So having tested the right, now Rishi Sunak tacks back to what he presumably sees as the centre, dragging David Cameron out of his bored retirement to become his face. So who is Mr Sunak aiming at now? Not, apparently, his own party members. He had hoped that Cameron would bring some star quality, having looked through his existing unpromising crowd and seen nothing but vapid opportunism. But the problem Mr Sunak faces is that his party has been purged of moderates. The hard core that’s left see every prime minister before Boris Johnson as a traitor to Conservative principles: which they see as whatever it is that Johnson came up with impromptu in one of those Laura Kuenssberg master class interviews.
The return of David (now Lord) Cameron means a return of the (wannabe) toffs. Cameron has done stuff, met important people; that’s the theory. So imagine if you will the faces round the cabinet table. Whatever Rishi Sunak says, every head will turn to see if Cameron agrees, (and probably puts it better). What happens when – as seems likely – the two men disagree on a policy? There are plenty of them in the government’s locker to which Cameron would not have given house room when he was PM. Mr Sunak absolutely cannot afford to fall out with his new recruit. So does this not make it rather more Cameron’s government?
Cameron is expected by his supporters to schmooze the EU with his charm and his sense of honour: another example of the British ayant la tete dans le cul. The EU well remembers his past arrogance and attempts to belittle those who were supposed to be friends, just for another gratifying Daily Mail headline. They see little in his creeping back into office to excite or reassure them.
We are a supine race. Where in all of our history did we get the idea that our toffs have ever been in any way competent, let alone honourable? As GK Chesterton observed: “Honour is a luxury for aristocrats, but a necessity for hall porters”. In office, Cameron was lazy. Then once his misjudgement and cowardice had ushered in the referendum which was to destroy this country, he walked away from the disaster he created and decided to trouser as much moolah as he could.
There were grubby and embarrassing attempts at lobbying his ex-ministerial colleagues on behalf of the dubious Greensill Capital, without any shred of honour about it and entirely with the prospect of cashing in what was claimed to be 1% of the company’s shares, reputedly worth £70 million. The bank collapsed, but Cameron has refused to declare what his share was or whether he got his money out in time.
Giving evidence to the select committee at the time, he was told his activities “demeaned” his previous position as prime minister and had “left his reputation in tatters”.
During the Covid crisis, Cameron also arranged a £123m contract through Matt Hancock’s VIP lane for a company called Illumina, which you may be shocked to learn employs him. Pays him money. So, demeaned, reputation in tatters: who could be more appropriate, on second thoughts, for Rishi Sunak to turn to in hopes of some of the Cameron magic rubbing off on him?
The outcome of the Supreme Court ruling on dumping our migrants on Rwanda was perfectly predictable, unless you were one of the Tory Neanderthals, several of whom represent seats in our area: Sir Bernard Jenkin (Harwich), John Whittingdale (Maldon), Tom Hunt (Ipswich), Andrew Rosindell (Romford), Mark Francois (Rayleigh and Wickford) and Paul Bristow (Peterborough).
Sir Bernard is as dry as muscadet. Mr Whittingdale has been on a
junket parliamentary visit to Rwanda and speaks well of it, though it is possible the refugees herded off planes at Kigali airport won’t be put up at the Sheraton. Tom Hunt has a morbid fixation about foreigners, and Andrew Rosindell these days may have other things on his mind, one might assume – like avoiding conviction for those alleged sexual offences for which he is presently on bail. And the less said about Mark Francois the better, (not least because one’s editor will not permit this diarist to say it).
The PM’s statement at PMQs immediately after the court’s judgment sounded rather like putting a brave face on it: finding some emollient words for these gentlemen whilst trying to take the sting out of the next day’s headlines. Whatever huge sums of money they throw at it, however many Express headlines they garner, the plan is effectively dead.
Matt Hancock (West Suffolk) has declared that the return of Cameron to front-line politics is “superb for Britain” and “brilliant”. He also suggests that the Tories “will fight the election on the centre ground.” He has clearly not said this for the sake of Cameron or of Rishi Sunak, who will not thank him for that last observation. He said it in an attempt to give the impression that he is still relevant, still one of the movers and shakers, that coterie which has been his goal throughout his political career.
