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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit