It had, after all, been Mr Garel- Jones, again as Deputy Chief Whip, who had the courage to lead a deputation to Mrs Thatcher after the contest with Sir Anthony Meyer in 1989 and to warn her of the dangers of 'daylight assassination' if she did not change her ways on Europe, the poll tax and the economy.

There are Machiavellian interpretations, too, of Mr Garel- Jones's decision to support Douglas Hurd rather than his close friend John Major in the second ballot campaign. If Mr Hurd had won, the conspiracy theorists suggest, he would have been a short-term Prime Minister, paving the way for Mr Garel- Jones's even closer friend, Chris Patten, to succeed him.

Why, then, did Mr Garel-Jones not even attempt to persuade Mr Major to stay out of the race? Nobody has any simple answers and Mr Garel-Jones's famous message to the Hurd supporters after the Major victory - 'sometimes, when you lose, you win' - merely added to the delicious ambivalence of his role in the campaign.

Yet for all the studied ambiguities of his career, the balance of evidence so far is that Mr Garel- Jones is getting out for genuine and unspectacular personal reasons. As politicians go, he is used to being well off. In these circumstances losing an estimated pounds 700,000 as a Lloyd's underwiter was a blow. So too were difficulties encountered by one of the businesses started by his father- in-law, a Spanish landowner - businesses which, he has told colleagues, he feels he has neglected while a minister. He is happily married and his wife certainly wants to see more of him. Finally, he is more genuine than most in his protestations that he enjoys constituency work. Not many politicians would confidently invite Jacques Delors, as Mr Garel- Jones did last month, to sit in on his constituency surgery.

But why did he announce his resignation several months in advance? He will stay, he said, to pilot the Maastricht Bill through its hazardous committee stage. Will his status as a 'lame duck' minister not put his authority at risk in the parliamentary battle ahead? Here both his friends and fellow ministers remain puzzled. The semi-official explanation since Tuesday has been that having once indicated to Mr Major his intention to go - before the election - and then been persuaded to stay, he feared that the same thing might happen again. He therefore needed to lock himself into resignation by an advance announcement, complete with formal exchange of letters. This is understandable on a human level; but it will not completely satisfy the curious.

Mr Garel-Jones's explanation may well hold good. But that does not mean that his departure is politically insignificant. On Europe he is a tireless negotiator with a comprehensive grasp of the detail; he is also one of the Government's most skilful apologists on European affairs. That, as much as his thinly disguised distaste for the Tory Euro-sceptics (or 'maniacs' as he calls them in private) has contributed to his unpopularity on the Thatcherite right. He is not, by all accounts, a fan of Norman Lamont, or other Euro-sceptic Cabinet ministers, though it would be surprising if that contributed to his departure.

And his resignation strikes an elegiac note which goes beyond mere foreign policy. It was Mr Garel-Jones who formed the elite 'Blue Chip' group of 1979 Tory entrants to Parliament which stood out against Thatcherism in the early 1980s. At the time they almost certainly saw themselves, in a rather patrician way, as the brightest and the best of the younger Tories. It is often said that John Major was a member, but he did not join until 1985, four years after it had published Changing Gear, a critique of Mrs Thatcher's economic policy. By then, it had become little more than a dining club. Three of its 13 founder members reached the Cabinet: John Patten, now continuing the Thatcherite revolution in education; William Waldegrave, possibly the cleverest of all, but now struggling to make a Whitehall revolution work against stiff Civil Service resistance, and further weakened by the suspicion that his opposition to the Major candidacy in 1990 could make him vulnerable to a reshuffle; and Chris Patten, the man they all thought would make it to the very top, is in Hong Kong.

Had he stayed in the Government, Mr Garel-Jones would certainly have earned a cabinet place. Only Prime Ministerial fear of upsetting the Europhobes could have kept him out. He would have made, for example, a classic Leader of the House. But the other two most obviously knocking on the door were never blue chippers: Stephen Dorrell on the left and John Redwood on the right. If Mr Garel-Jones stays out of politics, the Blue Chip era will have passed its high watermark.

If. It is hard to believe that he will stay out of the frontline for ever. Sir Norman Fowler, who also left office to enrich his private life, furnishes a precedent for a comeback. In a few years, Mr Garel-Jones, relatively young by political standards, will still be an MP. By then, the Government may have put its present run of disasters behind it. If he has put his business interests on a sound footing and watched his children grow up, he could just be tempted again. Don't write him off.