James Forsyth reviews the week in politics.
Mud sticks. In politics everyone remembers the charge and not the denials — something Labour has exploited for years. Typically, it would denounce the Conservatives for being heartless, privileged bigots who care nothing for the poor, eat foxes and have no place in modern Britain. But that doesn’t work anymore, as people have stopped listening to Labour. So Labour has had to pin its hopes on independent left-leaning groups hurling accusations and making people think that the Tories are still the nasty party, whatever David Cameron says.
This new lie of the land could be seen at Conservative conference where the most damaging blows to the party did not come from Labour but from two outside groups. Ben Summerskill, who runs the gay rights group Stonewall, pulled out of the Gay Pride event complaining about homophobes from the European parliament being given a platform at conference. On the same night the Jewish Board of Deputies also sprang a surprise, revealing that its president Vivian Wineman had written to Mr Cameron expressing concern about the views of the party’s new European allies.
These events sent chills down Cameroon spines. The Tory leader remains very sensitive to anything suggesting that his reforms are cosmetic and that the Tories remain the ‘nasty party’. Huskies have been hugged and glaciers crossed to bury this image. That news of the Board of Deputies’ letter broke almost immediately in the Guardian exacerbated Tory concerns. It felt like they had been hit by the opening barrage in a war declared on them by the cultural left, a far more formidable opponent than Gordon Brown.
Senior Conservatives are worried that this might be only the beginning. They fear that the run-up to the next election will be dominated by distracting cultural wars, which would be far more damaging to the party’s image than the usual botched attacks from this dysfunctional government. There is, though, a Tory strategy designed to prevent them from getting dragged into this quagmire: make it clear to those tempted to go down this road that they will pay a price for their actions.
The Tories stress that they have no desire to subvert institutions but rather want to prevent them from being used for partisan purposes. A party insider explains they will not be ‘targeting organisations but those inside organisations who are responsible for the attacks’. I am told that ‘those who use their position to launch partisan attacks can expect no quarter’ when (and everyone thinks it will be when) the Tories come to power.
We’ve already seen this strategy in action in the Tory response to the blocking of Veronica Wadley, Boris Johnson’s choice to head Arts Council London. As editor of the Evening Standard she was a crucial ally of the campaign to oust Ken Livingstone — which would not have endeared her to Ben Bradshaw, the culture secretary. He refused to sanction her appointment and was given cover by Liz Forgan, the head of the Arts Council, who had written a letter to his department denouncing Wadley as ‘manifestly less qualified’ than the other candidates.
Dame Forgan appears set to be the Admiral Byng of the new Tory approach; my understanding is that she will almost certainly be dismissed if the Tories win the next election. Another thing keeping the quangocrats in check is that Francis Maude’s ‘implementation team’, in charge of the transition to government, is already pulling together a list of Tory friends who could run various quangos if they are in need of new leadership.
Ed Vaizey, the Tory arts spokesman, told The Spectator that ‘it would be extremely arrogant to say we will get rid of Liz Forgan. But I have noted with some sadness what has occurred.’ There was a time when the euphemistic ‘sadness’ of a Tory shadow minister mattered not a jot. Now, it sounds rather menacing. For the first time in more than a dozen years the Tories cannot be crossed lightly.
People want to calm rows with them, not escalate them. Take Summerskill. Having pulled out of the Gay Pride night on Tuesday, he was saying by Wednesday lunchtime — following a meeting with the Tories — that he had merely gone to bed at ‘a normal hour’. He is also keen to stress that neither he nor Stonewall briefed the media that he was pulling out of the event. The message is clear: Stonewall was not trying to pick a fight.
In the Jewish community there are people deeply worried that Wineman’s letter has drawn a communal organisation into a political spat with the next government. This concern isn’t a left-right split; one of the strongest critics of the letter is a retired Labour MP.
Jeremy Newmark, the chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, is said to be furious that Wineman has undone his recent outreach work: this summer Stanley Fink and Howard Leigh, both Conservative party treasurers, joined the JLC. The whole issue has heightened tensions between the Board of Deputies and the self-appointed Jewish Leadership Council. But some in the community think that the Tories should be demanding that Newmark makes his unease with Wineman’s approach public. They feel that Cameron is selling himself short by dining with the Chief Rabbi next month with Gerald Ronson, who donated to Livingstone’s campaign. Ronson is — to use a Yiddish word — the macher behind the JLC.
There is a fine line between defending yourself from partisan attacks and plain bullying; the Tories must remember this distinction if their strategy is to be effective. They must also ensure that their critics aren’t right. If they are forced to concede that their new European allies are what their critics say they are, then their aggressive pushback will look ridiculous. But the Conservatives should be able to speak softly most of the time. After all, everyone knows they will soon be carrying the big stick of government patronage.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 17, 2009