Bruce Anderson: Momentum is the key for Cameron

It is not clear whether his changes to the 1922 Committee were either necessary or wise. It is useful to allow backbenchers to have an outlet for their grievances

Sunday 23 October 2011 00:22

In politics, momentum is crucial. If a government, or a party, is not pushing forward, it will find itself pushed back. If it is not setting the terms of the argument, its opponents will do so, to its disadvantage. In one respect, Tony Blair understood this. He knew about the power of the narrative and set out to achieve an almost hegemonic command over political debate. He would have been an outstanding press secretary, for a Prime Minister who knew what he wanted to do. In domestic politics, however, Mr Blair never knew what he wanted to do, so his gifts went to waste.

Of necessity, David Cameron spent a lot of time studying the Blair government: wondering how he could ever weaken its grip on office. While watching and waiting, he learned an important lesson: how not to squander power. He would often say that it had taken Tony Blair nine-and-a-half years to learn how to be PM. He was not going to repeat that mistake.

Thus far, he has kept that resolution, and it has been a remarkable fortnight. From the outset, Mr Cameron was clear as to what had to be done and knew exactly how to do it. The deficit had to be tackled, so the country needed a strong government, especially given the weakness of the euro and indeed the anxieties overshadowing the entire world economy. If a Lib-Lab coalition had been poodling around, or if it was already clear that a Tory minority government would find it mightily hard to implement its programme, everything would have been thrown into confusion.

Leading a minority government, Mr Cameron would have made as good a fist as possible, insisting that he would act in the national interest, defying the other parties to defeat him and thus precipitate a second election. Maybe that would have worked. But at best, it would have meant prolonged uncertainty, which the markets would have hated. Our inferior climate – not that it was much in evidence this weekend – might not have prevented us from being bracketed with the Pigs (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain). Mr Cameron was right to reject the risk. Like all good Tories, he has a fundamental political principle: that his country's interests and his party's interests are always identical. So he acted, decisively and dramatically. Most of the rest of the political world is still struggling to catch up.

That is true of a number of Tory MPs, some of whom are far from convinced that their interests and their leader's interests are always identical. There were a lot of muttering and grumbling phone calls over the weekend. Quite a few Tory MPs who have no predisposition to disloyalty believe that the new rules for the 1922 Committee are a high-handed provocation. Until now, the '22 had been a backbenchers' forum. Frontbenchers have no vote in the election of officers. There is, of course, an irony. The 1922 Committee came into being in the assertive aftermath of a successful backbench revolt against Lloyd George. A large number of Tory MPs concluded that even though he had been a formidable war leader, they no longer trusted him and wanted a more orthodox, if less exciting, style of leadership – which they duly got, with Bonar Law and Baldwin.

Were they right to do so? There are strong arguments to the contrary. Under Lloyd George, the Tories would have become the national party, launching raids into both Liberal and Labour territory to win over promising young politicians. The Welsh magician could have helped the Tories to escape from some of the negative associations which have always weakened their electoral appeal.

Then again, Lloyd George seemed set on a war with Turkey, which would have been crazy; it would probably have gone badly and it could have provoked serious social unrest. Moreover, there were the personal factors, hard for posterity to reckon with, but which had a decisive influence at the time. Ou sont les neiges d'antan? Charm, trust, sexual allure: all of them create challenges for historians and biographers who have to recapture the scent of long-perished pocket handkerchiefs. Throughout his career, Lloyd George won high marks for two out of three, but by 1922, he was failing the trust test by the length of Offa's Dyke. Hence the revolt, and the democrtic impetus, which led to the 1922 Committee. F E Smith complained bitterly that the cabin boys had taken command of the ship. David Cameron has now taken steps to prevent a similar mutiny. In future, frontbenchers will be able to vote in 1922 elections.

It is not clear whether this was either necessary or wise. Since its controversial origins, the '22 has settled down to become an important part of the Tory firmament. It is useful to allow the party's backbenchers to have an outlet for their grievances, and a good chairman of the '22 can be a considerable asset to the harmonious working of government. Ideally, the chairman should be a wise old owl, beyond ambition for himself, and with no ideological agenda. He should possess two qualities which are not easy to combine: presence and patience. Respected throughout government, he should also be willing to expend an unconscionable amount of time in listening to the petty complaints of the perennially self-pitying.

Such a job specification would seem to exclude Graham Brady. Mr Brady is only 43. He resigned from Mr Cameron's front bench over grammar schools and has strongly-held views. It would be odd if he did not have ministerial ambitions, for his abilities would justify them. He ought to have been made a Whip, to help him understand that politics is a team game.

His rival, Richard Ottaway, has been a Whip. Mr Ottaway is 65 today, the right sort of age for a '22 chairman. He is widely popular, with just a hint of residual suspicion because he was always close to Michael Heseltine. But he has the necessary skills to act as a conduit between the backbenchers and the leadership. Ideally, the chairman of the 1922 should be a figure in the background, reluctant to express his own opinions, doing much of his work in private, and thus able to head off trouble before it ahs appeared over the horizon. That is more Richard Ottaway than Graham Brady. Because of David Cameron's intervention, the new chairman will find himself under an uncomfortable degree of scrutiny. Mr Ottaway would find it easier to slip back behind the Arras.

But the Government's fortunes will be determined by greater matters. Over the next few months, David Cameron has great tasks. He must convince the markets that the deficit is coming under control. He must also persuade the British people to accept short-term austerity, with the promise of longer-term prosperity. He must use the education reforms to project a message of hope and renewal. Finally, he needs to retain his momentum, so that the Government will appear to be in control.

If he can achieve all of that, the composition of the 1922 executive will not seem that important. He has a further advantage. They have their problems on the other side of the hill. Various candidates for the labour leadership have emerged, all of whom would do an excellent job as general-secretary of the Fabian Society. Labour needs a figure untainted by the failures of the Blair/Brown years, able to express some Left-wing passion without frightening the middle-classes, who will come across as a real person. There is an obvious candidate, except for a problem with availability. I wonder if Vince Cable wishes he had never left the Labour Party.

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