This must be the worst reshuffle since Mrs Thatcher demoted Geoffrey Howe in 1989. Unlike that one, its errors are unforced. This year, David Cameron had established a surprisingly strong position as the leader whose unpopular but necessary policies were starting to work. He and his team seemed steadier and more able than their opponents. Now he has thrown that away with changes so large that he looks as if he disrespects what he has achieved. He has singled out for punishment those ministers who were brave and active — most notably Michael Gove and Owen Paterson, demoting the first and sacking the second. Thus he emboldens all those pressure groups who hate the Tories and sends out a message that no one who wants a ministerial career should have a serious interest in his or her subject. He has also target-bombed his party’s natural supporters — rural voters, Eurosceptics, non-greens and people who are out of sympathy with his metropolitan preoccupations. He has dismissed the only two cabinet ministers (Paterson and the Welsh Secretary, David Jones) who voted against single-sex marriage. By getting rid of Paterson, in particular, he has turned his strongest cabinet bulwark against Ukip into a powerful enemy. Even his promotion of women, itself a welcome trend, is hypocritical, because no women have got nearer the beating heart (if one can apply that metaphor to such cynics) of this government. The dreary frivolity of it all has really surprised me.
It is one of the strangest things about human nature that if something really disgusts us, we lose our sense of justice. We so want to punish the wrong that we don’t care whom we punish. A friend of mine was once on a jury, and met a juror from another case having coffee in the Old Bailey. A horrible child sex abuse case was going on somewhere else in the building. The juror said to my friend: ‘If I were on that jury, when that defence counsel came on, I’d be deaf as a beetle.’ And at the same time as we shut our ears to the need to prove guilt, we open them much too uncritically to those who love hurling accusations. There are now two new inquiries, and the resignation of the chairman of one of them before it has even started, but I am still waiting to hear any piece of actual evidence of a conspiracy to cover up paedophilia in the 1980s. People who usually despise MPs have decided to take very seriously the late, not-at-all serious Geoffrey Dickens MP, who made accusations about which no one seems to know much. In 1918, an MP called Noel Pemberton-Billing ‘revealed’ that the ‘Unseen Hand’ of German power in Britain had collected a Black Book of 47,000 British sexual perverts, including child abusers, many of them in powerful positions. They were being blackmailed, he said, by the German secret service. (The Unseen Hand fantasy, by the way, was supported by the Times, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the famous fraudster Horatio Bottomley.) German ‘Jew-agents’ also sent loose women to give venereal disease to British soldiers. The truly shocking thing about this rubbish was that it was believed. The actress Maud Allan brought a libel action against Pemberton-Billing after he had accused her of lascivious and traitorous performances in an article called ‘The Cult of the Clitoris’. She lost, after evidence was given about the Black Book’s backing for her show. Later, Billing’s star witness admitted that the whole thing was a pack of lies. Credulity about evil can itself be evil.
By the time most readers see this, the House of Lords will have formed a view about Assisted Dying. Some Anglican bishops have got wonderfully on-the-one-hand/on-the-other about it. They seem to want dying assisted, but only a little bit. The Bishop of Carlisle feels that judges, rather than doctors, should decide whether someone has the right to be helped to take his or her own life. Thus do the most enlightened persons inadvertently advocate the return of the death penalty. I hope that when the bishop’s judges perform this task, they will be made to wear the traditional black cap.
If I were in the House of Lords, I would bring in an Assisted Living Bill. It would make it compulsory for all those seeking an abortion to entertain an offer for their baby from approved prospective adoptive parents. No money would be paid. Rather, the abortion-seeking mother — or couple — would have to meet the baby-seekers at least twice and be asked to consider a formal offer, which would include evidence of how the future child would be provided for. Forced to think of the foetus as a living person in this way, many of those exercising the ‘right to choose’ might, after all, choose life.
In last week’s Notes, I mentioned how the Marquis of Normanby leads a double life as the distinguished writer, Constantine Phipps. I recently experienced another example of posh protective camouflage. Emma Willis, who makes shirts in Jermyn Street, invited me to a reception for her wonderful charity, Style for Soldiers. After I had accepted, she emailed to ask if I wanted a chauffeur to the party. I replied that it was very kind but I thought it ridiculous that a charity should provide its guests with drivers: I could find my own way to the Ritz. Emma explained that the limousine company, Capstar Chauffeurs, was itself a good cause. It is staffed largely by injured ex-servicemen, and it wants attention for its excellent work. So I agreed. I was picked up from Hampstead, where I was interviewing someone, by Charlie, the young boss of the company. He was very smart, ex-Blues and Royals (though not himself injured), and politely called me ‘Sir’ at all times. He drove very well. In the course of conversation, I gradually realised that he was the Marquis of Bowmont, heir to the Duke of Roxburgh, Floors Castle and large bits of the Scottish borders. Nowadays, only the aristocracy are deferential. It is touching.