This article is from the June 2012 issue of Total Politics
The Spicer Diaries
Biteback Publishing, £30
As Michael Spicer writes engagingly in the preface to his diaries, “I was not at the height of events, but I was at the bottom of many of them.” Active in Conservative Party politics from his university days, he was an MP for South/West Worcestershire from February 1974 until his retirement in 2010 and elevation to the Lords. He held various party political appointments, including deputy chairman of the party, parliamentary private secretary to Margaret Thatcher during the 1983 election campaign, and ministerial appointments in transport, energy and environment. He left the government after John Major became prime minister, and became a leading opponent of the Maastricht Treaty. From 2001 until 2010 he was chairman of the 1922 committee.
He says that he kept a diary off and on for 60 years, although the entries were often in the form of notes rather than full sentences. These diaries are neither the ‘kiss and tell’, gossipy and louche variety as epitomised by Alan Clark, nor the more considered and, at times, angst-filled diaries of Chris Mullin. They are about Spicer’s relationship with five prime ministers and four Conservative Party leaders, and his opposition to the increased powers of the EU.
But the diaries are not all about politics. His love of Ann, his wife, and children is very apparent, as well as his enjoyment of tennis and the arts. There is also more than a touch of the old 'Tory grandee' – which he really wasn’t – as we read about lunch or dinner combined with plotting at Claridge’s, the Savoy, Pratt’s, Boodle’s, the Garrick and Rules.
Spicer didn’t go into politics, or seek election to Parliament, just because he was ambitious. He had strong views about economics, the free market and low taxation, and it will come as a surprise to many of his former colleagues that he was the founder member of PEST – Pressure for Economic and Social Toryism – which later became associated with a left, if not wet, form of Conservatism. He is convinced that this impression prejudiced him in the eyes of Margaret Thatcher.
He was ambitious, and that lead to frustration and disappointment. He toiled away in Conservative Central Office with promises of preferment, but his patron Cecil Parkinson failed to deliver, and ultimately declined in influence.
Spicer never sees himself as a Thatcherite. Indeed, he has a very ambivalent attitude towards her, believing that she promoted her enemies and neglected her friends. The politician he really admired in the 1980s was Nicholas Ridley, a true free marketer, confident of his social position and never inclined to duck and weave for a good headline.
After the downfall of Thatcher, Spicer judges every successive leader of the Conservative Party by their euroscepticism. The value of his diaries after 1992 is that they give an insight into one strand of parliamentary euroscepticism, but their downside is that, all too often, we get bogged down with the personality and policy clashes of what now appear to be obscure Conservative parliamentarians, and other major political issues, such as the economy, merely become noises off.
He saw himself as representing moderate euroscepticism, and believed his role was to act as a negotiator between the various eurosceptic groups and Richard Ryder, the chief whip. In retrospect, he can argue that on Maastricht and the single currency he was right and the cabinet was wrong.
Are there any revelations in the Spicer diaries that are significant or new? He shows the intensity of positioning and plotting by leading Conservatives preparing in advance for the inevitable defeat in 1997 and the removal of Major. With some reservations, Spicer backs Michael Howard, and some younger eurosceptic politicians of the current generation, Daniel Hannan and Mark Reckless, who were active then, working for Spicer and Howard.
Spicer campaigned hard with eurosceptic support to get elected as chairman of the 1922, and although he pursued his euroscepticism in office, all his parliamentary colleagues believe he was a good chairman, absolutely discreet, and, under the circumstances of three leadership elections, maintained their confidence.
The challenge to Iain Duncan Smith’s leadership reveals that nobody but Spicer and his secretary knew how many letters he had received to reach the number 29, which would start a leadership challenge. According to Spicer, the majority of letters were received between 14 and 28 October.
For those of us who have watched the political journey of John Bercow, these diaries remind us just how right-wing and intemperate he was only a decade ago.
And there is the revelation that, in February 2010, David Cameron was already pressing for the whole parliamentary party, including frontbenchers, to be part of the ’22. In an understatement that was to resonate after the election, Spicer writes: “Makings of a row.”
The Spicer Diaries are a very useful addition to the growing collection of parliamentary personal records that cover the colourful, often turbulent, events of the past 30 years.
Keith Simpson is the Conservative MP for Broadland
Excerpt from The Spicer Diaries, courtesy of Biteback Publishing
The fall of Iain Duncan Smith, Wednesday 22 October
Day begins with Stuart Wheeler on Today programme saying IDS must go. (Wheeler gave £5m to the party at the last election.) Large piece in The Times (plus cartoon about me) and my ability to keep a secret – which they say is a good reason to write to me. The paper’s Philip Webster says I am playing a “blinder”. On the way up the stairs to my office, IDS’s second PPS, Alistair Burt, tries to get the picture from me. I say it would not be in IDS’s interest for me to give a running commentary.}
Mark* rings to say he wants to send a letter in strict confidence. It is arranged for Jessica to meet him at 10am at the ticket barrier at Westminster Underground station. When he arrives he is very nervous; hands her the letter, enclosed in a magazine. Patrick McLoughlin (deputy chief whip) comes to see me in my office. “You probably won’t agree to this, Michael, but we desperately need to know what is going on.” I say: “I can’t help, (a) because the constitution says the letters I get are given in confidence and (b) because I could be legally challenged if I take sides.” He says David Maclean has advised IDS to go (later denied in public) and IDS very nearly did but later changed his mind and decided to wait for the 29 letters. I say: “I will intervene if this all drags on beyond Christmas; they must put up or back him.” Patrick says, reasonably, “We simply can’t wait till then.
By the way, we know that Matthew* and Luke* have been to your office with letters.” They have and I am surprised he knows. I don’t blink an eyelid but when he is gone walk out onto the staircase to find Jonathan Hellewell from IDS’s office sitting in an open room facing the stairs and reading a book. He grins sheepishly at me. I say: “You must be getting pretty bored, Jon.” He says: “Yes.” I ring Matthew and Luke to tell them what has happened. The letter tally is now nine.
At ’22 Executive another attempt is made to get me to lead a posse to IDS to tell him “on behalf of ’22 to go”. As per last week I resist this as being unconstitutional and prejudicial to my neutral position. The noisiest anti-IDS people still haven’t written to me. Another silent but full main ’22 Committee, though I give them plenty of opportunity to speak. Peter Tapsell complains about the crush of press outside our doors.}
*Indicates a pseudonym