Or perhaps, more pertinently, a vain hope of having the Conservative whip restored, after losing it in 2022 following a reality show appearance. The fact that Mr Sunak and Cameron will despise him is neither here nor there. Mr Hancock has never knowingly done anything but for his own interests in his life.
James Cleverly, the new home secretary, who has to deal with Suella Braverman’s nightmarish ideas, has another ticklish problem to address before he even gets his knees under the table. One of the key Home Office policies, as my esteemed colleague has reported, is to use Wethersfield, the old RAF base, to house refugees. The policy is controversial, most of all in his local area, and Mr Cleverly has lobbied discreetly against the plan on behalf of his constituents, since Wethersfield is in Mr Cleverly’s Braintree seat. But it will now be his job to push the plan through.
James Cleverly knew what was expected of him in replacing Suella Braverman.
He had to make it sound as though there would be no change in policy, even though he has been around for long enough to spot lunacy in his colleagues. (After all, it has become increasingly apparent in recent years.) So it is not surprising that he has privately called Braverman’s ‘refugees to Rwanda’ idea “Batshit”: an accusation he does not deny. Yet here he is extolling the policy. We know therefore that he is not telling the truth when he declares that he supports it. We know also that he knows we know, but he doesn’t care.
So let us think about this, dear reader. Mr Cleverly is prepared to spend billions on breaking international law and making Britain a leper on the world stage, not for the sake of this country, not in the interests of thousands of frightened and hopeless refugees whose lives he is knowingly putting at risk. He is doing it to save Rishi Sunak’s bacon and improve his own standing within his party.
Then there is ‘Seven Jobs’ Steve Barclay (NE Cambs), who has moved from health to environment. This is indeed his seventh government position in the past five years. He is fast catching up with Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield). A colleague suggests making a league table.
It turns out, as my colleague has reported, that Mr Barclay’s wife, Karen, is a senior executive of Anglian Water. This is a company which is as deep in the doo-doo as the firm’s venality and incompetence has left the rest of us. The company is likely to face serious criminal charges over its illegal discharge of millions of tons of raw sewage, in addition to the £2.65 million fine it received last spring. And its future and not least its profitability will rest heavily on the judgements of the husband of one of its senior executives.
… And as we go to press, what do we find but another conflict of interest. It seems Steve Barclay has accepted a £3,000 donation from the founder of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which is a leading climate-sceptic think tank. The thinktank has in turn accepted money from businesses with oil and gas interests and is considered a key climate change denial group.
When Steve Barclay was introduced to the staff on his appointment as their secretary of state, there was a brief question and answer session. It is alleged that Mr Barclay was asked by one staff member why the environment is important to him. He is quoted as saying: “I have two dogs. I want them to have access to great landscapes”.
Apparently, it took an hour for the PM to tell Thérèse Coffey she was sacked. Or are we to believe that she really did resign voluntarily, and Mr Sunak spent all that time when he had David Cameron waiting outside, trying to get her to change her mind?
No, me neither. So we must assume she was clinging onto the door frame by her finger nails, and the policeman outside had to be called in to help peel her off. This version would be backed up by the length of her resignation letter, which read more like her own self-penned and grandiloquent obituary. Subsequently she has hogged the local media with interviews, when normally the hacks can’t get a word out of her and at least one isn’t on speaking terms.
All of which tells us that, rather than this diary being free of Dr Coffey at last, she will reappear as a champion of the people. She will need all her thick skin and indomitability to succeed. Sewage in the rivers is a huge issue for her seat of Suffolk Coastal, and her voters have been among her fiercest critics. Getting on the wrong side of the good people of Woodbridge is never a good idea. So we will undoubtedly hear more of Dr Coffey, but the circumstances may be somewhat different when she doesn’t have the filter of a TV screen to keep her critics at bay.
