A taste for conspiracy

A Bastard's Tale

George Gardiner <em>Aurum Press, 280pp, £18.99</em>

Brian Mawhinney's comment to the Reigate Conservative Association that George Gardiner was "not always an easy colleague" is triumphantly confirmed by this candid and caustic memoir. Despite the tedious detail with which he charts the intrigues of his last years as Reigate's MP and a somewhat idiosyncratic structure that eschews chronology and consists of a jumble of personal and political reminiscences, Gardiner's lively style and spiky views make this a far better read than his critics might expect.

At best it offers a fascinating account of the Thatcher and Major premierships and the intrigue of Westminster life, revealing how divisions over Europe paralysed the Major government and how, in Gardiner's eyes, the absence of leadership brought the Conservative Party into chaos and defeat.

His analysis is enriched by the account of his own deselection battle. The civil war that gripped the Reigate Conservative Association in 1996 reflected the wider trauma besetting the Major government. Gardiner is well placed to show how rancour and division undermined the Tories from top to bottom.

The book, like the author's career, is dominated by his absolute devotion to Margaret Thatcher and his fury at the inadequacy of her successor in the defence of her inheritance. For Gardiner, who accepted Major as a "blind bargain" in 1990, he was a "Walter Mitty" figure with "no deep convictions" and "little conception of the kind of society he would like Britain to become". If his leadership "was essentially an exercise in manipulation to keep himself at the top of the greasy pole", then Gardiner is clear that the Conservatives' humiliation and defeat came "not because of splits but because of perpetual incompetent fudge".

This book only partly answers two questions that hang over Gardiner's career. Why was such a loyal member of Thatcher's Praetorian Guard never offered promotion? How did such a superb organiser and back-room plotter come to be outmanoeuvred by his "toy-town" critics in Reigate and ousted from his seat?

In the foreword he declares himself "profoundly grateful" that he was never promoted because, not temperamentally suited for cabinet office, he found his real vocation "as a back-bench mover and polemicist". This is made more plausible by his passionate defence of the role of independent-minded MPs willing to stand by their convictions in the face of party and personal loyalties.

It was the strength of his convictions that finally did for Gardiner. His public battles with Major brought open conflict with supporters in Reigate and led to the formation of GROG (Get rid of Gardiner). With the "black witch" of the Tory association organising conspiracies, he fought off deselection in 1996 only to succumb in early 1997. For the man Julian Critchley once described as a "sinister figure with a taste for conspiracy", it was all a plot too far.

Gardiner's last stand came as a Referendum Party candidate, and more than a few heads at Smith Square will turn at the details of the close negotiations between Sir James Goldsmith and senior Tories in the dying days of the Major government. Neither pompous nor discreet, Gardiner spices his tale with confessions of rigging student ballots at Oxford and election-night encounters with a colleague's wife, but these merely reinforce the honesty of what is a highly personal glimpse into the Westminster shadows.

There are inaccuracies; surreal self-delusion leads him to see the release of Mandela as "exactly how Thatcher planned events would work out", and his pride at his "own small part in the transformation of South Africa" simply reinforces the point that, in the end, Gardiner was a dogmatist and plotter of the first order. Hubris gets them all in the end.

Andrew Howard, senior lecturer in politics at Middlesex University, stood against George Gardiner at the last election, as the Labour candidate for Reigate

This article first appeared in the 21 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Better to shop than to vote