Magazine article The Spectator

If Gordon Wins Next Time, the Derek Conway Case Will Be One of the Reasons

Magazine article The Spectator

If Gordon Wins Next Time, the Derek Conway Case Will Be One of the Reasons

Article excerpt

Years from now, when the downfall of Peter Hain has been reduced to a Trivial Pursuit question standing between players and a yellow wedge, the name of Derek Conway will still be remembered. The Electoral Commission's declaration rulebook may not interest the public -- but it is abundantly clear what Mr Conway was up to. Putting one's family on the state payroll is a trick as old any British tradition.

Like the Speaker's tights, it is an ancient practice still quietly continued in Westminster.

Some of it is even justifiable. When I first started working in Westminster I met a parliamentary wife who told me the best way of stopping one's husband from having an affair with his secretary is to become his secretary. Tireless constituency work is expected from spouses, Tory wives in particular. But Mr Conway's decision to pay his son £40,000 for 'research' while he was at Newcastle University, and the MP's inability to provide any plausible evidence of such research, goes beyond mere nepotism.

The polite phrase used by the Standards and Privileges Committee was 'diversion of public funds'. At a stroke, this gave Gordon Brown the words he needed for a narrative he has been trying to construct -- to portray the controversies about Labour donations, which led to Mr Hain's resignation, as a problem afflicting all parties. Meanwhile, the public simply conclude that all politicians are villains -- and not just those with a red rosette.

Yet David Cameron's judgment in the matter was not instantaneous, as it was when he sacked Patrick Mercer for making ill-judged remarks about racial abuse in the military.

The news about Mr Conway broke while Mr Cameron was at a one-day conference discussing the party's intellectual direction (a rather uplifting event, where the wheatto-chaff ratio was much improved on a similar event last year). The tree logo was still there, but this time coloured not green but sky blue.

Suddenly into this sky rolled the thundercloud of Mr Conway. A while ago, the scandal would have caused an ugly shadow cabinet split -- and an unwanted test of Mr Cameron's parliamentary authority. Though a speck on the national stage, Mr Conway is a large figure in Westminster and so well-liked in the Commons (on all benches) that he was considered frontrunner to become the next Speaker. Added to that, he is close to David Davis. During that Monday evening, rumours flew around that Mr Davis had thrown a fraternal arm around his friend and demanded that he be protected.

Indeed, all manner of theories were flying around during these limbo hours. That Mr Cameron lacked the authority to remove as popular a figure as Mr Conway -- and that, with the Old Bexley and Sidcup MP cut off and on the loose, Mr Davis might cause mischief again. I have heard reports about Mr Davis becoming disheartened recently, wondering what the point of a Tory Home Secretary is if he cannot control prisons (now in the control of the Justice Department) nor (under Tory proposals for locally elected police chiefs) the nation's constabularies.

My information is that Mr Davis is indeed grumpy -- but that the root cause is his boredom in waiting for the Terrorism Bill, which may now not have its second reading until April. But one searches in vain for any shadow cabinet split over Mr Conway. …

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