Greasy Pole: Cameron’s Selections
Driven out by Brexit from 10 Downing Street and then from the Tory benches in Parliament David Cameron will be written into history through his talent for composing a welter of vacuous, discreditable phrases which did nothing to avert his decline. An early example of this was his assurance that with him in charge there would be ‘no more Punch and Judy politics’. No more performances in the House of Commons when his reluctance to deal appropriately with some genuine problems of the people – the workers, the children, the voters – outside served only to provoke the Tory hooligan benches into a storm of bellows and false laughter designed to blank out all discussion. In 2010 there was his trumpeted conviction that ‘…if you trust people and give them more power and control over their lives, they become stronger, and society becomes stronger too, and I believe profoundly that we are all in this together’. Those final six words were to be repeatedly quoted as evidence of his enduring duplicity. There was not even a hint that he feared his government would be bitterly remembered for repressive, impoverishing measures such as the Bedroom Tax as the cause of so many desperately homeless people. Or the maliciously sprouting figures of those who need their local Food Bank to sustain them. And the degradation of JAM – the masses who, conforming to all the demands of the politicians, are compelled to exist on the basis of Just About Managing – in other words through the charity of Next To Nothing.
The Conservatives won the 2015 election, in the process wiping out the Coalition Lib Dems, through gaining a majority of seats which encouraged Cameron, as only the second Prime Minister to have increased their majority while in power (triumphantly, the first example was of course Thatcher) to proclaim that they were ‘…on the brink of something special’ – which in reality was a government of false claims and pledges. And among the forecasts of a frighteningly successful future for them was the strategy of building a refashioned party more in tune with this vision. This was the origin of the so-called A List, an idea which had been in discussion since Cameron became leader in 2005. A few months later a party committee set out to reduce the 500 hopeful candidates to between 100 and 150 on the assumption that this was the way to ensure a party which would be free of the prejudices which had hampered its prospects in the past.
The response among party members was varied. There was approval from Michael Portillo, on the grounds that at the time the Tories did not have a lot to lose as ‘…much of the Parliamentary Party is reactionary and unattractive to voters’. But Portillo was once the ‘darling of the Right’, in the days when he was MP at first for Enfield Southgate and then Kensington and Chelsea and a well-fancied candidate for the Party leadership. After a series of frustrated ambitions he resigned from Parliament in 2005 and turned to an alternative type of entertainment by dressing in flashy trousers and presenting TV programmes mournfully quoting from Bradshaw’s Handbook of railway history. The other side of the debate was scathingly represented by Ann Widdecombe, another ex-MP (and in fact no less than a Minister of Prisons) who condemned the List as ‘an insult to women’ which was ‘storing up huge problems for the future’. But Widdecombe’s TV experience was rather different to Portillo’s because there was no chance of her influencing opinion by her few but wretchedly clumsy appearances as a contestant in Strictly Come Dancing.
But there were enough hopefuls in the List to persuade Cameron that it had introduced some hope and fertility into the Party. Andrea Leadsom, Priti Patel and Amber Rudd are among those who wriggled their way onto the Front Bench although not all of them have been impressive enough to avoid the conclusion that their selection was more a matter of appeasing Cameron than impressing the voters. One of them has been Anna Soubry, who sits for Broxtowe in Nottinghamshire. This is a marginal seat, re-created in 1983 and held by the Tories until it swung to Labour in the Blair landslide of 1997. Soubry won it in 2010 by a majority of 389, which she increased in 2015 to 4287. She went through the process familiar to precariously elected A Listers in that she held a series of minor governmental posts until she chose to return to the Back Benches in July 2016, by which time she had done enough to justify the opinion of Sam Carr in the Independent that she had‘…a record of unusually free speech’, among a few other embarrassments. During her original attempt at election, for Gedling in Nottingham in 2005, she declared herself to be ‘ashamed’ at living in that city because of what she perceived as its serious reputation for crime. During her early time as an MP she was embarrassed to be informed that she had employed a party member who campaigned for the return of slavery.
In the EU Referendum she came out as a firm supporter of the Remain side, which may have persuaded her to deal with Nigel Farage as an opponent who ‘…looked like somebody has put their finger up his bottom and he really rather likes it’ – an assessment she later excused as a ‘light hearted comment’. Which could not have applied to her rather less colourful opinion of Alex Salmond whose participation in government was a prospect which provoked ‘absolute horror’ in her. (Salmond rated her as ‘demented’ and advised her to ‘behave yourself woman’). So there can be no surprise at the record of Soubry’s favourite causes. She supports the Trident submarine renewal; developing private treatment rather than the NHS; university tuition fees; the deployment of British Armed forces abroad in theatres of war such as Iraq and Afghanistan… No doubt David Cameron was proud of originating the idea of the A List as evidence of his place in history as an enterprising and dynamic leader. But we have had enough of such conceits. It would be better if in such matters we began to work our way through the alphabet.