Peter Oborne

The growing mystery of a coup without a conspiracy

The growing mystery of a coup without a conspiracy

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Last week’s display of virtuosity by Michael Howard was immaculate, ruthless, perfectly executed: high politics at its purest and most beautiful. His clarity of vision, contemptuous facing down of opposition, cunning, efficiency, resolve, above all the compression of eight weeks’ weary business into 90 minutes’ decisive action, combined to clear the battlefield with a single strike. Nothing as Napoleonic in audacity or scope has been seen at Westminster since Tony Blair’s seizure of the commanding heights of the Labour party ten years ago.

This was one of those extremely rare occasions when the political correspondent really needs the skills of the art critic. The only proper initial emotion was awe and wonderment: just as Ruskin felt when he first saw Venice. In due course, however, the intellect must come into play, and seek to make sense of the events that stretch so sleekly across the surface. As things stand, last week’s important, perhaps conclusive, turnaround in Conservative party fortunes is unexplained. The phenomenon is there for all to see, the event has taken place, the consequences can be discerned, but no one knows why it happened, or how.

The first and the biggest mystery is Michael Howard himself. The publicly available account of events makes little sense. Apparently he was utterly loyal. He was visibly to hand throughout Duncan Smith’s last convulsions; by his side at photocalls, writing loyal newspaper articles at critical moments. When tested, privately or by journalists, he never uttered a disloyal word. His supporters have been scrupulous. David Cameron, Howard’s urbane lieutenant, went to the extreme lengths of voting for Duncan Smith in Wednesday’s confidence motion. Until the very last moment, Michael Howard flatly ruled out the possibility that he would run for the leadership. These adamant, though entirely misleading, denials left no room for argument. They had the effect, very convenient as far as Howard was concerned, of avoiding the circumlocutions that embarrassed Michael Heseltine during the final days of Thatcher.

And yet Michael Howard was astonishingly well prepared when the moment came for action. Nothing seems to have been left to chance. Everything seems to have been thought out in advance. All questions had been anticipated. Michael Howard gives the impression of having undergone voice training. He has certainly eliminated the worst of the Welsh genteelisms that have aroused mockery in the past. Perhaps the next Tory leader simply reacted with supreme skill and speed to a new set of political circumstances. That innocent explanation can by no means be ruled out. It is impossible to say.

The second great mystery surrounds the plotters. There is one fundamental question. On whose behalf were they plotting? This problem admittedly does not arise for the noisy but small brotherhood of Andrew Mitchell, Derek Conway, Eric Forth, etc., who are associated with David Davis. They innocently wanted their man to become party leader, and catastrophically failed.

It is the wider, more complex conspiracy, loosely and maybe unfairly associated with Michael Portillo, operating a parallel operation through dirty tricks and private media briefings, that continues to intrigue. It is still not at all clear on whose behalf documents relating to the secretarial duties carried out by Betsy Duncan Smith (who friends say looks ill and has lost more than a stone in weight thanks to the intense worry of the last weeks) were leaked. Whether or not the plotters can generically be termed Portillista, they cannot have been under any illusion that their hero would become leader of the party. Were they hoping all along that Michael Howard would win? Once again, it is impossible to say for sure.

Some clues will nevertheless emerge in time for the weekend, with the likely announcement of Michael Howard’s shadow Cabinet. It will be interesting to see how the new leader treats the plotters, who, after all, have put him where he is. There seems little doubt that he will sack Davis’s lieutenant Eric Forth. There is no confidence that Davis himself will be rewarded with the major job, ideally shadow chancellor, he is said to crave. The Portillo faction may be treated better. It is very striking that Francis Maude was invited to write the skilful and well-judged speech made by Howard at his campaign launch last Thursday. This invitation was viewed with dismay by the battered and bruised remnants of the Duncan Smith camp. They are certain that Francis Maude was conspirator-in-chief. While it is hard to say whether this belief is merely a feverish delusion, it is abundantly true that Maude’s announcement that he was dispatching his letter to Sir Michael Spicer signalled that the last rites were to be administered.

Michael Howard has to make a fundamental strategic judgment. Does he bring in or close out Michael Portillo and his modernising faction? The precedents are menacing: Hague employed Portillo, and the result was mutiny and rancour. Iain Duncan Smith, too, was consumed by the wrath of the modernisers. On balance, nevertheless, Michael Howard is likely to offer both Michael Portillo and Francis Maude a job.

The argument is twofold. The first is the desperate need for talent, a state of affairs made very much worse by the refusal of two big beasts, Kenneth Clarke and William Hague, to serve. Kenneth Clarke has marred a fine career by devoting his final active years to the sale of cigarettes to the poor of the Third World in return for massive pecuniary gain. Hague is almost as contemptible. His friends claim that his refusal to return to the Conservative front bench is driven by the need to complete his biography of the Younger Pitt. That is a bad reason. There is a great surfeit of biographies of Pitt, and a great shortage of first-class talent on the Conservative front bench. In any case the real motive may be different. Hague earned about £250,000 in private business last year, and is reluctant to forgo this income. He is refusing to come to the aid of his party at the most perilous moment in its history, and that is disgraceful. He betrayed Michael Howard during the 1997 leadership; it is time he made up for it.

Michael Howard is a much stronger and more confident leader than either Hague or Duncan Smith. There is no appetite for plotting any more in the Tory party. Even Michael Portillo might baulk at conspiracy against a fourth consecutive leader. Above all, the opportunity is there. Suddenly New Labour looks very weak. The feud between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown erupted again this week, more vicious and intense than ever. Brown wants Blair out and is happy to let it show. The Hutton report, put back to the New Year, looms horribly for Blair; Michael Howard will be lethal when the Prime Minister is asked to explain himself across the Despatch Box. The benign conjunction of economic circumstances that have given New Labour its bedrock for the last seven years is over. This week attention at Westminster was at last starting to turn from Tory turbulence to Labour division. That is what the formidable new Conservative leader wants. If he shows even half the wonderful strategic finesse on display last week, Tony Blair has a great deal to fear.