The Conservative Party began to relaunch itself yesterday, with the election of Iain Duncan Smith as its new Leader.
David Lloyd George’s coalition government fell in 1922 when the parliamentary Conservative Party voted heavily to withdraw its support at the famous Carlton Club meeting of 19 October. As well as precipitating Lloyd George’s departure from office for the last time, the vote also led to the resignation of the Tory leader in the House of Commons Austen Chamberlain, who was the son of Joseph and a half-brother to Neville, as well as being, of course, the last Tory leader before William Hague who was never also Prime Minister.
Andrew Bonar Law became Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party, but his ministry was not a strong one. In today’s language, a handful of the Tories’ “big beasts” refused to serve, including both Arthur Balfour (PM 1902-05, Foreign Secretary, 1916-19, etc.) and Chamberlain himself (War Cabinet, India Office, Chancellor, etc, 1915-22), and this led Winston Churchill — who also lost office in 1922 owing to his then association with the Lloyd George Liberals — to label the new administration of Bonar Law, Stanley Baldwin and various peers “a government of the second eleven”.
Let me pursue this useful analogy and be the first to brand the new Tory front bench an opposition of the Tory Party’s Third Eleven. It is quite simple. The last time the Tories fielded their 1st XI was in the early 1990s. The big beasts (although I’m not sure they were called that then) were all there: Michael Heseltine, Kenneth Clarke, Douglas Hurd, James MacKay, probably Malcolm Rifkind, possibly John Major; there were also of course assorted knaves and fools like Jonathan Aitken and William Waldegrave to make up the numbers, but in general, whatever one made of their politics, many of these people were at least credible as senior government ministers. From the middle of the 1990s until the present we’ve had the “B” team in charge: William Hague, Brian Mawhinney, Michael Portillo, Peter Lilley, Michael Howard, Ann Widdecombe, Francis Maude, and so on. And now with the premature passing of this political generation in another instalment of electoral oblivion, the Tories have picked a comically poor new squad to challenge for power. Iain Duncan Smith is now the Leader — and it is not too early to say that he will become the _second_ Tory Leader since Austen Chamberlain never to make it to the top job. Oliver Letwin is Shadow Home Secretary. Liam Fox at Health. David MacLean as Chief Whip. John Bercow. Eric Pickles. I could go on in this vein for a while. And together with these assorted mediocrities, we also have a blast of unsavoury wind from the past with the restoration of the odious Michael Howard, who is now Shadow Chancellor.
Part of this, of course, owes to the passage of time. Perhaps I am also being nostalgic in automatically thinking that today’s politicians just aren’t what they once were? Several members of the Tory team are no longer available for selection for various reasons, some of them electoral. (As many serving Cabinet Ministers lost their seats in 1997 as in the previous thirteen General Elections put together.) Political careers are getting shorter and shorter all the time — William Hague, the extreme case, is all washed up and he only turned forty in March. And no doubt a part of the problem owes to the difficulties of running a decent Opposition front bench with only 160-odd MPs from which to try to squeeze out the remaining droplets of talent. But the mediocrity of Mr Duncan Smith’s team is very striking, and it makes the Labour ministers look like Parliamentary giants. Quite an achievement. And whatever my reservations about the “New” Labour government, the continuing decade-long disintegration of the Conservative Party which began, I suppose, in the Autumn of 1992 — not so much with the pound’s ejection from the ERM as with Mr Heseltine’s difficulties over the pit closures — is still immensely entertaining to watch.