Politics is not a parlour game

Roy Hattersley responds to Anthony Barnett’s New Statesman essay “Hang ’em”.

Much of Anthony Barnett's "Hang 'em" (NS Essay, 22 March) is so absurd that it is hard to believe that the author -- usually a thoughtful man -- regarded it as anything but a way of provoking other radicals into expressing more creative and realistic judgements on what sort of government should follow the general election.

Like him, I want to see the creation of a progressive alliance -- co-operation between social democrats in the Liberal and the Labour parties. That is why I now support an electoral system based on proportional representation. But I cannot see the new dawn of radical politics following an "increase in the number of independent and third-party MPs". It is hard to believe that redemption depends on the election of Esther Rantzen and Terry Waite.

I have spent a good deal of time, during the past 13 years, publicly criticising the group that chose to call itself New Labour -- both its policies and its philosophy. Barnett's description of its record swings wildly between caricature and fantasy. We are told that the government "embraced globalisation", as if it could have been disowned and ignored. The challenge was to harness and tame -- through international action -- a force more powerful than most national governments. Too often, New Labour regarded the power of the global economy as irresistible. But to write as if it could have been abolished by a conference resolution contributes very little to serious debate.

The paragraph in "Hang 'em" that I've most enjoyed begins: "We are entering a new kind of constitution, one overseen not by judges, but by the Association of Chief Police Officers, organised as a private company . . ." Nothing I have read in years has so reminded me of the good old days fighting the Militant Tendency. On the other hand, what he has to say about greater equality -- in my view the central objective of a social-democratic party -- is revealing without being rewarding.

Certainly, the widening gap between rich and poor is a terrible indictment of government policy. But to describe Harriet Harman's real attempts to redress the balance as "one of the tricks of Brown's trade" makes it clear that the essay was written to condemn rather than to analyse.

Anthony Barnett has always lived in a rarefied political atmosphere. Somebody ought to tell him that the outcome of the next election will affect millions of real lives. He admits that "Britain would have been even more unequal had the Conservatives won" in 1997. Yet he suggests that it would be wrong for Labour to retain office if the party won the largest number of seats but not the most votes -- though the constitutional propriety for doing so is beyond doubt.

Politics is not a parlour game. The idea that the Tories should be let in, simply to respect a principle that Barnett has just invented, tells us all we need to know about his real concern for the egalitarian ideal that "Hang 'em" claims to espouse.

Roy Hattersley was deputy leader of the Labour Party from 1983-92

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Hold on tight!

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Not since the Thatcher years have so many Tory MPs been so motivated by self-interest

Assured of an election win, backbenchers are thinking either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. 

One hears despair from Labour not just about probable defeat, but from MPs who felt they had three years to improve the party’s fortunes, or to prepare for personal oblivion. In the Conservative Party, matters seem quite the opposite. Veterans of the 1983 election recall something similar: a campaign fought in the absolute certainty of winning. Theresa May talked of putting the interests of the country first when she engineered the poll, and one must believe she was sincere. However, for those expecting to be Tory MPs after 8 June there are other priorities. Theirs is not a fight for the national interest, because that for them is a foregone conclusion. It is about their self-interest: either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. They contemplate years ahead in which to consolidate their position and, eventually, to shape the tone and direction of the party.

The luxury of such thoughts during a campaign comes only when victory is assured. In 1983 I worked for a cabinet minister and toured marginal seats with him. Several candidates we met – most of whom won – made it clear privately that however important it was to serve their constituents, and however urgent to save the country from the threats within what the late Gerald Kaufman later called “the longest suicide note in history”, there was another issue: securing their place in the Thatcher revolution. Certain they and their party would be elected in the aftermath of the Falklands War, they wanted their snout in the trough.

These are early days, but some conver­sations with those heading for the next House of Commons echo the sentiments of 1983. The contemporary suicide note has not appeared, but is keenly awaited. Tories profess to take less notice of opinion polls than they once did – and with good reason, given the events of 2015 and 2016 – but ­imagine their party governing with a huge majority, giving them a golden opportunity to advance themselves.

Labour promises to change the country; the Liberal Democrats promise to force a reconsideration of Brexit; Ukip ­promises to ban the burqa; but the Tories believe power is theirs without the need for elaborate promises, or putting any case other than that they are none of the above. Thus each man and woman can think more about what the probability of four or five further years in the Commons means to them. This may seem in poor taste, but that is human nature for you, and it was last seen in the Labour Party in about 2001.

Even though this cabinet has been in place only since last July, some Tory MPs feel it was never more than an interim arrangement, and that some of its incumbents have underperformed. They expect vacancies and chances for ministers of state to move up. Theresa May strove to make her team more diverse, so it is unfortunate that the two ministers most frequently named by fellow Tories as underachievers represent that diversity – Liz Truss, the Lord Chancellor, who colleagues increasingly claim has lost the confidence of the judiciary and of the legal profession along with their own; and Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, whom a formerly sympathetic backbencher recently described to me as having been “a non-event” in his present job.

Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, was lucky to survive his own stint as lord chancellor – a post that must surely revert to a qualified lawyer, with Dominic Grieve spoken of in that context, even though, like all ardent Remainers in the government, he would be expected to follow the Brexit line – and the knives are out for him again, mainly over Southern Rail but also HS2. David Gauke, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and the little-known Ben Gummer, a Cabinet Office minister, are tipped for promotion with Grieve if vacancies arise: that all three are white men may, or may not, be a consideration.

Two other white men are also not held in high regard by colleagues but may be harder to move: Boris Johnson, whose conduct of the Foreign Office is living down to expectations, and Michael Fallon, whose imitation of the Vicar of Bray over Brexit – first he was for it, then he was against it, and now he is for it again – has not impressed his peers, though Mrs May considers him useful as a media performer. There is also the minor point that Fallon, the Defence Secretary, is viewed as a poor advocate for the armed forces and their needs at a time when the world can hardly be called a safe place.

The critical indicator of how far personal ambition now shapes the parliamentary Tory party is how many have “done a Fallon” – ministers, or aspirant ministers, who fervently followed David Cameron in advising of the apocalyptic results of Brexit, but who now support Theresa May (who is also, of course, a reformed Remainer). Yet, paradoxically, the trouble Daniel Hannan, an arch-Brexiteer and MEP, has had in trying to win selection to stand in Aldershot – thanks to a Central Office intervention – is said to be because the party wants no one with a “profile” on Europe to be added to the mix, in an apparent attempt to prevent adding fuel to the fire of intra-party dissent. This may appease a small hard core of pro-Remain MPs – such as Anna Soubry, who has sufficient talent to sit in the cabinet – who stick to their principles; but others are all Brexiteers now.

So if you seek an early flavour of the next Conservative administration, it is right before you: one powering on to Brexit, not only because that is what the country voted for, but because that is the orthodoxy those who wish to be ministers must devotedly follow. And though dissent will grow, few of talent wish to emulate Soubry, sitting out the years ahead as backbenchers while their intellectual and moral inferiors prosper.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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