Magazine article The Spectator

Who Does He Think He Is?

Magazine article The Spectator

Who Does He Think He Is?

Article excerpt

AS A GENERAL rule Nicholas Soames is a popular sort of chap. He is in demand at country-house weekends. His appearance on the scene, in the Commons tea-room or the Turf Club bar or wherever, never fails to raise the spirits. He is universally acknowledged to be a character, a bird of multicoloured plumage. He is, on the whole, harmless. The media loves him. Labour loves him. Everyone loves him. Everyone, that is, except the modern Tory party, where there is a growing body of opinion that Nicholas Soames is (to borrow his own colourful terminology) a 24-carat gold, chateau-bottled, copper-bottomed, ocean-going shit.

There have always been certain doubts about Soames, ever since he entered the House of Commons in 1983. He passed himself off as a buffoon, though shrewder observers noted a steely ambition underneath it all. Nevertheless there were plenty of Tory MPs ready to question his credentials. He had a bluff and confident exterior. But did he have real guts? Was he steady under fire? Many thought not. There were always those who resented his blustery self-confidence, well-placed friends and apparently effortless access to the higher levels. Lesser men were always ready to whisper against him. But Soames had a satisfactory answer: his competent and sometimes inspirational performance as a government minister, first at Agriculture and then at Defence.

This time it is different. Now even longstanding admirers of Soames admit that his behaviour is, at best, strange. And now he is, for the first time, badly out of sympathy with the mainstream of the party. The whips' office was once full of Soames supporters. Not any more. A month ago Mr Soames was invited to join the Tory `bonding session' at Eastbourne. According to Tory sources, a reply was not at first forthcoming. Then, late one afternoon, the telephone rang in William Hague's office. Soames's booming voice was at the end of the line. `Can't make Eastbourne,' he declared. `Sorry. Matter of principle.'

What kind of principle was involved is still unclear. `Three kinds of bird are currently in season,' mutters one shadow Cabinet minister. `Grouse, partridge or pheasant.' There are plenty of Tory MPs who are beginning to wonder exactly who Mr Soames thinks he is. It was one thing for Michael Heseltine or John Major to turn up their noses at Eastbourne. They are eminences who had earned the right to stay away, and whose political careers had in any case effectively ended. Soames, by contrast, is simply a former defence minister outside the Cabinet, of no particular standing.

Nor is the Eastbourne episode the first time that Soames has set himself at odds with the new party hierarchy. Last June, in the wake of the leadership election, William Hague failed to offer him a job in his shadow government. This looked like a snub until Soames himself made it plain that he had informed Hague personally that he had no wish to serve under him. There have even been reports -- angrily denied by Soames himself - that he has been rubbishing the new Tory leader in private.

All this, remember, from a man who traded-in his marginal Crawley constituency for leafy Mid-Sussex before the last election. Chicken-running is bad form at the best of times. Chicken-running and then sticking two fingers up at the Tory leadership is very bad form indeed. …

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