Upwardly Mobile Incompetents
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
A shorter version of this article was published in the Sunday Island on February 11 2023
I have always dressed to the left and cannot contemplate any circumstances in which I would ever vote for a member of the Conservative Party. I have always voted for the Labour Party except for one occasion when I engaged in tactical voting. When I first went to live in Wimbledon, it was a Tory stronghold. In 1982, the MP for my area was Sir Michael Havers, father of the more famous Nigel Havers, actor and TV star. I was a little creeped out to receive a letter from Sir Michael welcoming me to the constituency. How did he know I was there? Sir Michael retired and was replaced by Dr Goodson Wickes. I voted for the Liberal candidate Adrian Slade in 1987 in the hope of preventing the election of the good doctor but my ploy did not work, although Slade came second with a respectable 13,237 votes. The seat (miraculously) went to Labour in the 1997 Blair landslide. The seat is now Conservative again.
In 1982, I moved from Manchester to London to take up a job as assistant secretary to the SSAC (Social Security Advisory Committee) which was then chaired by Sir Arthur Armitage who was vice-chancellor of my alma mater, Manchester University. Sir Arthur introduced me to Lady Armitage thus, “Michael has the great good fortune to be a Manchester graduate.” Sir Arthur was a gruff old Tory with alarming eyebrows. The Masonic Temple on Great Queen Street, Covent Garden, was within easy walking distance of our offices. I once went into Sir Arthur’s office when I thought he was not there to find him changing into his Masonic gear ready for a meeting. I was unlikely to warm to a Tory Mason. I had taken part in student protests against Sir Arthur at Manchester University. Nevertheless, I became very fond of him and was sad when he died. He seemed to be bumbling and disorganized when chairing meetings but I found that the minutes wrote themselves because he had shaped the discussion. His successor failed miserably to manage the committee.Uncle Arthur, as Henry Hodge called him, was a lovable old Tory.
Meetings were attended by very senior civil servants. I was amused to note that these mandarins were avid followers of the BBC TV comedy Yes Minister. I recall standing at a urinal with the permanent secretary, Sir Geoffrey Otton, on my left and his undersecretary on my right. They were calling each other “Sir Humphrey”.
Ministers were often invited to SSAC “working lunches”. Wine was available but I stuck to orange juice and ate very little for fear that I might fall asleep in the afternoon. Some SSAC members were not so cautious. I recall one member (Neil Kinnock’s GP) snoring loudly after lunch. He often spent the morning sessions reading Private Eye or the New Statesman and intervening with remarks that had nothing to do with the discussion everybody else was having.
The Secretary of State at that time was Norman Fowler. He never accepted an invitation from the Committee. Tony Newton (now Lord Newton of Braintree) did attend and he was charm itself. He went out of his way to thank me.
Rhodes Boyson also attended and he was a surprise. I had seen him debating in the House of Commons on the same day that I witnessed Gordon Brown’s maiden speech in 1983 I took the easy lefty’s view of Boyson as a reactionary cretin. He had a very successful career in teaching and had adopted a Dickensian persona which made it easy to compare him with Wackford Squeers, the brutal headmaster of Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby. When he came to lunch he was very affable. I was doing my best to keep in the background. I tried to introduce him to Sir Arthur but he surged forward and said “Never mind about him . Who ois this fellow here!”
I subscribed when a sixth former) the Critical Quaternary edited by CB Cox and AE Dyson hose two fellows collaborate with Boyson to publish the Black Papers which argued a hard line on education. I was rather hurt when my hero Brian Cox called me an idle bastard when he was less than impressed with an essay I had written on TS Eliot while at Manchester University. Described in a Guardian obituary as “more intelligent than he was shrewd.”
One of the SSAC members I got on well with was Henry Hodge, who was well known as a human rights lawyer. He later became a judge which was unusual for someone who was a solicitor not a barrister. His wife was Margaret Hodge who was then leader of Islington council, which was characterised by the right-wing press as “Loony Left”. SSAC held a meeting every year in Belfast and I went there twice. We had dinner at a hotel out in the country and Chris Patten, who was then a junior minister at the Northern Ireland Department, was invited. Henry introduced me to his old friend from their Balliol, Oxford days. I noticed when I went to the toilet that a large man was cleaning a gun. This was Patten’s minder. Patten said that he had that very day upset the Reverend Ian Paisley by saying “Derry” instead of “Londonderry”. Derry is what Catholics call the city. Patten is a Catholic.
