Was Adam Afriyie stitched up as a warning to other would-be Tory rebels?

Tory MPs are in no hurry to dismiss the possibility that Downing Street leaked the story to expose a small rebel cell early in its development.

There is no chance of Adam Afriyie, the Conservative MP for Windsor, leading his party this side of a general election. There wasn’t much chance of him ever leading it before yesterday’s papers reported a nascent plot to line him up as David Cameron’s successor/usurper. Now that the plot’s bolt is prematurely shot that chance has shrunk to somewhere in the region of zilch.

So what is going on? As I wrote in my column last week, there is no shortage of resentment against Cameron in the Tory party. The underlying causes of that seething unrest have not gone away despite a burst of loyal exuberance following the promise of a referendum on Britain’s European Union membership.

There is a small and noisy cohort of Conservative MPs – I call them The Implacables – who are effectively in opposition already. They seem to want to accelerate the party’s defeat in the next election in order to provoke a crisis that would engulf the whole Cameroon “modernising” enterprise. They might then seize control and steer the Tories towards what they see as a more authentic Conservative agenda. In this respect, The Tory Implacables are to the right what Bennite ultras once were to Labour and the left – chasing ideological purity over electability and hating moderates on their own side with more vigour and passion than they hate the party opposite. They seem to relish the purgative potential of a leadership meltdown.

Even so, it seems unlikely any subscriber to that tendency would be so inept as to brief a couple of Sunday newspapers about their plans to unseat the Prime Minister and replace him with an MP of whom no-one outside Westminster (or his own constituency) has heard. If there was any kind of movement behind Adam Afriyie, I very much doubt it wanted its manoeuvres splashed all over the Mail on Sunday; still less at the end of a week when the Tory party was trying to make a big show of loyalty and was revelling in the perceived triumph of Cameron’s Big Europe Speech ™.

The net effect of the publicity was to make the plotters look like a small, ridiculous fanatical sect and to invite opprobrium from the overwhelming majority of Tories, which was I suspect the purpose of placing those stories in the papers. The source was, in other words, not Afriyie’s "friends" but quite the opposite. It was a device to expose a small rebel cell early on in its development and at a time when the Prime Minister is strong in order to stifle it and flush out any sympathisers. Perhaps that sounds like an over-elaborate conspiracy theory. Cock-up and ineptitude are usually the safest explanation for any rash-looking action in politics. Still, Tories I have spoken to today are in no hurry to dismiss the possibility that Afriyie’s head has, metaphorically speaking, been stuck on a spike outside Downing Street as a warning to others.

Update: I notice Peter Oborne is picking up much the same vibe.

Adam Afriyie, the Conservative MP for Windsor, was reported to be plotting to succeed David Cameron if the Conservatives are defeated in 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser