What would Rhodes Boyson make of David Cameron's Conservative Party?

It’s safe to say he would not recognise Cameron's Conservatives.

Sir Rhodes Boyson, who died today at 87, was the archetypal eccentric Tory backbencher for nearly three decades. His mutton-chop sideburns, bald head and narrow squint even gave him the appearance of a Dickensian overseer. That he spoke and seemed to think like one made him the complete package.

Sir Rhodes, a former headmaster, defender of caning, Section 28 and pretty much every other reactionary measure of the age, earned the nickname "Colossus", from that great ironist, the late Norman St. John Stevas.

Nevertheless, it’s safe to say he would not recognise David Cameron’s Conservative Party, a charge many in the party not even of Sir Rhodes’s vintage regularly make. Despite the Tories (sort of) winning the last election, Conservative Britain has failed to bloom; that much is now clear. There is no sense that Cameron has spawned an age of hegemony in the way Thatcher or Blair both did. Even on the deficit, the grip of TINA ("There Is No Alternative") seems to weaken every day, with economic voices deserting the government and a clamour for a change of course – and even of chancellor.

Meanwhile, the NHS reforms, perhaps the government’s most overtly ideological move, puts commissioning of local services into the hands of local GPs. Those same people said to be responsible for a soft line in signing-off patients on to incapacity benefit. It is doubtful Sir Rhodes, who once said that crime had risen in "parallel with the number of social workers," would approve of do-gooding doctors being put in charge.

More traditional Tory fare, in the shape of privatisation and big tax cuts are off the menu for now. Osborne's decision to shave 5p off the top rate of tax did little to promote the popular capitalism that Sir Rhodes approved of. The whispered comparison with Ted Heath’s one-term government swirls around the Prime Minister’s head. Like Heath, Cameron governs a fractious nation hobbled by serious national and international economic problems that show little sign of ending soon. Unlike Heath, he has more voices both inside and outside his party to keep happy; dancing to the Lib Dem’s tune on issues like proportional representation and House of Lords reform, while keeping his belligerent backbenchers happy. It’s not going well.

"It may have been right to create a coalition after the election," warned Tory backbencher Brian Binley yesterday, "but the current set-up isn’t working". The Lib Dems have achieved a level of influence "not remotely justified by the level of their electoral support," he harrumphed. Cameron, he added, needs to act like a Conservative prime minister, not a "chamber-maid". Meanwhile, former Tory environment minister Tim Yeo, hitherto best known for his scandalous resignation from John Major’s government (over what we used to call a "love child") pointedly asked if Cameron was "a man or mouse" for not backing a third runway at Heathrow.

It is doubtful whether Sir Rhodes, a quintessential plain-speaking Lancastrian, would have been quite so insolent. However, like Binley and Yeo, he would have wanted the firm smack of prime ministerial leadership. And not just because he supported corporal punishment.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

Former Conservative minister Sir Rhodes Boyson, who has died at the age of 87.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.