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Survival of the fittest

When I was at Eton, many years before David Cameron, much of the school was run by a self-elected society known as ‘Pop’.

7 April 2010

12:00 AM

7 April 2010

12:00 AM

Back from the Brink: The Inside Story of the Tory Resurrection Peter Snowdon

HarperPress, pp.419, 14.99

When I was at Eton, many years before David Cameron, much of the school was run by a self-elected society known as ‘Pop’.

When I was at Eton, many years before David Cameron, much of the school was run by a self-elected society known as ‘Pop’. Some members were elected ex officio; but the majority belonged because they stood well with the Society’s membership. Most members of ‘Pop’ in my day put me in mind of David Cameron now. The principal difference is that he is by a distance cleverer than they were.

However, the apparent social self- confidence and the toughness of mind and of spirit seem very familiar. It went with a certain cliquishness and a determination to be in charge. Those of us who never stood a chance of becoming members of ‘Pop’ used to call such people, no doubt with more than a touch of envy, ‘Honey and Flowers’, after a fashionable hair oil they favoured. It was not an apt name, because these gentlemen had needed a good deal more than sweetness and prettiness to reach Olympus. They had used toughness and ruthlessness as well.

It is a comfort to know that our next Prime Minister took his first political steps in such a hard school. Peter Snowdon’s book says little, except by implication, about the formidable task that awaits David Cameron, assuming that the British electorate does not commit national suicide on 6 May by re-electing Labour or by landing us with a hung Parliament. However, he does provide us with a well-researched, authoritative and workmanlike account of the Conservative Party’s brush with extinction after 1990. The book has another virtue: it is an easy read, taking us, with the help of much quotation from the dramatis personae themselves, through the whole extraordinary story.

Indeed, Snowdon well understands how fascinating is the cast-list in this drama. Even setting Mandelson and Labour to one side, the Tories give the lie to the canard that there are no personalities in politics and that personalities do not matter anyway.

Take just one or two examples: Portillo, a proud and able man who could change his views, but not his character — a sort of Charles I with brains who lacked the nerve to go for the kill, but who behaved gracefully at his execution; or Michael Howard, an honourable and courageous man who could not make the party electable, but whose bravery and determination saved it; or Boris Johnson, whose manner hides an intelligence and political conviction that will surely one day propel him back to Westminster; or Michael Ashcroft, who should never have been allowed to have anything to do with the Tory party, but whose tactical analysis was spot on.

This book brings them and many others to life. However, the hero is David Cameron. It is he who has made the Conservatives electable again and Snowdon’s account of how he accomplished this feat makes the achievement all the more impressive.

It is an account that does not shirk the mistakes. There is, for instance, a full description of the grammar schools débacle and the failure to perform that most difficult of tasks for a party leader waiting for victory: being attractive to the electorate while sustaining your own party’s enthusiasm. Above all, Snowdon makes horribly clear how difficult it is to change tack in mid world crisis. If your policy is predicated on a sunny economic outlook and you have, by implication, accepted that your opponents have got it right, it is tricky to change the angle of attack when suddenly events prove that in fact they had got it wrong. In Snowdon’s words: ‘As the week [beginning 15 September 2009] progressed, and the full extent of the crisis in the financial world sank in, the voices of dissent gradually fell silent . . . The crash saved Gordon Brown’.

Nevertheless, Cameron survived. He showed he had the resilience and the toughness to do so. Of late, as the opinion poll lead has begun to evaporate, it has looked as though he has lost that nerve which had propelled him to the leadership in the first place. Perhaps he looked down and had an attack of vertigo. As the late Sir Gerald Nabarro was once heard to observe: ‘No bloody panico’. He must keep his message simple and consistent and ask the electorate for a mandate to perform the traditional job of the Tory party in the 20th century, clearing up Labour’s mess. However, that is nothing compared to what awaits Cameron in Number 10: a crisis of government, where the Whitehall and Westminster machines, designed for the 19th and early 20th centuries, are broken; and a European Union going in the wrong direction.

Whatever happens, David Cameron will need all his Etonian toughness and nerve. Peter Snowdon’s book makes it clear that both these attributes might just enable him to succeed.

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