Bim Afolami (Hitchin and Harpenden) is a most disappointing politician, especially one assumes, to himself. “What is he for?” one asks. His appearances in this diary are invariably observations on his shortcomings, though there have been none so blunt as the comments of his boss at the time, Liz Truss, that he is “f**king useless”.
Nor can we improve on his track record here. He has broken the Commons rules on failing to declare all of his income. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards carried out an investigation into six late entries by the MP. He found that in five of them Mr Afolami was in breach, but he considered those breaches to be minor. Mr Afolami apologised.
We have touched before upon the goings-on in South Norfolk and Broadland Councils, and their curious unwillingness to reveal many of their past deliberations. Prime among them is what to do with the former South Norfolk council offices in Long Stratton. Its sale has been deferred yet again, to general irritation. With their star waning, the Tories are accused of being disruptive of council business, and one hears that Broadland’s new ‘traffic light’ administration (Labour, LibDems and Greens preferring not to call themselves a coalition) are still trying to find the documentation of the financial case used by the outgoing Tories to justify the move. One cannot help assuming these difficulties could be easily overcome if only the Tories would reveal where they had hidden the evidence.
The new building at the Horizon Business Centre outside Norwich is bigger than they need, and an important part of the financing of the deal was to be the sale of the old premises. They are also still paying substantial sums to maintain the old building, and there are worried mutterings about the councils’ borrowing. More, as they say, when we have it…
There are more complaints this week about misleading information from the Liberal Democrats – not for the first time from East Cambridgeshire. Once again it involves those notorious bar charts so beloved of Ed Davey’s finest. It is understood that the Labour agent wrote to his LibDem counterpart and the next parliamentary candidate, demanding an explanation. The letter was not accepted. So our intrepid agent then called round to the candidate’s house in person. There was talk of the LibDems conferring, but nothing more has been heard and the allegedly misleading leaflets are still being circulated.
One might reasonably assume that, if the explanation were straightforward, the LibDems would have brandished their answer by now.
Now in case there are out there a few jaundiced apparatchiks who believe this diarist writes from an ivory tower, far from the reality on the doorstep, it should be pointed out that Pecksniff organised his first successful general election campaign when Alec Douglas Home was still haunting the corridors of Westminster; has advised presidents, prime ministers and an endless assortment of ambassadors, and negotiated successfully with Tony Blair’s No 10. One is therefore in a position to point out, if it weren’t so bleedn obvious anyway, that doing stuff is always going to be more successful than talking about doing stuff, especially if – and one stresses ‘if’ – it is intentionally misleading. It doesn’t matter what shape your graphs are, if the voters know you to be a good egg you will get the gig.
Still in East Cambs, there is a great deal of unpleasantness around recent controversies involving Nik Johnson, the mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. Triumphant complaints from prominent Tories have been compared to the silence from those same quarters when one of their own was found to have used social media to send unsolicited pictures of his genitals.
You will see therefore that politics in East Cambs is not all sweetness and light. And somewhere in all this live the voters, who seem not to feature in these manoeuvres at all.
There are some evenings in the Muckrakers, when Hobbsy is in and playing piano, when the natural joie de vivre of the celebrants around the saloon bar takes on a more anarchic mode. One can always tell: on these occasions one of the favourite songs is:
‘Back in Nagasaki where the fellows chew tobaccky
And the women wicky-wacky-woo!’
At this point George looks anxiously at the clock and begins complaining how it was a mistake ever to take a pub and he should have gone into the church instead.
All this is brought to mind in recent political events. Not in any way because the women wicky-wacky-woo, or even wicky a tiny bit. (Naturally one cannot of speak of what takes place in the public bar.) But it is that same sense of events spiralling out of control and into absurdity and beyond. Not that Rishi Sunak is a man to chew tobaccky. (Difficult to imagine.) Nor are any of the female participants in recent events ever likely to wicky-wacky-woo. Most unlikely, one would have thought, (except of course for that one).
But if, as it is claimed, news is the first rough draft of history, then gossip and rumour are the notes scribbled on a fag packet from which the news is written. Keep reading, dear reader. To use that popular mis-quote from Bette Davis: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
Thanks this week go to Sue Brown.