The New Statesman Interview - Tory Boy

Once, he supported Powell; now, he is determined to be nice even if it kills him. Tory Boy

Tory Boy, where are you now? Butt of Harry Enfield jokes, target of lefty student protests. What became of the storm troopers of the Federation of Conservative Students, an organisation so embarrassingly right-wing that even Norman Tebbit as party chairman felt obliged to close it down?

To be Tory Boy was not just to be Conservative and male. It demanded something else - the deliberately strident, trying-too-hard quality, the flaunting of unpopularity so gloriously caricatured by Enfield. Tory Boys mainlined Thatcherism. The young William Hague's hectoring party conference speech on how the rest of the delegates would all be dead soon and that youth knew best marked him out as Tory Boy minor. But with time, and through the world of management consultancy, Hague learnt to trim and nuance his way to power instead. The real Tory Boys have never forgiven him.

In the summer, they came roaring back to our attention when John Bercow, the fast-rising member of the shadow home affairs team, attacked Cherie Blair as "a cross between First Lady and Lady Macbeth", on the grounds that she had "pontificated" on the blessings of the Human Rights Act and was acting as a power behind her husband's throne.

Bercow was accused of hostility to working women and of insulting the Prime Minister's wife. Robin Cook pointed out that he was a former member of the far-right Monday Club and had favoured repatriation in his youth. Moderate Conservatives wrote to the papers to dissociate themselves from his attack.

A search for the culprit takes me to a forbidding Westminster mansion block. And there, as spick and span as your grandma's Wedgwood, is John Bercow wearing the tribal navy-blue blazer with gold buttons and a very wide smile that says: "May I count on your vote?" We pass Cecil Beaton's brooding portrait of Churchill and drawings of Disraeli and Salisbury into a living room as neat and unlived in as a hotel, except with a lot of John Lewis glass ornaments around the place. He apologises fervently for the imaginary mess: "It's very much a bachelor flat," he says a little sadly. His last girlfriend left after he said he couldn't go on holiday with her because he had too much constituency mail.

He is recovering from a No Turning Back group dinner, the one where (as leaked to the press) Michael Portillo walked out after latter-day Thatcherites rounded on their former idol. Bercow's enthusiasm for Portillo is well documented but, today, he speaks in the careful code. "I'm sorry he's left," he says. "I regard Michael Portillo as a formidable force, and I strongly identify with the message he is trying to put across." Yes, he says, there were "some concerns" voiced that night. "A lot of people on the right are allergic to the word 'inclusive'. But we cannot go on talking in language that alienates minorities. Conservatives have a message to get across. We have to find ways to do it that don't make us look as if we're foaming at the mouth."

This is not only a subtle but clear declaration of his loyalty to Portillo. It is the essence of Tory Boy resurgent - the recognition that Conservatism suffered by rendering itself, in Ferdinand Mount's damning phrase, "right but repulsive". From now on, this lot are going to be nice if it kills them.

A libertarian ethos, soldered in the fire of Thatcherite individualism, is being recast to fit the mores of the millennium. Bercow clearly has no time for the moral crusade of his immediate boss, Ann Widdecombe, and her one-woman war on cannabis. "My concern is far more with attacking hard drugs. The idea that the police should raid every home in the land looking for dope-smokers is transparently absurd. Personal use has effectively been decriminalised. A vast clampdown is unrealistic. In this country, we police by consent. The police are not interested in launching an all-out war on soft drugs. As far as I can see, alcohol and violence are closely related. It is not at all clear to me that cannabis and violence are." (But has he ever inhaled? "Never," he says.)

Bercow is also in favour of the equalisation of the age of consent, while being himself "rampantly heterosexual" (currently unattached, applicants welcome).

An intriguing shift is occurring in Tory social attitudes. The middle-aged generation address homosexuality and drug-taking only when under duress to confess to a past misdemeanour. But the under-40s, the Tory Boys (Bercow is 37), parade liberal social views as a mark that they are not so different from the rest of us.

It is all a bit normal and frankly dull. But Tory Boy still has his moments. In Bercow, new Labour has a trainee hate-figure to rival Portillo and John Redwood. To Robin Cook's argument that Bercow's former Monday Club membership makes him unfit for the Tory front bench, Bercow says: "Robin Cook is the most arrogant, pompous and unsuitable Foreign Secretary in living memory. The word shameless was invented for him. He is buzzing round like a demented bluebottle trying to grab attention. These are views I held when I was a teenager and I don't hold now."

