Book reviews

Written by Anonymous on 19 September 2008 in Culture
A Political Suicide: The Conservatives’ descent into Wilderness by Norman Fowler (Politico’s, £14.

A Political Suicide: The Conservatives’ descent into Wilderness by Norman Fowler (Politico’s, £14.99)

Gillian Shephard discovers that a history of the Tories by Conservative veteran Norman Fowler has lessons for every political party

Norman Fowler has played a central role in Conservative politics for the best part of four decades; as a highly successful Cabinet Minister, as Party Chairman, as Opposition Spokesman, and now as an active member of the House of Lords. He is therefore well placed to document the fortunes of the Conservative Party from 1979. As a former journalist, he adds sharp observation to his own diaries, recorded during the 1980s and 1990s, which form the basis of this excellent book.

A Political Suicide makes fascinating if depressing reading and not only for Conservatives. Fowler points to the parallels between the Conservatives in the early nineties and the present day government, as it wrestles with allegations of sleaze, deep divisions and enmities within the Parliamentary Party, growing fears about the economy and employment, and a series of seemingly unstoppable accidents. As Fowler observes, “the similaritiesare striking and certainly enough to prevent the Conservatives’ ‘suicide years’ being written off as simply a period piece. It is a cautionary tale with lessons for all the political parties together with the politicians.” It is indeed.

Fowler worked under Thatcher, Major, Hague, Duncan Smith and Howard, and with a huge range of ministerial and other colleagues. While he is always fair-minded, intelligent and balanced in his approach, he leaves the reader in no doubt about his views of the qualities and shortcomings of those who shared responsibility with him.

His picture of Margaret Thatcher is intriguing. He makes clear from the outset that he had not voted for Thatcher as leader, but describes vividly the problems she faced after the 1979 election with “trials on every front”, and “a number of senior Ministers who did not support some of the Government’s central policies” — an elegant understatement.

While he rightly points out that the so-called wet and dry divisions in the cabinet were by no means absolute, or constant on every issue, he vividly describes Thatcher’s style, as “deliberately and personally confrontational from the start”. His diary entry for 31 March 1981 states: “She lectures everyone in sight ... she treats Geoffrey Howe in a manner which can be most charitably described as patronising — and probably more accurately as contemptuous.” His description of Thatcher’s reliance on a small inner circle, including advisers outside government, makes salutary reading, not only for those who claim that the practice began with Blair, but also for all those who aspire to govern. Government is not a court.

He clearly respects John Major for his courtesy, his humility and his reasonable approach. His period as Conservative Party Chairman between 1992 and 1994 gives him an insight, rare in Cabinet Ministers, into the way the Party functions, and the views of the grassroots. These insights make his descriptions of the Maastricht sequence, leaving the ERM, the pit closure debacle, and the back to basics row, for example, particularly valuable.

His analysis of the last two years of the Major government makes painful reading. What more could have gone wrong? Would things have been better if John Major had resigned? Fowler doubts it, not least becausethe likely successors, Ken Clarke or Michael Heseltine, would have found no greater favour with a Euroscepticpress and public than Major. And he lists Major’s achievements, a strong and growing economy, the foundations for peace in Northern Ireland and, the reinforcement of a sea change in British politics, thrusting change on the Labour Party.

For a party to be politically successful, asserts Fowler, it has to be united, truthful, financially transparent, conscious of the importance of Parliament, no slave to the media, and courageous enough to think long term. Andto this I would add, ‘Remember at all times that you cannot buck the ballot box’. In our democracy, the electorate always has the last word.

Baroness Shephard was Education Secretary in the John Major Government

Boris v. Ken: How Boris Johnson Won London by Giles Edwards and Jonathan Isaby (Politico’s, £9.99)

The Mayor of London has a greater personal electoral mandate than any other politician in Britain according to theauthors. For the first eight years of office, Ken Livingstone took full advantage of this. In subsequent elections for the office the Conservatives were unable to find a personality who could beat Livingstone and this was compounded by the polling advantages enjoyed by Labour. Then the Conservatives eventually stumbled upon Boris Johnson last summer and the 2008 mayoral campaign became a contest between two flamboyant personalities, Boris versus Ken.

In Boris v. Ken the authors look at every aspect of the campaign, including the political background, the candidates, the campaigns and the election itself. Giles Edwards is a journalist with the BBC whilst Jonathan Isaby has been a journalist with the Daily Telegraph and is now working on the ConservativeHome blog. When Boris Johnson’s name was first mentioned as a possible candidate in July 2007, the prospect of him running, let alone winning, was considered so bizarre that the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, who had received the tip-off, didn’t press to get it on the main evening news. If the Conservatives hadn’t selected Boris or he had been reluctant to run then Livingstone could very well have achieved a third term.

Boris and Ken had many striking similarities in personalities and style including the ability to reach out and engage with people who didn’t take an interest in politics. The Conservative leadership was naturally concerned that Boris would display his tendency to ‘ad lib’ and be gaffe prone. For Ken there were a series of negatives which he never really overcame, including, the increasing unpopularity of Labour, and the feud with Andrew Gilligan and the Evening Standard. Gilligan wrote a series of critical articles, often relying on inside information, which questioned Ken’s probity and, more importantly, that of his close advisers.

The Liberal Democrat candidate Brian Paddick felt marginalised by the Boris v. Ken show but equally failed to broaden his appeal and later complained about a lack of support from his own Party.

Basically, this book tells the story of how Boris won and why Ken lost. The authors conclude by considering the impact on national politics of the election of Mayor Boris, not least in what they believe could become a rivalry between Boris and David Cameron.

Reviewed by Keith Simpson, MP for Mid Norfolk, and Total Politics Books Editor

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