Sleazing, Sniping, Sneaking and Back-Biting

Paul Foot

  • Once a Jolly Bagman: Memoirs by Alistair McAlpine
    Weidenfeld, 269 pp, £20.00, March 1997, ISBN 0 297 81737 X

When did it suddenly become obvious that the Tories were going to lose the election? Was it that golden moment when Michael Portillo, that scourge of unnecessary public spending, announced that £60m of public money was earmarked for a new yacht for the richest woman on earth – even though Her Majesty had made it plain she did not want one? Was it this deranged belief in the popular devotion to the monarchy which finally sealed the Tories’ fate? Or was it the announcement soon afterwards by the once rational Sir George Young, Secretary of State for Transport, that the answer to the mounting horrors of the London Underground is to flog it off to the likes of Stagecoach plc? Sir George timed his announcement to fit in sweetly with the news that Stagecoach, having just won the biggest of the new railway franchises, had set about balancing the books in the way they know best – by sacking train drivers. No one at Stagecoach foresaw the difficulty of running trains without drivers – and trains were cancelled all over the place, to the mounting fury of all those supposedly Tory Home Counties commuters. The prospect of Stagecoach slashing services and bashing unions on the London Underground nailed up the coffins of many London Tory MPs, including Sir George’s. Or was it the announcement the following week that everybody’s pension should be lobbed into the grateful fingers of the insurance and pension companies which had so successfully swindled four billion pounds from half a million workers in previously safe occupational schemes? Or was it the bizarre spectacle of nice Mr Major mounting his soapbox to speak up, as he put it, for the ‘have-nots’ – meaning, presumably, the income-supported poor, struggling to survive on slashed benefits or without trade unions in insecure jobs, whom Major’s ministers, and many of his supporters, had so mercilessly clobbered for the past six and a half years?

Or was it the almost total breakdown in traditional Tory solidarity? As the ship sinks, the rats are hurtling at one another from the most unlikely recesses. Anyone seeking to put together an anthology of Parliamentary applications for Private Eye’s Order of the Brown Nose would stumble before long on an obsequious supplementary question from David Evans, one of the very first Tories to make a million out of privatisation (in his case from rubbish collection). Again and again, at Prime Minister’s Question Time, the blustering MP for Welwyn and Hatfield would rise to sing the praises of his hero in Downing Street. Now Evans, in an interview with schoolchildren, has unburdened himself of a lifetime’s racist and sexist prejudices, crowning them with a volley of insults against his former beloved John Major. Evans’s outburst coincided with one from Lord Tebbit, another former MP who made a fortune from privatisation – in his case by joining the board of British Telecom, which as Secretary of State for Industry he had privatised. Tebbit’s target was not John Major, but his deputy Michael Heseltine. In 1987, Tebbit and Michael Heseltine, both former secretaries of state, combined in a smartly organised revolt from the back benches to destroy the Inner London Education Authority. The ILEA was riddled with inconsistencies, bureaucratic and wasteful, but its even-handed approach to education across the capital ensured far more substantial, and fairer, redistribution of resources from the London rich to the London poor than Ken Livingstone’s GLC had ever done. Its abolition was a mighty triumph for the wealthy in London. Much was made at the time of the ‘devastating’ alliance between the Thatcherite Tebbit and the anti-Thatcherite Heseltine and what they could achieve for ‘their people’ if they stuck together. Now, ten years later, Tebbit singles out his former ally for a public drubbing in language which he would have discarded as extreme (‘tasteless, tacky, self-centred’) in his back-bench heyday as a semi house-trained polecat.

The army of rats has now been joined by Lord McAlpine of West Green, Thatcher’s ‘jolly bagman’, as he calls himself. Margaret Thatcher’s affection for the British construction industry was legendary. She loved the world of quick profits from government contracts, and for all her much-hyped commitment to hard work and Methodism, she revelled in the company of the idle rich. Almost as soon as she became Tory Party leader in 1975, she appointed the chubby heir to the McAlpine millions as Party Treasurer. Who could have been better suited to collect money for the Tory Party than a jolly right-winger who was born in the Dorchester Hotel and had spent most of his life collecting art treasures with and for his wealthy friends?

When the news was out that Alistair McAlpine was writing his memoirs some optimists hoped he might match the diaries of Alan Clark, whose sustained and entertaining indiscretions caused such exquisite pleasure. No such luck. At least three-quarters of McAlpine’s book is a dreary account of a dreary life, whose most interesting passage is a tip about how to light a cigar. McAlpine’s fondest memories are about the food he eats and what passes for narrative is constantly interrupted by sumptuous menus. There is a reference to one Martin Landau, described as a ‘highly successful property developer’ without any spoiling rider about the sad fate of Mr Landau’s firm Imry after he sold it, nor to Landau’s current highly successful property venture in Wales with his fellow director, Lord McAlpine of West Green. There is also a reference to Cecil Parkinson’s affair with Sara Keays which is loathsome enough to bring a blush to the cheek of David Evans. The sparks don’t fly until the last fifth of the book. McAlpine’s main inspiration is deep worship of Margaret Thatcher. ‘In all the time I have known her,’ he reveals, ‘I have never heard her say a word to the personal detriment of even her most virulent enemies.’

The remaining seventy pages of the book are devoted to filling this gap. McAlpine’s theme is simple. Those that helped him and supported Thatcher-Tebbit and Parkinson, for instance – are decent, honourable men. Those that showed the slightest sign of hostility to Thatcher are reptiles of the nastiest variety. So there are some glorious stories about the sycophancy, say, of Jeffrey Archer or the man whom McAlpine blames for the entire ‘conspiracy’ to put John Major in Downing Street, the relatively harmless Europhile whip, Tristan Garel-Jones. Any enjoyment of these revelations is ruined, however, by McAlpine’s snobbery and pique. He describes a meeting at Tory Central Office in which Baroness Young, a deputy chairman of the Party, queried an expenses bill by Thatcher’s high-spending PR adviser Gordon Reece. McAlpine quotes the whole of his own response with great pride: ‘Have you ever owned a Rolls-Royce, Janet? No, well, if you had, you would realise that a Rolls-Royce uses a lot of petrol. Gordon Reece is a Rolls-Royce among publicists and he only runs on champagne’. Such drivel is no substitute for the truth about the donations to the Tory Party he wheedled out of his chums. About these the voluble bagman is strangely silent.

So keen were McAlpine’s publishers to get this book out in time for the general election that it does not even have an index. Another rat, the lobbyist Ian Greer, hasn’t even got that far. His book, One Man’s Word: The Untold Story of the Cash for Questions Affair will not be published until the week before polling day. If the serialised extracts in the Daily Telegraph are anything to go by, Greer’s book, too, is long on self-justification and short on revelations. Yet Greer does give us a glimpse of what was going on in the Parliamentary Tory Party in the mid-Eighties, the heyday of Thatcherism.

Around twenty times a year I would be approached by Conservative MPs wanting consultancies or non-executive directorships in business. They would ask me directly for my help, or the approach might come through a friend as when a minister put in a kindly word for a back-bencher he was worried about. ‘He’s got kids at school, Ian. He’s desperately in need. Is there anything you can do?’

Usually there was something Greer could do, but he is uneasy about giving us the names of his supplicants. He is less squeamish about the man who ruined him – the debonair Tory MP for Tatton, Neil Hamilton. In the summer of 1988, Hamilton went on a freebee to the States paid for by the US Government. Stingily, the US taxpayer didn’t fork out for wives, so Ian Greer ‘fixed’ Christine Hamilton up with a free trip to Washington paid for by one of his grateful clients, the courier firm DHL. ‘I then received another call from Christine. Could she be upgraded? My patience was wearing a little thin but sometimes it is easier to say yes than no. I called David Burnside at British Airways’ – described elsewhere by Greer as his ‘biggest client’. Mrs Hamilton got her upgrade. Twice again she rang Greer about inconveniences in her flight, and twice Greer accommodated her. This section ends with a hilarious story about another Parliamentary group visit to the US. One MP who had a sore back paid for his own upgrade to business class. ‘He immediately ran into problems with his disgruntled Parliamentary colleagues who thought he’d been given the up-grade for free.’

There’s more than might appear in all this sleazing, sniping, sneaking and backbiting. It is not just that the Tory Party is falling apart at the top, its leaders bickering with each other as they prepare the dog-fight for the succession: at the back of it all is the failure of the Thatcherite free market experiment. This failure, so deep and so demonstrable, explains the popular revolt against the Tories which transcends the usual electioneering arguments on tax or education or health. The issues dwindle into insignificance beside the overwhelming popular desire to get rid of the greed and corruption which has dominated politics and politicians for the last 18 years. This makes the election campaign an impossible one for the Tories to fight. ‘We want you out – good riddance to the lot of you.’ There is no rational counter to that. What happens afterwards is an intriguing enigma. For, outside the City of London and the higher tax brackets, the only people in the country who appear to have been convinced of the case for the Thatcher revolution are the leaders of the Labour Party.