1990s >> 1997 >> no-1112-april-1997

The Greasy Pole: A Gruesome Business

If, after all, the Labour Party does not win the election, spin doctors and opinion pollsters all over the country will be found falling on their swords or being dragged into a courtyard to be shot at dawn. It will be a gruesome business. Meanwhile the Tories will not be entirely untroubled, for suicidal thoughts may disturb the celebrations of some of their prominent members. These will be the people who had almost hoped the Tories would lose because this would have boosted their chances of replacing John Major in the leadership contest which had been expected to follow Labour’s victory.

We are discussing here what goes on at the higher and slimier reaches of the greasy pole of political advancement. This is where friends greet each other with a warm, firm grasp of the throat, where a supportive arm round the shoulder usually means a probing knife in the back, where the famous claim that loyalty to the Tories’ [is their] secret weapon is treated with contemptuous derision. This is where in the past more than one hopeful candidate, who seemed to be unstoppable, came to grief. Consider, for example, the moving case of John Moore. Does anyone now remember him? Has anyone ever heard of him?

Moore was the first of Thatcher’s favourite sons—the first to be anointed by her as her chosen successor. He was handsome and a fitness fanatic, bashing away for hours every day on his exercise bike. Just to prove how fit and good looking he was he liked to appear on Tory political broadcasts in his shirt sleeves.

What Moore overlooked was how dangerous it can be to be the heir apparent. To put it mildly his wilier colleagues had little difficulty in putting the skids under so vulnerably blind a man. To begin with Moore lost half his ministerial responsibilities— half his job—in a brutal amputation. Symbolically. his much vaunted fitness failed him and, to Thatcher’s intense irritation, he collapsed at the Cabinet table. Before he was finally despatched he made one last, feeble effort to rally support by publishing a pathetic attempt at proving that poverty was a myth. That only brought down more contempt onto his miserable head. He was probably relieved to escape to the House of Lords.

There are similarities between the case of John Moore and that of another of Thatcher’s favourites. Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo was in fact Moore’s PPS in 1986 but this did not prove to be an insurmountable handicap. At his 40th birthday party in 1983 Thatcher had made her feelings clear: “We brought you up, we expect great things of you, you will not disappoint us.”

At school Portillo was a supporter of Harold Wilson’s Labour Party but he changed his politics at Cambridge and soon after leaving university he got a job as adviser to Cecil Parkinson—another of Thatcher’s doomed favourites. Portillo got into Parliament when he won the seat held by Anthony Berry, who was killed in the Brighton hotel bomb and from then his rise was steady and predictable, through a succession of junior jobs to the Cabinet. He is now Minister of Defence.

It has not. however been a story without is blemishes. Portillo was foolish enough to champion the widely unpopular poll tax, assuring a Tory conference that it was a vote winner. He had become notorious for an eagerness to pander to the more extreme and stupid xenophobia in the Conservative Party, in silly speeches about students being able to buy qualifications in “any other country”, about the SAS standing as a grim warning to the rest of the world: “Don’t mess with Britain”. One Tory minister who once had Portillo work for him thought “. . . I’ve never heard him give a party conference speech which dignified the subject”—which was probably an understatement. Finally. Portillo showed what he thought about loyalty in the Tory party during the leadership contest between Major and Redwood. Portillo put it about that he supported Major and so was not in the running-—while he set up his own campaign headquarters.

None of this helped Portillo’s rampant ambitions. He is not now seen as one of the stronger candidates for the leadership if Major falls and has, perhaps, decided that a period of reticence would not come amiss. At all events he is keeping, at this time of stress for his party, his head well below the parapet. This can also be said for another one-time favourite (although this was more with the Tory faithful than with Thatcher or Major). Peter Lilley now seems marooned at Social Security, where he has zealously pursued his campaign against single mothers and where some of his notoriety rests on his designing the Child Support Agency which seems to have done very little to support children but a lot to stimulate their parents’ enmity and even in some cases—paternal suicide.

Lilley is another hit at Tory conferences. In 1992 he launched into a parody of The Mikado:

“I’ve got a little list
Of benefit offenders who I’ll soon be rooting out. . .
and councillors who draw the dole
To run left wing campaigns . . .”

The next year he had them rolling in the aisles with a spoof phrase book for Europeans sponging on Social Security:

Wo ist das Hotel? Where is the Housing Department?
Où est le bureau de change? Where do I cash my benefit cheque?”

And so on. And this from a politician who not so long ago had a reputation as an “intellectual”. He was among the rush to abandon Thatcher when she was under threat in 1990. showing openly what he thought of all that stuff about loyalty and the Tories when he told her bluntly that he would not support her because she was finished. Lilley is another of those who are now strangely hesitant about pushing themselves for the leadership. Do we have to endure yet more of those sickening speeches before he makes up his mind?

In this situation the man who is being strongly tipped as the leading contender begins with the possible handicap that he holds an office which has never led to being a Conservative prime minister. Michael Howard is the most hated Home Secretary for a very long time. Apart form offenders and prisoners—who don’t usually expect to like a Home Secretary—Howard has managed to upset his own officials, lawyers, prison governors, prison officers, the judges . . .

Which of these odious men will come out on top? We can be sure the event will be given a significance wildly at odds with reality, with their statements treated as seriously as, for example, Major’s cant about a nation at ease with itself. Nobody climbs the greasy pole by being nice to other people or through an ambition to improve our lives.