Andrew Gimson

A safe pair of hands | 7 April 2012

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The Spicer Diaries

Michael Spicer

Biteback, pp. 611, £

Michael Spicer is too honourable to be a brilliant diarist. As he himself says, ‘I eschew tittle-tattle or small talk.’ These diaries cannot be read, as Chips Channon’s or Alan Clark’s can be, because they offer a joyful cascade of indiscretions. When Clark dies in September 1999, Spicer writes of his fellow Tory MP: ‘We never really hit it off. I thought he was untrustworthy.’

Spicer’s father was a soldier, and these diaries read like the history of a regiment written by one of its most loyal officers. A few pages are devoted to Spicer’s hotheaded youth, in which he sets up Pest (‘Pressure for Economic and Social Toryism’) and calls for the resignation of Sir Alec Douglas-Home — a cry magnified by William Rees-Mogg.

But Spicer is soon advising Edward Heath on the use of computers, and even takes the chance, on New Year’s Eve 1973, to tell the Prime Minister: ‘The main thing is not to call a general election in the present atmosphere.’ Heath appears to agree, but goes on to call and lose the election, in which Spicer is elected to one of the Worcestershire seats, a county he will represent for the next 36 years.

Under Margaret Thatcher, for whose politics he feels considerable admiration, Spicer becomes a junior minister, but is never given the promotion which he feels he deserves. On one occasion he ventures, uncharacteristically, to offer his services as party chairman, and is summoned to Downing Street: ‘Terrible shock to hear they will be appointing John Selwyn Gummer as chairman.’ One gains a growing sense that people are taking Spicer for granted, because they know he will not make a fuss. Repeated setbacks are borne with admirable fortitude, though he is also frustrated by Thatcher’s failure to promote the Tories who actually support her policies. He remains loyal to her during her downfall, telling her challenger, Michael Heseltine: ‘I’m sorry, Michael, but I cannot vote for you. It’s my army upbringing not to desert the CO.’

Yet in the next phase of his career, Spicer becomes a Maastricht rebel: a loyal opponent to his own party. In his understated way, he reminds us that the European issue nearly destroyed the Tories: ‘In the voting lobbies it was not unknown for one Conservative MP to spit at another.’ During this brutal period, ‘One senior colleague, having been caught in the men’s cloakroom, was pulled by the hair into the government voting lobby,’ while others actually came to blows. But Spicer recounts the manoeuvrings on the European issue in what for most readers will be excessive detail: ‘Problem is that the subject is beginning to pall a bit,’ as he himself confides to his diary.

Spicer seldom records the colourful phrase or telling detail which would bring a scene alive. He is also determined not to betray confidences: a quality which makes him well suited, in the final part of his career, to serve as chairman of the 1922 Committee, in which capacity he referees with splendid impartiality the choice of three successive Tory leaders: Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard and David Cameron.

Spicer says of IDS: ‘I have an empathy with him; in fact, he is the first leader with whom I have a genuinely easy relationship.’ But things soon go wrong: ‘Like so many others, I am faced with a dilemma: IDS not up to the job but anarchy could follow his departure.’ It was Spicer’s duty to receive the ‘IDS must resign’ letters from MPs. Once he gets 29 letters, IDS will have to face an election. Spicer does not disclose the real names of the colleagues who wrote to him, but gives them pseudonyms: Tom, Dick, Harry, Matthew, Mark, Luke, George, Ringo, Jack, Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Jill, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Daniel Whiddon, Harry Hawke. As the 29 letters accumulate, we find ourselves watching a slow-motion assassination. It is the most gripping bit of the book.

The Tory party lived to fight another day because it could call on the services of such officers as Spicer. But quite often this diarist is comically unilluminating. When John Bercow becomes Speaker, Spicer just says: ‘Whatever next?’ And when Spicer offers Cameron some advice on how to win the 2010 election: ‘He listens to me politely, showing signs of fatigue.’