Some of my best friends are Speakers, insisted Norman Tebbit today, before declaring open season on John Bercow and his attempts to keep the UK Independence Party’s Nigel Farage at bay.
I paraphrase. Here’s what Tebbit actually told BBC1’s Politics Show:
I remain a friend of John’s and I have been for 20-odd years . . . He did cast himself in my mould, indeed. But he has been reworked in recent years. I don’t think he would really be able to describe himself as a Conservative any more, even if he were not the Speaker.
And so to the forthcoming election battle for the Buckingham seat that will see Farage defy convention and take on a sitting speaker. Tebbit, not for the first time putting himself at odds with David Cameron, told the programme:
There is not a Conservative candidate, so they have to look around. And they will make a choice.
I don’t think it’s any business of the Conservative Party to instruct even its activists and members in who they should vote for in that sense, or indeed campaign for.
As my colleague George Eaton has noted, Bercow is defending the largest Tory majority in the country, so is more than likely to see off Farage, with or without the implied endorsement of a one-time Conservative Party chairman and current star of the blogosphere.
Nor will it do Cameron any harm, in the country at large, to be seen to be in opposition to an “old-school” Tory.
And yet Tebbit’s apparent preference for Ukip’s man over the modernising Bercow does speak to large sections of the Conservative Party. And not just the grass roots.
For starters — as our political correspondent James Macintyre reported earlier this year — there’s a small right-wing parliamentary cabal actively plotting to oust Bercow. Moreover, wannabe Conservative MPs remain dogmatically Eurosceptic.
Take this finding from the recent New Statesman/ComRes poll of 101 prospective parliamentary candidates:
Seventy-two per cent agree that as a matter of priority, Britain needs a fundamental renegotiation of its relationship with the European Union.
Despite David Cameron’s post-“cast-iron guarantee” words about the Lisbon Treaty, it is fanciful to believe that the Tory leadership shares the view that renegotiation is a “matter of priority”.
The grass roots have just scored a notable victory — Conservative Central HQ has acceded to their wishes and approved strong immigration messages for campaigning in marginal seats.
As the opinion polls narrow, will the calls from Tebbit and co prove equally irresistible?