Theresa May, who had Bercow on her shadow education team for a while, tried in vain to calm down her protege's wilder sallies at the government as "educational vandals". The sweet and sour mix of fierce bellicosity and vaunted moderation is confusing. In their own party, the new right are assuming the guise of modernisers. "We are selecting far too few women," says Bercow earnestly, and suggests that the party should insist on one woman on every shortlist, a notion strongly resisted by local associations.

So, John, was it a good idea for a party trying to be women-friendly to have a go at the PM's missus? "No," he says. "As it turned out, it wasn't. I don't think it worked. If you ask me 'Has it struck a chord with the public?', the honest answer would be probably not. I have to acknowledge that it backfired because the people who agreed with me were anti the Blairs to start with, and it didn't convince many others. It might even have alienated them. So it didn't have the right effect, no."

Does he think of himself as Tory Boy? "I'm son of Thatcher," he says. "I can see that others might think I fit the bill."

Indeed. Born in Finchley, Margaret Thatcher's parliamentary seat, son of a car salesman turned minicab driver, Bercow is the authentic garagiste-tendency, despised by the toffs of all grades. Rancour about class still sits deep in the party. Tory Boy usually hails from modest circumstances and saw Thatcher as a great meritocrat, fighting against the slow-witted knights of the shires. Nicholas Soames, the incarnation of High Toryism, was so horrified to see Bercow arrive at the House without a tie during the recess that he apologised to a taxi driver on his behalf.

Bercow joined the Monday Club as an 18-year-old, inspired by the writings of Enoch Powell and concerned about the impact of mass immigration. But hang on: he's from a Reform Jewish family, he grew up in one of the most peaceful, thriving areas of immigration in London and, at 18, he was so convinced that Pakistanis and black people should be repatriated that he devoted his evenings to an immigration-hostile organisation? "Powell convinced me that it was right to fear large-scale immigration. This was 1981, the year of the inner-city riots, and my fear was that we were in a politically explosive situation. So I stayed with the Monday Club on the immigration and repatriation committee [no less] for 18 months, until it became clear that there were a lot of people at the meetings who were really unpleasant racists and so I left."

I mention Powell's "rivers of blood" speech, the "grinning piccaninnies", the black man gaining "the whip hand" over the white man. Had this not stirred up racial prejudice?

For the first time, the fluency dries up. "Perhaps he should have used different language, in retrospect. Powell gave an impression of hostility to immigrants. But Enoch was not a racist. He was a patriot, and he served all his constituents, whatever their skin colour or origin."

Is he saying that Powell, with his great intellectual command of politics and culture, and his unrivalled rhetorical gifts, was merely guilty of not choosing the right words?

"It can be difficult, Anne, to disentangle the threads. The professional critics of Powell, such as the Campaign for Racial Equality, blamed him for promoting violence. But to what extent he really was guilty of that, Anne, we'd have to think carefully." The first name thing is a tick. He interjects it at odd, arhythmic points in sentences. The ideological zeal and rhetorical flourish, combined with maladroitness, is pure Tory Boy.

At Essex University, he fought bitter battles with the left and became national chair of the Federation of Conservative Students. That was the era of "Hang Nelson Mandela". "I never wore the shirt myself," he says. But he was in a position of some authority to discourage it. "With hindsight, yes. It didn't help our case." There is, it seems, a recurrent confusion in his mind about whether certain attitudes were reprehensible or just "not helpful".

The last great cause is fighting the euro. The BBC has become the official enemy of the Church of the Latter-day Tebbit, the way the trade unions were when the political realm was theirs. "The corporation has an innate bias towards europhilia . . . The BBC is packed with federasts."

Uneasily poised between past and future, Tory Boy keeps on fighting. But for what? "The retreat of the state and giving more power back to the individual," he says. The well-rehearsed reprise is as Eighties as a Human League song. He says "Goodbye, Anne" very politely, and breaks into a brisk trot towards the chamber. All that passion and energy, waiting for a hero.

Anne McElvoy is associate editor of the Independent

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The fall of civic culture