Another SSAC member I got on well with was the Reverend Harold Good. I have communicated with Harold in recent years. He is mentioned in two books about the Northern Ireland peace process as being a crucial actor in the talks on decommissioning of IRA arms. Although he is a protestant, Harold said he was proud to call Martin McGuinness his friend.
We had meetings at Stormont and during a break I went to the gents. I hope that I do not give the impression that I am constantly hanging around toilets. While I was relieving myself, a cheery voice called out, “good morning to you.” I responded and noted that my greeter was none other than the Reverend Martin Smyth, Grand Master of the Orange Lodge. Nearly a decade later, I enjoyed a concert of Portuguese Polyphony at St John’s, Smith Square. As I was walking from the venue, along the Thames beside Parliament, a cheery voice called out, “good evening to you.” It was the Reverend Martin Smyth. Was the man stalking me?
Tories Used to Be Human
In subsequent jobs, I had many encounters with ministers. These were Conservatives under the premierships of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. When I was working on fraud prevention, Sir Nicholas Lyell, the attorney general, praised my work. What was notable at that time was that Conservative ministers took a firmly liberal line on human rights issues. There was considerable public pressure to introduce identity cards to combat benefit fraud. Lyell and other ministers consistently resisted such calls.
The current Tory government is bringing in a a law that will require all voters to show photographic identification to cast a vote, beginning with local elections in England next May. Under the new law, which has been called “legalised voter suppression’ by opponents, voters will be compelled to show a piece of Government-approved photographic ID before being allowed to vote.A new poll conducted by pollsters Omnisis, finds that with just 10 weeks to go until polling stations open for the May local elections, 52% of all voters under 40 remain unaware of the new requirements.The youngest cohort of voters are the least likely to be aware of the need to show ID. 63% of voters between the ages of 18 and 24 are as yet unaware of the new requirements, according to the poll. This compares to just 34% of those over the age of 40. The lack of awareness among young people is particularly alarming given the limitations placed on which forms of ID will be accepted at polling stations.While various forms of ID, such as pensioner bus passes, are included in the official list of accepted IDs, young people’s bus passes and other forms of ID widely used by young people have been excluded.
When I was a ministerial adviser on child protection I provided briefing and wrote speeches for John Bowis. He was also open to liberal views. He insisted on me accompanying him when he met a Conservative MP who was arguing a case for an aggrieved constituent. The MP walked off with my umbrella. Sometime later, I was watching the news while staying with friends in the Cotswolds. The main headline was that Alan Howarth (now Lord Howarth of Newport) had left the Conservative Party and joined the Labour Party. “That’s the man who stole my umbrella!” I ejaculated.
I wrote a speech for Bowis to give to a charity called Parentline and I was in the audience when he delivered it. It was gratifying to hear people laughing at my jokes. One of the celebrity patrons of Parentline was Jane Asher, an actress who was once famous for being Paul McCartney’s girlfriend. She later married the cartoonist Gerald Scarfe and achieved fame for making cakes on TV. She donated a cake to Parentline and then sent them an invoice.
Bowis lost his Westminster seat in the 1997 Blair landslide and later served as a member of the EU parliament. My friend worked as his diary secretary in Whitehall and said he was a decent man who was a pleasure to work for (unlike Dominic Raab). There was no indication that Bowis was gay and I don’t think he was – he was married with three children- but he was well-respected by the LGBT community for his support. He served as president of Gay Conservatives, an LGBT group within the Conservative Party.
I one wrote a speech for John Major. Right at the end of my working life, I wrote a speech for Baroness Julia Cumberlege, responding to criticism by Esther Rantzen. Late one evening, I had to sit in “The Box” in the House of Lords while she delivered my speech. My job in The Box was to hand her scribbled notes to help her respond to questions from the Noble Lords. Two interventions I recall were from Gerry Fitt who had been a leading politician in Northern Ireland and Len Murray who had been general secretary of the Trades Union Congress.
Julia (I was also on first name terms with two other Lordships – Herbert Laming and Liam Donaldson) was pleased with the way the event had gone and rewarded me with a huge gin and tonic in the Lords bar. I clinked glasses with Robin Eames, The High Primate of All Ireland (a bishop not a monkey).
I had an interesting conversation with an official from the Home Office about her boss, Michael Howard, who had been criticized by one of his junior ministers, who had said that there was “something of the night” about the then Home Secretary. Howard was somewhat oleaginous but he compares well with successors such as Theresa May, Priti Patel and Suella Braverman. He also had the courage and integrity to sack Boris Johnson for lying to him.
