Three wives, five years in the SWP, barley sugar theft: my ministerial career will be ruined

I can't think what brought it on, but all week I've been imagining that I was a high-ranking government minister and was suddenly required to produce a coherent explanation for one or other of my past moral lapses.

My initial worry was the caution I received for shoplifting in the early fifties. The actual circumstances were relatively straightforward. After school, a gang of us would troop over to Endbutt Stores, drape our satchels over the counter, and try to purloin Mars bars and sachets of a sherbet mix called Lingo-Fizz.

I reckon that as long as no one got to hear about the day we made off with a large glass jar of barley sugars and six packets of Senior Service, I might be able to persuade a parliamentary select committee that this was nothing more than a minor childish escapade with no greater moral significance than scrumping from a neighbour's apple tree. My only fear is that news of this little episode might prompt further revelations. One Sunday I'd be sitting at home congratulating myself on having buried the Endbutt Stores business when I'd find myself distracted from my ministerial papers by an exclusive story in the People from a former department-store manager which suggested that I was not so much an occasional scallywag as a full-time professional thief.

I'm talking about the sock sale back in the early sixties when the crush of people trying to hand me half-a-crown for a pair of Wolsey grip-tops at Owen Owen's store in central Liverpool became so great that it was only possible to deal with it by simply taking the money and ignoring the usual requirements to produce a proper receipt. Although I was called into the manager's office and formally sacked after three days of this bonanza, as far as I could tell there appeared to be no direct evidence that I'd been taking bags of half-crowns home apart from the implication contained in the manager's announcement that I'd no longer be needed because they'd decided to replace me with a machine - a cash register.

But if my luck held out and Owen Owen kept quiet, there'd still be the little problem of drugs. Recent examples from this area of moral impropriety suggest that there'd be no shortage of former friends and colleagues who'd be only too happy to tell the Sundays that they'd seen me with a joint in my hand at some time during my life. And even though one such sighting might be dismissed as relatively trivial, it would be difficult to hold to this line in the face of reports, photographs and video recordings from more than, say, 100 different sources. The only available ploy would probably be to knock out a confessional story called "My 35 years of cannabis hell" in which I revealed that I had, quite unknowingly, become an addict to reefers, and routinely used to consume up to a pound and a half of weed every day before breakfast until I was miraculously saved by the Sisters of Mercy.

I'm afraid, though, that would still leave me needing equally plausible explanations for my three marriages, five-year membership of the SWP and a brief but remarkably pleasant homosexual experience in Sheffield at the British Sociological Association's summer conference in 1973. In the circumstances, I probably have no alternative but to resign from high office and undertake five years social work in the East End of London, or to obtain conclusive evidence of my constitutional inability to answer for my past sins by submitting myself to an independent medical panel nominated by Jack Straw. It's rather a pity really. I was quite enjoying all those cabinet meetings.

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The tyranny of the brands

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide