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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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.