The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s Notes

17 June 2017

9:00 AM

17 June 2017

9:00 AM

Before knowing the result of the election, I composed my Chairman’s message in the newsletter of the Rectory Society. In it, I noted that Theresa May was the third prime minister in a row to have been brought up in a parsonage house. The first was Gordon Brown, son of the Scottish manse. The second was David Cameron, inhabitant of an old rectory owned by his stockbroker father. And now there was Mrs May, only child of a High Anglican vicar in Oxfordshire. ‘Whatever our political views,’ I went on, ‘I feel we [in the Society] should be proud of the fact that the buildings we love continue to produce unusual people capable of leading our country’. In the light of subsequent events, I suppose I should have put more emphasis on the word ‘unusual’, less on ‘capable’. My conclusion was that ‘The psychology of the parsonage child would make a most interesting study.’ I stick by that.

Since no one now wants to stand up for ‘Theresa May and her team’, I have been trying to find out a bit more about how the wreckage looks from their point of view. On the one hand were Mrs May and her advisers, led by Nick Timothy, determined to have proper policy in the manifesto in order to get a popular mandate. Mrs May’s mantra was ‘I want to be different’, addressing difficult questions which had been postponed for too long — notably social care. The policies were not chucked in without thought at the last minute: they had been developed intensively ever since Mrs May became Prime Minister. On the other hand were Crosby Textor and their ‘testing’. This reported strongly that voters disliked the Tories but liked Mrs May. Hence the decision to shrink the word ‘Conservative’ almost to invisibility and encourage Mrs May to say ‘Vote for me’. At the time, these two functions seemed complementary. Here was a strong leader with strong policies, different from the game-playing of the past. The country would like it. Crosby Textor framed the campaign accordingly.


But there was a missing bit. Normally, manifesto preparations can be acknowledged. The approach of an election is known. In this case, there had to be secrecy. The most striking thing about the manifesto work is that no minister, apart from Ben Gummer wielding the pen, was involved. Cabinet ministers discussed sections relating to their subjects, but none was present to help produce the whole. So the manifesto was almost as unknown in advance to, say, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Foreign Secretary, as to the average voter. I have never heard of this happening before. The salesmen knew incredibly little about the product. Something similar applied to the method of campaigning. Cabinet ministers milled around on the ground floor of CCHQ in Matthew Parker Street dealing with their briefs — Jeremy Hunt on health, for instance — but few reached the fourth floor, where the ideas were being generated. None was consistently involved in strategy or tactics. After a couple of weeks, Mr Timothy was heard to say, ‘She’s looking very lonely out there.’ Mrs May felt uneasy about all the focus being on her, but by then it was too late. Anything that might have been done to try to change the whole presentation was scuppered by the two terrorist attacks, so serious that they blew all other considerations away.

It doesn’t seem right — though it can sometimes be fun — to blame advisers. What is truly dysfunctional nowadays are the relations between leaders and their ministerial colleagues, their MPs, and their party in the country. Mrs May depended for victory upon the goodwill and trust of millions of party supporters, thousands of activists, hundreds of candidates and dozens of ministers, yet the spirit of the age told her she had to scorn them in order to win. She asked people to trust her, but didn’t trust others. So she didn’t win.

On Monday night, David Cameron broke his silence at a comically recherché occasion. He spoke to launch a biography of a schoolmaster (The Enigma of Kidson by Jamie Blackett, Quiller). The subject, Michael Kidson, was a master at Eton in the ex-prime minister’s time. The book contains a photograph of Cameron’s ‘leaver’ (the inscribed photograph of themselves that boys give to staff and friends when they leave), which he gave to Kidson. Young David stands at the garden gate of his parents’ old rectory (see above). He begins, ‘I know you think I know less history than your dog [a celebrity called Dougal]’ and goes on to say he has little hope of getting into Oxbridge ‘but the strangest things can happen’. They did. Other ‘leavers’ feature, including those from Cornelius Lysaght, Dominic West and the present Archbishop of Canterbury, a mixture of occupations which Kidson enjoyed.

Kidson was the classic eccentric bachelor schoolmaster — potentially a very annoying stereotype. But he was unusual among teachers seriously interested in their subject in preferring pupils who weren’t top of the class. So the launch party was largely a gathering of men who happily describe themselves as ‘thickoes’, a fact of which Cameron made well-judged play. Eton has a good system by which boys have a ‘modern tutor’ (chosen by them), who looks after their academic and intellectual welfare outside class. Kidson was genially rude to his pupils, often calling them ‘completely illiterate’, but he cared about them. The nicest thing in this book is the way he stuck up for his boys. Of one, who he fears will be thrown out for failing exams, he writes to the head master: ‘He is, in my view, a thoroughly good man… He is kind, cheerful, honest, well-liked; frequent peccadillos can’t damage the good side. If there were a conventional war tomorrow, you couldn’t wish for a better companion in a slit trench… To send him away would do him no good, & only put a great load on his mother’s shoulders.’ How much better educated millions of teenagers would be if each had a crusty grown-up who saw it as his job to be their advocate.

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