Purging of the Talents
It is a different Tory party today, much further to the right. Human rights are under threat. Boris Johnson in his determination to “get Brexit done” at whatever cost purged the Conservative Party of all its decent and competent people. He removed the whip from 21 MPs. Removing the whip used to be rare – between 1979 and 2019 only 20 Tory MPs ever had the whip removed. The party lost a lot of talent – Philip Hammond, Dominic Grieve, Oliver Letwin, Kenneth Clarke, Nicholas Soames (Winston Churchill’s grandson), Alistair Burt (met him), Justine Greening, Amber Rudd, David Gauke, Rory Stewart, Caroline Nokes, Ed Vaizey.
Today the parliamentary Conservative Party is a nest of unprincipled chancers, spivs and sexual predators. Boris Johnson was chancer in chief and is reportedly trying to take over his fan Nadine Dorries’s safe constituency in order to make a comeback. The list of rogues seems endless. David Warburton was accused by two women of sexual harassment and cocaine use; Charlie Elphicke was jailed for two years after being found guilty of three counts of sexual assault – his wife took over his seat; Matt Hancock was caught on camera embracing a woman not his wife. More seriously, as health secretary he handed out Covid contracts to his cronies and billions of taxpayers’ money was lost to fraud and waste; Chris Pincher drunkenly groped two men; Julian Knight, had the whip removed after a complaint to the Metropolitan Police. He claims that he has received blackmail threats; a still unnamed Tory MP was charged with rape; Neil Parish was caught watching porn in the House of Commons; Rob Roberts was accused of making unwanted advances to a man; Imran Ahmad Khan was jailed for 18 months for groping a 15-year-old boy; Conor Burns was cleared of allegations that he had put his hand on a man’s thigh. He claimed that the allegations were part of a politically motivated “stitch-up”.
In a recent exchange at prime minister’s questions Keir Starmer showed how failures in the probation service led to the rape and murder of Zara Aleena. The man mainly responsible for that was Christopher “Failing” Grayling. The political commentator, Ian Dunt, wrote : “Grayling is at the top of that system of failure. He is that little bit more intellectually, presentationally and ideologically useless than all the others and therefore deserves special mention. But he is merely the totem of a culture that has singularly failed the country.”
Patrick Cockburn in the i-paper describes Liz Truss’s attempted comeback as “frightening indication of how far political promotion has been detached from actual performance.” He describes her tunnel vision as being “not so different from straight stupidity… it can also attract those who mistake inflexibility for determination in pursuit of a well thought-out plan.” Britain is a country in decline and people are wishing for a “golden bullet” to reverse that decline. Some thought Brexit was the magic cure but, as well as ruining the economy, it blighted the political class by elevating “a leadership cadre poorer in quality than any other in British history. Saner and abler politicians and civil servants were systematically sieved out.”
I like this one. You have truly moved in very elevated lavatorial circles.
The corridors of power.
You clearly had some dexterity in handlings PQs.
Thanks Geoff. I hate having to queue for a pee. Here is another toilet tale I have told many times. In June 1989, I went to see the Merchant of Venice at the Phoenix on Shaftesbury Avenue. Sir Peter Hall had persuaded Dustin Hoffman to play Shylock; Geraldine James was Portia; Basil Henson was the Duke of Venice; Abigail McKern was Nerissa; Private Pike (Ian Lavender) appeared as Solanio.
I arrived early for the Saturday matinee and loitered in the lobby. As usual there were huge queues outside the ladies’ toilets and I mentally sympathised as I made my leisurely way towards the sparsely populated gents’. I had not quite finished my micturition, when I was aware that a small tornado had entered the portals. The militarily uniformed attendant called out: “Good afternoon, Miss Scales”. Prunella Scales, for it was she, was not one to waste time queuing. I hurriedly zipped up and made my exit as she locked herself into one of the stalls.
I had a good seat in the other stalls – third row, centre, from the stage – the kind of proximity to the action which had enabled me, at the same theatre, to be doused in the sweat and spittle of Kenneth Branagh (as Hamlet) and of Anthony Hopkins (as Lambert Le Roux at the National Theatre) on previous occasions. The man sitting to my left looked vaguely familiar. Seconds before the performance was due to start, the lady to the left of my neighbour screeched, “Tony, Tony!” and thumped the man in front to her on the back. He turned around with an alarmed expression. It was Anthony Hopkins. The screeching lady was Prunella Scales. The man sitting between us was her son, Sam West.
A great story Mike.