The Greasy Pole: In the chair

Wonder Boy William Hague is determined to make some changes in the party into whose leadership he was suddenly catapulted after the events of 1 May. “The Conservative party that I lead”, he wrote in the Sunday Times on 5 October, “will be broad where it was narrow, young where it was old. caring where it was arrogant”. Well he would say that, wouldn’t he? After the drubbing they got at the polls the Tories can hardly pretend that all is well with them, that there is no need to change anything, that they need only wait a while and the voters will obediently go back to supporting the Party of Gentlemen, the Natural Party of Government or however else it is known.


In any case Hague’s zeal to reform the party is a back-handed way of blaming their defeat onto his predecessor who apparently allowed the Tories to get narrow, old and arrogant. There is a snag to those tactics however. Why did Hague keep his enthusiasm for changing the Conservative Party in check for so long? Why didn’t he go for modernising it before the election, when he was busily playing his part along with all the other leaders telling us what a wonderful party they were and how lucky we were to have the chance of returning them to power yet again? It is rather late now. after the votes have been counted, to tell us that “the electorate believed we were arrogant and out of touch . . we were divided among ourselves . . . they questioned motives and sometimes our competence”.


One of Hague’s first acts, in this great age of reform was to appoint a new chairman of the party. Now this is not a job which invariably brings success and widespread esteem in the party. In fact some of the people to have held it in recent times have been, by the cynical standards of politics, disastrous flops. There was Norman Tebbit, whose reputation as chief organiser at Tory Central Office was not exactly glowing and who spent much of his time in the job locked in dispute with his deputy. David Young. There was Selwyn Gummer, whose inadequacies were the subject of widespread complaint, including among the 1922 Committee. The Major era brought in Jeremy Hanley, who quickly became famous for his hilarious gaffes, like describing a huge punch-up among the audience at a boxing match as over-exuberance. Hanley was followed by Brian Mawhinney. who is a doctor although not one you would be comfortable to have operating on you. Mawhinney’s arrogance went with an overbearing, browbeating attitude to his staff and a monumental incompetence in dealing with—by which we mean explaining away—the many crises which afflicted the Major government. Of course when he did try to explain them away he did not help matters by smiling—if that was what it was—like a piranha who has not had a square meal for a while. Inextricably linked as he was to the Tory collapse in May. Mawhinney had to be prised away from the chairmanship. He is now Shadow Home Secretary—which has probably converted thousands of prisoners, prison governors and prison officers to ardent Labour voters. So who should replace him? Well Hague was intending to make his party younger, fresher, looking to a rosy future untainted by a wretched past. So he chose Cecil Parkinson.


“Cecil who?” may have been the reaction of many of the young people Hague is hoping to attract to the Tory party, when the news broke about the new chairman. Well this Cecil once seemed to be surging irresistibly towards the Tory leadership and to being Prime Minister. In his entire life Parkinson made not a single mistake, nor a mis-judgement, nor was he ever responsible for any mean or selfish or underhand behaviour. He was. simply, immaculate—or at least that is the impression he gives in his autobiography.
Even the town he grew up in— Carnforth in Lancashire—was “surrounded by beautiful countryside . . .  almost totally devoid of pretentiousness and jealousy”.There is the small problem about the young Parkinson being an active member of the Labour Party League of Youth, an enthusiastic admirer of Stalinist Russia and, when he was doing his National Service, “virtually a pacifist”. But these are glossed over as surprising rather than damaging. In any case it turned out alright in the end because young Parkinson saw the error of his ways in time to shin up the greasy pole of Tory politics, almost to the very top.


His climb was, in fact, almost what is now called seamless. At school he excelled in his studies and as an athlete. He went to Cambridge, did well as an accountant and then in the take-over business. In 1970 he was elected to Parliament, where his rise was again predictably smooth. It became rather faster when Parkinson caught Thatcher’s attention, until in 1981 she appointed him (no nonsense about elections) party chairman with a place in the Cabinet. In the 1983 election, when the so-called Falklands factor was supposed to have won another spell of power for the Tories, Parkinson was at the height of his powers, with even better to come.


Except that he had had an affair with his secretary Sara Keays, who was pregnant by him and who was expecting him to do something about his stated intention to divorce his wife and marry her. It all came out, in the most damaging way for Parkinson, when he tried to backpedal on his promise and Keays made it obvious that she would not take this lying down. (The affair gave her an opportunity to see how ruthless the party she supported and wanted to represent in Parliament, operates when it sees its facade of genteel integrity under threat.) Parkinson’s response to this was to pass over some money and turn his back on the matter. Keays is now hedged about by restrictions Parkinson has put in place. For example, it is not possible legally to publish anything about the condition or welfare of her— and Parkinson’s—child. Which may serve Parkinson’s interests and those of his party but does not fit in with his image as the clean, caring and responsible exemplar of Tory morality. Hague’s appointment of a sleazy has-been as his party chairman says a lot about the Tories and about the other parties of capitalism and about the system itself.