It was beyond a shadow of doubt an outstanding silly season, the best by far in recent years, with an excellent crop of stories. Leaving aside the daily tragedies in Iraq and Sudan, too heartbreaking to ponder for long without giving way to despair, August delivered some fine material: the emergence of the Notting Hill Tories, the amorous exploits of the Home Secretary and the arrest of Mark Thatcher.
Mark Thatcher, now urgently in need of a biographer, produced the best of these three diversions. Thatcher’s defining characteristic is a preposterously inflated estimation of his own intelligence and abilities. It is inconceivable that he could ever be the ‘Mr Big’ behind a mercenary coup, though entirely plausible that he should regard himself in such a light, once lulled by his arrogance and greed. Mark Thatcher is an archetype with many forebears in English literature, mainly comic: think of Dickens’s Steerforth or Evelyn Waugh’s Apthorpe. Ealing comedy, which delighted in villainous schemes gone wrong, contains a number of Mark Thatcher prototypes, sometimes played by Terry-Thomas. Thatcher’s education at Harrow School, the alma mater of so many impostors and villains, is another exquisite detail.
But the domestic landscape, as life begins in earnest once more, remains frustrating. Normally, with a general election looming, there would be bustle and excitement. Not so this time. MPs, strategists and newspaper editors agree that the contest is to all intents and purposes decided: Labour will win by another landslide. Westminster, like the stock market, has a tendency to discount forward. The political market is now peering beyond next year’s general election. This spells terrible danger for two figures in particular: Michael Howard and, curiously enough, Gordon Brown.
There are two worries for Howard. The first is low morale. There is some evidence that his frontbenchers are no longer working as hard as they should. Last week the Tory press office found it difficult to get hold of two senior shadow ministers to respond to moving stories. Some backbenchers can hardly be mobilised at all.
The problem faced by Howard was inadvertently summed up by William Hague in the Sunday Telegraph last week. Hague has spent the last two years working on a book about the Younger Pitt. A prodigious number of biographies of this famous statesman already exist, and this latest pot-boiler, which Hague dictated rather than wrote, as though he were Henry James though without James’s excuse of arthritis in extreme old age, brings no fresh scholarship.
By contrast there is a prodigious shortage of talent on the Conservative front bench, which Hague is in an excellent situation to fill. His account of why he has rejected all entreaties to pull his weight caught the eye. ‘I am not going to allow to happen to me what happened to Michael Portillo,’ Hague told the Telegraph, adding that by returning too soon Portillo had jeopardised his leadership ambitions.
There has been no outcry, no anger about these remarks. Nobody has pointed out that William Hague should be prepared to serve his party as best he can, not wait in sly, calculating fashion for the moment which best suits his chances of becoming leader. Hague’s disgraceful view that the Conservative party is there for his personal benefit, not the other way round, is widely shared. For some — Ken Clarke on £500,000 a year — the lure is money. For others — Ann Widdecombe and her agony column and execrable novels — it is the media. For yet others — Michael Portillo, who earned £250,000 last year, according to the latest register of members’ interests — it is a mixture of the two. One of the great contrasts between Labour during its long period of opposition and the Tories today is that Labour’s most distinguished politicians — think of old Denis Healey, who battled on despite every conceivable snub and provocation — stayed the course.
Michael Howard could easily have quit too, and returned to make a fortune at the commercial bar. But he battled on, though his doggedness does not prevent criticism from indolent or disaffected colleagues. Michael Portillo has been sneering from the sidelines, while William Hague last week permitted his former press officer to make a public attack on the leadership. If, at the end of it all, Michael Howard does fail in the general election, we can be certain that William Hague and Michael Portillo will be telling us what Howard got wrong. But the betrayal of the Tory party is theirs, not his.
There is only one meagre consolation for Michael Howard. A Labour landslide would be almost as terrible for Gordon Brown as for him. Already the Prime Minister’s allies are sharpening their knives — hence Gerald Kaufman’s brutal remarks about the need to sack Brown. The Blair faction, for whom Kaufman is an outrider, knows extremely well that a third Labour landslide will, in the favoured No. 10 phrase, ‘revalidate’ the Prime Minister, giving him unlimited powers to reconstruct his administration as he wishes.
For the second time Gordon Brown has paid an agonising price for trusting his friend. The origins of Brown’s latest predicament lie in the so-called Admiralty Arch dinner in November 2003. Only Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and John Prescott were present. Prescott was there at Brown’s insistence as a witness, to avoid the danger of the kind of confused testimony which emerged from the private dinner at the Granita restaurant in the summer of 1994.
Tony Blair gave an explicit assurance at the Admiralty Arch event to both John Prescott and Gordon Brown. He told them both that he would step down in the course of 2004. That was the only guarantee he gave. There was no pledge to ensure Gordon Brown’s succession, or anything of the sort. This affirmation explains the way the Chancellor’s mood lifted for the first six months of this year, and accounts for his decision to come to the Prime Minister’s rescue over tuition fees. It also makes sense of John Prescott’s otherwise mysterious remarks about shifting tectonic plates at the heart of politics. Even as late as last May, Tony Blair reiterated to a by-then sceptical Prescott his determination to leave.
It seems that some time over the summer, the Prime Minister has changed his mind. If so — and the small possibility that he will keep his promise cannot be entirely discounted — an explanation is needed. Was Tony Blair cynically leading John Prescott and Gordon Brown astray? Or was the change of mind quite genuine, made at the prompting of friendly colleagues and above all Cherie? Perhaps a mixture of the two, and the Prime Minister has been feeling his way all along. It is worth noting that this is far from the first time this kind of thing has happened. Many other close allies of the Prime Minister have been grievously deceived as well — Paddy Ashdown over plans for coalition with the LibDems, Roy Jenkins over proportional representation. One ally of the Chancellor remarked to me this week that ‘the only man to whom Tony has never broken his word is George W. Bush’. The most interesting question in British politics this autumn is how Gordon Brown will take this latest betrayal.