The reason its so tough being Tory leader, suggests Simon Hoggart, is that you just cant get the staff these days
Gosh, the Conservative Party has problems! Apart from the poll figures, which indicate that in some magical way their ratings fall in step with those scored by an increasingly unpopular Labour government, apart from their humiliation in the most recent byelections, apart from the growth of UKIP, apart from the fact that their members have an average age in the mid60's, apart from the way that their new and entirely irreplaceable leader seems to be regarded by the electorate with disdain bordering on dislike, and perhaps most astonishingly of all the fact that the Labour party, the party of austerity, of devaluation, of Denis Healey's plucking and pleading to the IMF, is now seen as vastly more competent on the economy than they are, even though one of the nicest things you can say about Gordon Brown is that he is the most effective Chancellor since Ken Clarke apart from all that, they can't get the staff. There are presently 163 Conservative members of parliament, fractionally less than a quarter of the total. More than half of these have some front bench role or other, possibly to keep them happy and give them a title to brag about, possibly to keep up the pressure on the government. My old friend Michael Fabricant, for example, he of the strawberry blonde scalp topping, is part of the Tory trade and industry team which, when Patricia Hewitt answers questions, seems to stretch to the crack of doom. Mickey Fabb's area of expertise is hightech communications, with particular reference to broadband, not perhaps a field which Harold Macmillan or any of the other Tory grandees of the past would have thought a fit job for a grown statesman.
If you deduct from the remainder of the pack those who appear to be clinically insane, and the substantial number who used to have real jobs but are riding things out for the moment Ken Clarke himself, William Hague, John Gummer, John Redwood, Douglas Hogg and the soontobegone Michael Portillo then there are very few people who might have a post but who don't. There is a desperate shortage of talent.
But then, who would want to be a Tory MP these days? I was surprised but pleased to learn about a set called the Notting Hill Group (Tories are usually just a few years late with all fashions, including property areas) which consists of young, thrusting rightwingers who want to clear out the older MPs, the 'bedblockers' who insist on staying on in their constituencies, even though there is a supply of young men in Armani suits who want their jobs. Surprised because there can't be many young men and women who want to be Tory MPs now, and pleased because we need a proper opposition and we haven't got one. And if it has to come from selfsatisfied young men who believe they know better than everyone else in politics, what's so new about that?
But there aren't many of them. A year or so after the 2001 election I went to a party to launch a book by Boris Johnson, then a newly elected Tory MP. I was chatting to his father, Stanley, who reminded me that he had once been a member of the European parliament, and would like to become one again. How should he set about it? I said he was lucky; the then chairman of the party, David Davis, was at the launch, and I would introduce him. Mr Johnson duly asked what he should do to return to Strasbourg.
"You could start by writing to me at Central Office," said Mr Davis, "provided you don't mind getting my pro forma reply."
"Ah, what does that say?" asked Mr Johnson.
"It says, 'no'."
But now the elder Johnson has been selected as candidate for a marginal Westminster seat, and could well be an MP a year from now, possibly the only example of a father following his son into the Commons.
Now, estimable and engaging though he is, Stanley Johnson is 64 years old and does not represent the future of the Conservative party. His son may do. When he first arrived in the House, the whips tried to take him down a peg by putting him on the standing committee to examine the secondlongest bill of the past 100 years, but, perhaps unwillingly, they have now decided they need him, if only for his credibility with younger persons. So they have made him arts spokesman in the hopes that he will appear serious rather than frivolous, amusing but not foolish.
In the meantime, who is coming up? And the answer is, very few people. The fact is now that if you are a young person of rightwing views, you probably want money, and however much you finagle your expenses, there is little enough of that in parliament.
If you want influence, you're almost certainly better off in the media. Who has the ear of the British people Jeremy Paxman, or a backbencher addressing three colleagues on a wet Tuesday afternoon? Whose views carry more weight: Andrew Marr's, or those held by the Conservative spokesman on buses?
The same situation applies to the Labour party, or would if they weren't in power. What the Tories now need is lots of counterintuitive young persons who, like Tony Blair, are prepared to join a party when it's at rockbottom and be ready to seize power when the moment comes. But that moment still seems a long way off.