Bruce Anderson

Like Churchill, Michael Howard understands that an opposition is a guerrilla force

Like Churchill, Michael Howard understands that an opposition is a guerrilla force

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Pompous, lobotomised-Lutyens details strive to rescue it from banality. They fail. Conservative Central Office looks like just another bog-standard 1950s office block. The appearance is deceptive. It is far worse than that. Whatever ‘bad karma’ means, Central Office has it. The atmosphere sets one’s teeth on edge, while encouraging the inhabitants to stab one another with hat-pins. The safeguarding of bureaucratic enclaves becomes the principal business of the day. There must be a dramatic explanation for all that malevolence. If the building were torn down, something unspeakable might be discovered in the foundations: a plague pit, or the bones of murdered children.

In view of this, many sensible Tories have come to the same conclusion over the years: evacuate the place. Thus far, such resolutions have always been sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. It was either too early in a parliament, with a new chairman still finding his way — or, once that chairman had been replaced, it was too close to a general election to contemplate an architectural reshuffle.

Then the Howard team arrived. It included two key figures who were well aware of the problem: Maurice Saatchi and Stephen Sherbourne, Michael Howard’s chief of staff. In trying to get a handle on Mr Sherbourne, some commentators have likened him to Alastair Campbell or Peter Mandelson. That is inaccurate. The best comparison is with Michael Fraser, ultimately Lord Fraser of Kilmorack, much the most important party official in Tory history — at least until now — who was at the centre of events for three decades after 1945. Black Michael had a dictum: ‘The backroom boys should stay in the back room.’ He took his own advice, as will Stephen Sherbourne, who could not be more different in temperament from Messrs Campbell and Mandelson. A gently-spoken, donnish figure with little superficial force of personality, Mr Sherbourne possesses a quality which has won the respect of those who know him, whatever their own brand of Toryism. He has an unrivalled political sagacity. Like some other quiet men, he knows how to be ruthless when necessary, a quality he shares with Lord Saatchi, himself far from voluble. Liam Fox, the other joint chairman, is equally aware of Central Office’s deficiencies, as is Michael Howard. Patience is not among the new leader’s vices.

I have recently heard one or two senior Tories make the same point. If a general is told to fight a war, the first thing he does, well before planning his grand strategy, is assemble the building blocks. Generals’ campaign memoirs often devote an early chapter to the business of recruiting outstanding staff officers. Politicians, much more casual, tend to behave like Our Lord on his final journey to Jerusalem. They just assume that the upper rooms will appear on cue. Not being divine, politicians are frequently disappointed; they have the crucifixion without any last supper.

Mr Howard and his team will take the generals’ route. Nothing will be left to chance. There will be a hard slog through the necessary detail. Michael Howard is determined to maintain the momentum of the past few days; one reason why he decided on a smaller, sharper shadow Cabinet. That is an interesting approach. It is certainly absurd for any opposition to lock itself into unnecessary rigidities by mimicking the structure of government. There was an example of that when the Tories were last in opposition. In the run-up to the 1979 election, Roy Hattersley, the most junior member of the Callaghan Cabinet, was at the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection (to think that there was a department of state so named, only a quarter of a century ago). The most junior member of the shadow Cabinet was Sally Oppenheim. She shadowed Mr Hattersley. That was a mismatch. Whenever they had a contest, Roy would put Sally on toast and eat her. In deploying their troops, oppositions should always be prepared to play the man as well as the ball.

Lessons might still be learnt from Churchill. His shadow Cabinet consisted of the Commons privy counsellors who had survived the 1945 defeat, plus a few peers. Their meetings took place over luncheon. There was much reminiscence. When the old boy eventually toddled off for his afternoon nap, such colleagues as were still compos would try to decide on the whipping for the following week’s business: a crucial function for all Cabinets, shadow or substantive. They would decide who should speak from the front bench. When Churchill returned, reinvigorated, this was frequently countermanded. On one occasion, a new army rifle was on the agenda. The others thought that this would be a good opportunity to try out young Toby Low (later Lord Aldington). That did not find favour. ‘A new rifle for the British army? There can be no more important question facing the nation. I myself shall open that debate.’

Behind the cigar smoke, Churchill understood that an opposition is a guerrilla force, not a regular army. Michael Howard would agree. His colleagues would be unwise to obsess themselves with their opposition status, which he regards as an oxymoron. He wants them to devote their energies to bringing the exile of opposition to an end. There will be difficulties; few politicians are entirely without vanity. Yet the new arrangements could work, especially if the party appeared to be making progress, so that there seemed some point in working hard for a leader who might move on to control the patronage of government. But the shadow Cabinet structures will require sensitivity from the team leaders and self-control by their subordinates, especially those who were in IDS’s shadow Cabinet.

Self-control by unhappy subordinates is also on Tony Blair’s agenda, and the PM would vigorously defend himself against the charge of being an insensitive boss. He is insisting that he had no idea how strongly Gordon Brown felt about joining the Labour party’s national executive. It is easy to understand Mr Blair’s bewilderment. Around the time that Roy Hattersley was still in the Cabinet, the NEC mattered a lot. It has long since ceased to do so; Tony Blair has seen to that. He has even more contempt for the Labour party constitution than for the British constitution. These days, NEC might as well stand for neutered ex-convicts. The Blairites claim that if they had known how much Gordon wanted a place on the NEC, of course he would have been given his way. Why snub him over something so trivial? Keep the snubbing-powder dry until it is needed for an important matter; there will be plenty of those.

Mr Brown seems to have spent the whole of his paternity leave brooding about his sufferings. New Labour had written a charming script for his return, in which he would express his delight in being a new dad and say how much he was looking forward to popping next door to take advice from Tony and Cherie. Apart from the statutory references to nappy changing, Gordon Brown had another script in mind. Forget new dad; he wants to be a new PM.

A Chancellor who is suffering from post-natal depression, unable to communicate properly with the Prime Minister and determined to find quarrel in a straw; perhaps the ghosts of Central Office, hearing about the Tories’ departure, have decided to haunt Downing Street instead.