A vanished age

Too Nice to Be a Tory: it's my party and I'll cry if I want to

Jo-Anne Nadler <em>Simon & Schuster

This excellent book is the first in a long while to have kept me reading on into irresponsible hours of the morning. It is a lively, entertaining, informative and fascinating account of Conservative politics since 1979. The analysis and conclusions are far from original, and one won't put it down with a new view of the world. But few pictures of the period can have been more vivid.

Jo-Anne Nadler traces her own family's Jewish-immigrant roots to discover the foundations of the Conservatism in which she was raised. From private education and producing pop shows on Radio 1 to working in Conservative Central Office and back to the BBC to work as a political journalist, she re-creates the course of her own Conservative journey, falling in and out of love with the party and its leaders, but at heart always loyal to it. Here are evocative portraits of life in the Young Conservatives, of 1970s and 1980s Britain, the fashions, the music, the obsessions, the politics. Here are anecdotes - sometimes indiscreet - and here are insights into the personalities of those who have dominated the Tory scene.

Nadler has a novelist's eye for observation. Portraits of teachers in K Shoes, tan stockings and tweed skirts conjure up a past age more sharply than any comment on education. Yet there are also petty irritations that this talented author would have done well to eliminate.

The first problem is her humour. Nadler is fond of the sort of disc-jockey puns that would make most averagely intelligent people groan. Commenting on racism, she tells us that blacks and whites are not a black-and-white issue. Ouch! William Hague "was elected as the Barbarella of the Conservatives but quickly became the Barbour-wearer".

Then there are the small inaccuracies which, though unimportant in themselves, eventually cast doubt on the quality of the research. Michael Ancram did not, as the author claims, renounce his title to become an MP. His father, from whom he will inherit it, is still alive. He has merely chosen to call himself Mr rather than Lord Ancram, although when I first knew him as a young, newly elected MP he answered to both. I did not, contrary to Nadler's assertion, offer a photo opportunity on a council estate to launch my candidacy for party leader. I used it to do the exact opposite and announce I was not standing.

Finally, for someone who is generally so incisive, there are some surprisingly facile comments. According to Nadler, anyone who believes in capital punishment must be trying to appeal to the nasty vote, rather than have reasoned themselves reluctantly to the view that it is a saver of life and therefore a necessary evil. Strongly to disagree with someone but to acknowledge that they have as much sensitivity and imagination as oneself is the hallmark of democracy, but is rapidly becoming a rarity in political commentary. That much said, this is a generous book, usually erring on the side of fairness rather than bitchiness.

The greatest difficulty facing the Conservative Party (other than outbreaks of sleaze, which are scarcely unique to the Tories) is that it won the agenda. As Nadler points out, Tony Blair adopted the Conservative principles of privatisation, low taxes and strong defence, making it difficult to create the sort of stark choices which drive an electorate to the polling booths. Some opportunities, such as expanding the private health sector, were shirked for lack of courage. Others, such as pension reform, were genuinely brave but suffered from being misreported. Yet Nadler appears to think that the key to electoral success lay in Section 28. It is a sad obsession.

In a pleasingly indiscreet book, there are puzzling outbreaks of discretion. The author goes on a Scottish stalking holiday with a journalist who can only be Bruce Anderson and an MP who can only be Alan Duncan. Both are described but neither named. Why not? It may be unattractive to stalk poor little Bambis, but it is perfectly legal.

If you are given to nostalgia, read this book and smile sadly for a vanished age. But if you look to the future, read it and laugh because, for all its difficulties and defeats, the Conservative Party is back on the road to power.

Ann Widdecombe is MP for Maidstone and the Weald