Sir Rhodes Boyson, who died today at 87, was the archetypal eccentric Tory backbencher for nearly three decades. His mutton-chop sideburns, bald head and narrow squint even gave him the appearance of a Dickensian overseer. That he spoke and seemed to think like one made him the complete package.
Sir Rhodes, a former headmaster, defender of caning, Section 28 and pretty much every other reactionary measure of the age, earned the nickname “Colossus”, from that great ironist, the late Norman St. John Stevas.
Nevertheless, it’s safe to say he would not recognise David Cameron’s Conservative Party, a charge many in the party not even of Sir Rhodes’s vintage regularly make. Despite the Tories (sort of) winning the last election, Conservative Britain has failed to bloom; that much is now clear. There is no sense that Cameron has spawned an age of hegemony in the way Thatcher or Blair both did. Even on the deficit, the grip of TINA (“There Is No Alternative”) seems to weaken every day, with economic voices deserting the government and a clamour for a change of course – and even of chancellor.
Meanwhile, the NHS reforms, perhaps the government’s most overtly ideological move, puts commissioning of local services into the hands of local GPs. Those same people said to be responsible for a soft line in signing-off patients on to incapacity benefit. It is doubtful Sir Rhodes, who once said that crime had risen in “parallel with the number of social workers,” would approve of do-gooding doctors being put in charge.
More traditional Tory fare, in the shape of privatisation and big tax cuts are off the menu for now. Osborne’s decision to shave 5p off the top rate of tax did little to promote the popular capitalism that Sir Rhodes approved of. The whispered comparison with Ted Heath’s one-term government swirls around the Prime Minister’s head. Like Heath, Cameron governs a fractious nation hobbled by serious national and international economic problems that show little sign of ending soon. Unlike Heath, he has more voices both inside and outside his party to keep happy; dancing to the Lib Dem’s tune on issues like proportional representation and House of Lords reform, while keeping his belligerent backbenchers happy. It’s not going well.
“It may have been right to create a coalition after the election,” warned Tory backbencher Brian Binley yesterday, “but the current set-up isn’t working”. The Lib Dems have achieved a level of influence “not remotely justified by the level of their electoral support,” he harrumphed. Cameron, he added, needs to act like a Conservative prime minister, not a “chamber-maid”. Meanwhile, former Tory environment minister Tim Yeo, hitherto best known for his scandalous resignation from John Major’s government (over what we used to call a “love child”) pointedly asked if Cameron was “a man or mouse” for not backing a third runway at Heathrow.
It is doubtful whether Sir Rhodes, a quintessential plain-speaking Lancastrian, would have been quite so insolent. However, like Binley and Yeo, he would have wanted the firm smack of prime ministerial leadership. And not just because he supported corporal punishment.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.