To the minds of many reasonable people the punishment meted out to Howard Flight, MP for Arundel and the South Downs, has been of unwarranted severity. No one — not even the genial Mr Flight — denies that his words were ill chosen. But his supporters would say that at heart they reflected nothing more than his general instinct for small government, and his general desire to stop waste and economise on spending — ambitions which all Tories should applaud. He was speaking at a private meeting, and did not expect to be reported. He was stitched up.
Many reasonable people, not a few of them among his fellow MPs and his constituency association, will feel that it would have been enough to sack him as Tory deputy chairman. There is something about the act of mandatory deselection, this unexpected Olympian thunderbolt, that has caused a frisson of horror in the Westminster village. It is as though after years of japes and cavortings at court, an emperor has suddenly invoked his prerogative of capital punishment. Among the 659 Tory candidates preparing to fight under Michael Howard’s banner, there is a gulping and fingering of collars; and that, frankly, is exactly as it should be.
Mr Flight’s dismissal is certainly brutal, and in some sense unfair. But then, it is a central tenet of conservative thought that life is not fair. It may be a callous act of leadership, but it is pre-eminently an act of leadership. Before Mr Flight continues with his legal challenge against the decision, and keeps the story running, he might consider the following points. First, he will not succeed. Many in his association will be miserable at what has happened, but their overwhelming desire, quite properly, will be to do everything in their power to encourage a Conservative victory.