The paranoid conspiracy theories of Simon Heffer

Simon Heffer is clearly very upset about the recent sacking of his friend John Redwood ("Portillo's Militant Tendency", 14 February). Heffer's thesis is that, while in charge of Conservative Party private polling, I selectively interpreted focus groups in order to steer William Hague to the conclusion that Redwood must go. Every part of this paranoid theory, and almost every sentence in his article (apart from the legal disclaimer), is false.

To set the scene for these alleged crimes, Heffer first fantasises a motive for my treachery towards his Prince, and then confidently describes how I took my opportunity: "Crucially," he asserts, "Cooper's services were retained for a further three or four months by the party to analyse and number-crunch the findings of focus groups." If that is "crucial" to the Heffer theory, it is presumably equally "crucial" that every word of the sentence is untrue.

Heffer also implies that the use of focus groups is intrinsically unprincipled. Only the very arrogant would believe that you can know every nuance of public opinion without researching it.

We lost in 1997 largely because people "disliked Tories, not because they loved new Labour", as Redwood noted in the Daily Telegraph last week. One of the core reasons why people disliked Tories is that they saw us as arrogant and out of touch. Focus groups help us to understand the moods and anxieties of the voters and to stay in touch. They give us insights into the things that really matter to people, and the aspects of the big issues that people yearn for politicians to sort out; as Redwood also observed, "we will be elected only by offering a better alternative on the big issues".

Anyone who knows Hague will find ridiculous the Heffer thesis that he is in thrall to focus groups. Hague is a conviction politician with a steely determination to make the Conservatives electable again. He has no patience with those in the party and the media whose political strategy seems inspired by the terrace chant at Milwall Football Club: "Nobody likes us and we don't care."

Andrew Cooper
London SE22

Simon Heffer's oversold "inside story" with its account of the scurrying around of research assistants and Central Office persons on behalf of their factions misses the central point. It doesn't matter how hard John Redwood works, or what points he may have scored off ministers in the self-preoccupied atmosphere of the chamber. Nor does it matter that he is big among Tory zealots. An Oxford manner in half-human form, an Edwardian dandy thrusting his ferrule into the ribs of draper's assistants is a perpetual minus to a Conservative Party seeking election. So is down-the-line replication of the Thatcher outlook.

What Heffer misses and Portillo understands is that a hard, right-wing Tory party will not prosper. What he gets right is that the party is placed to enjoy a substantial recovery at the next election despite the public's unamended dislike. Some of this derives from the scars that Tony Blair, flagellant-like, lays on his own back through futile, shabby campaigns against Rhodri Morgans and Ken Livingstones who could win elections for him. Some will flow from a lower poll due to understandable core-Labour disaffection. A Tory party sensibly humanised and moderated a la Portillo will be able to make maximum use of such donations, and Portillo as lieutenant to a prospering William Hague will take credit, but not the leadership.

Edward Pearce
Aylesbury, Bucks

Simon Heffer's electoral predictions appear to be as reliable as much of the rest of his journalism. On 4 October 1999 (NS, "A party at war with itself"), he wrote: "The Tories used to think it was a joke when people said to them: 'You are going about it the right way to lose the next election even more heavily than you lost the last one.' Who would dismiss that prediction now?"

Last week, in an article full of misleading assertions about my former colleagues at Conservative Central Office, he argued: "Hague could, without lifting a finger, and barring any further disasters, add 70 or 80 seats to the Tories' total at the next election."

Michael Simmonds
London EC2

This article first appeared in Just wait for the gold rush to end

2000-02-21