I was in the back of a cab with Nadine Dorries once. It was after some event where politicians and the press meet up to propagate their unhealthy relationships with one another at someone else’s expense, probably yours. I can’t remember exactly what it was. All I remember is this apparently perpetually furious woman ranting at me, a whirling bleached-blonde cloud of vituperation and contumely, with the vestigial tail of a scouse accent — like the bastard offspring of a semi-articulate Tasmanian Devil and the late Bessie Braddock MP. Simon Hoggart was with us too and he just sort of merged imperceptibly with the taxi seat and became invisible. He did not engage. I tried turning on the charm, but being quite charmless myself, this did not work. I can’t even remember what she was so cross about; something, everything, everyone. I quite liked her for it, to tell you the truth, this implacable rage.
It is a fury which is rarely kept beneath the surface for very long. Since first being elected in 2005 she has fallen out with everyone there is to fall out with: her party’s leaders, Labour’s women MPs, the Speaker of the House of Commons, the press, the parliamentary standards officers who poked around in her very dubious expenses claims, her sick husband, her boyfriend, the world beyond. In some quarters — one assumes at the top of her party — she is derided for being a sectionable and gobby chav with a council estate Christian name and the appearance of a mediocre drug dealer’s wife on a weekend break in Marbella. You will recall that George Osborne was known as ‘oiky’ because he attended only Westminster School; imagine what they all make of Dorries, from Halewood Grange Comprehensive in Liverpool.
Her latest tirade against Cameron and Osborne was a more or less word for word repetition of what she had said, with scarcely less venom, last month: ‘two arrogant posh boys who don’t know the price of milk — who show no remorse, no contrition and no passion to want to understand the lives of others’. I am not sure what it is that the Prime Minister is supposed to show ‘remorse’ about, exactly, and when presented with these comments via the conduit of the BBC’s Nick Robinson, his weary expression read: ‘Why are you asking me to react to anything which might be uttered by that doolally old witch?’ He mumbled something about not entirely accepting Nadine’s analysis. For my part, I am never convinced by these doesn’t-know-the-price-of-milk arguments. It depends where you buy it, doesn’t it? And how much you buy.
Dorries is on the Jesus-saves-born-again-Tea-Party right of the Conservatives. I don’t know what her views are as regards capital punishment, but if asked, my guess would be that she feels strongly that people should be hanged regardless of whether or not they have committed an offence. But all of this notwithstanding, she represents, in a somewhat more voluble form, the three plainly disaffected sections of the parliamentary Conservative party.
These three are, first, the Tory MPs who wish that the leadership was more viscerally right-wing and — even allowing for the requirement to placate the coalition’s Liberal Democrat allies — do not believe that its heart is in the right place. Then there are those who feel that there is some hard truth in the allegations that the party is being led by a toffs’ convention which is utterly out of touch with ordinary voters, and especially with those outside London. And finally there are those who despair of the government’s fantastically maladroit handling of seemingly everything which hoves into view, from the budget’s granny and pasty tax, to the debacle over the attempted extradition of the extravagantly bearded jihadi maniac Abu Qatada.
This apparent lack of basic competence has, in recent months, chipped away at the goodwill which the government enjoyed with the press, so that there is pretty much none remaining. These are the three charges, then: that the government is insufficiently Conservative; is furthermore too highborn to understand the petty aspirations of ordinary folk, i.e. the voters; and is increasingly slapdash and prone to error. Of course, of the three, it is the last which tips the balance. The backbench MPs will put up with the government being wet and Etonian, so long as it is seen to be doing a reasonably good job, as reflected in the opinion polls and decent press coverage. That can no longer be said, however, and the latest polls put the party eight points behind Labour.
One backbench Conservative MP — neither highborn nor usually disaffected, explained the growing unease thus: ‘It really manifests itself as a reaction to the cliqueyness of the government. It has always been there, that cliquishness, but it is when you see the incompetence that it begins to matter. Some of the policy stuff is so out of this world it wouldn’t last a minute north of Watford.’ Nor did my interlocutor believe that these problems were temporary, the sort of thing which might be assuaged by a swift and brutal reshuffle. It will continue because the press now has the government in its sights, for all three of those charges I mentioned above. And so it is likely that more Conservative MPs will break ranks before the recess — and probably MPs whose venom cannot be so easily diluted because it came from the serial offender, Mad Nad.