Parliament was never designed for glorious weeks of high summer like this one. Its book-lined corridors; its snug bars; its beery, false jocularity; the stench of thwarted ambition; those great thick walls; the badly kept secrets; the formal dress code; those fat, florid, middle-aged men: all this makes Westminster a winter place.
Summer weeks like this are about beauty, flirtation, gaiety and sport. Sensible MPs, like Nicholas Soames, Robin Cook and David Cameron (this week singled out by Michael Howard as a man with a great role to play in the future of the Tory party) contemplated escape to Royal Ascot. But the others lingered, made do with drinking cheap Pimm’s on the Commons terrace, and took stock.
Liberal Democrats were sour. They needed a big breakthrough in the elections and it did not come. Charles Kennedy may well come under fresh pressure as the summer progresses. But that was to be expected. The great surprise is the mood among Labour MPs. They have just recorded their lowest share of the vote since, according to one calculation, 1906.
And yet there was no panic. The Parliamentary Labour party met for an inquest on Monday night. Clare Short left early, making a sarcastic remark as she did so, while an obscure Welsh MP named Flynn plaintively demanded an apology for the war. But the mood of the room was not with him. There was no rancour or bitterness about Labour’s election calamity. This was the central political fact of last week, and I find it impossible to explain. Tony Blair took the Labour party into a disastrous war, against its will and on the basis of a lie, yet his MPs appear not to mind. The relationship between Blair and the Labour party is like an abusive marriage. However badly Blair humiliates or outrages his MPs, they always come back willingly for more. This is one of the conundrums of his premiership.
Labour strategists think they can see the way ahead. In the short term there will be a frenetic return to the home front. Gordon Brown will soon publish his comprehensive spending review. Other ministers will announce fresh policy on crime, health and — believe it or not — transport. Above all, there is one raw political calculation which continues to weigh decisively in Labour’s favour. Last week’s election results did indeed prove that Labour was unpopular. But they showed, too, that opposition was disastrously fragmented. Successful oppositions, like New Labour before 1997 or Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives before 1979, always manage to harness for themselves the national anger and discontent with the government. Not so the Tories.
Michael Howard has achieved one worthwhile thing. Before he became leader it sometimes seemed that the Liberal Democrats were the more effective opposition. Howard has stopped all that, and reasserted Conservative dominance in Parliament. But he has yet to retrieve its pre-eminence in the country at large. Unless he can do this, he stands no chance at all of forming a government after the election.
Michael Howard knows this perfectly well, which is why he has returned at once to the domestic agenda, with Tuesday’s important speech on public-service renewal. Before taking this step, however, Howard needed to clear the way. For some months now Tim Yeo, the shadow Cabinet spokesman on health and education, has been an impenetrable barrier to the kind of policy renewal Michael Howard demands. Central Office policy staff have been urging his removal — along with his assistant Stuart Lyons, who is seen as a regrettable influence — for some time. On Monday the move was duly made. It was carried out with the delicacy, assurance and marvellous dexterity that have become Michael Howard’s hallmark in matters of this sort. Yeo was called in for a meeting with the leader and informed that his policy-making skills were deeply impressive — so much so that he was to be moved to another portfolio, transport, where they would scarcely be needed at all. Simultaneously Howard’s office briefed the same happy story to all interested parties, many of whom — the Daily Telegraph was one distinguished example — swallowed it whole. No one was more convinced than Yeo himself. All this week he was wandering around Westminster with the baffled air of a man who has lost his wallet, but convinced that the item has been mislaid rather than stolen.
The second piece of debris to be cleared out of the way was David Willetts, who has been stripped of his vital policy role. For some reason, Willetts has been handled with less tact. The Conservative party website, effusive on the subject of Yeo, curtly announces that Willetts is moving on to ‘devote more time’ to pensions strategy. Basically, this week’s reshuffle is about only one thing. Michael Howard, for understandable reasons, views the shadow Cabinet as at best a nuisance to be tolerated. He wants to take command himself.
His instrument will be David Cameron, who will report directly on policy to Howard, and has been marked out as the most favoured among younger Tory MPs. Cameron is plausible, well groomed and reasonably clever. For Cameron it has all been one effortless advance, with only one major setback — a hagiographical profile in the pages of The Spectator by the political columnist Bruce Anderson. Cameron showed remarkable inner resilience and firmness of mind to overcome this low blow, which would have wiped out many lesser men.
All Tory leaders have surrounded themselves with an inner circle, which has given them ballast and in certain important respects defined their leadership. John Major had a winning fondness for palpable fakes, like Jeffrey Archer and David Mellor; Margaret Thatcher liked hirsute North London entrepreneurs with a ‘can-do’ attitude and heavy jewellery. Michael Howard’s chosen milieu is constructed of dapper, well-spoken men and women, many of whom live within walking distance of one another in west London. Cameron is unmistakably the leader of these Notting Hill Tories, but others include Michael Howard’s political secretary Rachel Whetstone, his speechwriter Ed Vaizey, marketing expert Steve Hilton, policy man Nick Boles, along with the newspaper columnists Edward Heathcoat Amory and his wife Alice Thomson.
For the most part, Michael Howard’s Tories went to Oxford, or at a pinch Bristol university. They attended smart public schools, and by no means all of them need to work for a living. George Osborne is heir to the Osborne & Little home-furnishings business, while Cameron, through no fault of his own, has the air of landed acres. They are open to the charge that they attend too many of each others’ dinner parties, something which causes resentment among less favoured sections of the Conservative party. But these are for the most part decent, well-meaning and honourably ambitious people, driven by a proper sense of public duty. They will give the Tory leader competent service. But in the end it is Michael Howard who will win or lose the election, and not his jeunesse dorée.