Magazine article The Spectator

The Tories Are Gubu-Smacked and Their Cup Runneth Over

Magazine article The Spectator

The Tories Are Gubu-Smacked and Their Cup Runneth Over

Article excerpt

After one striking outbreak of confusion during Charlie Haughey's premiership, an Irish government spokesman said that the events in question were `grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented'. Shortened to 'gubu', this passed into the Dublin political lexicon. It is now needed in Westminster, for there is no better way to describe recent developments in Tory politics. The events of last week left most Tories feeling gubu-smacked.

Thus far, bitterness has obstructed analysis, while Robert Cranborne has no intention of making more trouble by justifying his conduct. He would not find it hard to do so, because he acted as he did for two good reasons. He had lost confidence in those around Mr Hague and, unlike them, he knows what the House of Lords would do, and what it would refuse to do.

Though not naturally a deceiver, Robert Cranborne is a deceptive figure. He has the Etonian horror of being caught working, and he is not remotely interested in proving how clever he is. If people take him to be a languid, pleasure-seeking aristocrat, he would not dream of disabusing them. Those who have seen him in action know better. During the 1980s, he spent a lot of time trying to organise the Afghan resistance. At that stage, he seemed to have distanced himself from Westminster politics, but John Major had seen through the surface to the steel. He not only recalled Robert Cranborne to the colours; he accelerated him to the Cabinet as well as to the Lords and then put him in charge of the 1995 leadership campaign. Mr Major only just stopped short of pushing aside Brian Mawhinney and making Lord Cranborne the supremo during the 1997 election. It was fascinating to watch how two men who had been as far apart in background as any members of the 1979 intake developed such a political affinity. These alliances used to be one of the Tory party's strengths.

While they served in Cabinet together, Robert Cranborne and William Hague had developed a considerable mutual regard. That did not survive Mr Hague's becoming leader. Some of those around Mr Hague could not see the point of Lord Cranborne, which was silly of them. They also let their feelings be known, which was asinine. Mr Blair - who may be emerging as a shrewd picker - did not imitate the Hague office's mistake. Robert Cranborne played a crucial role in negotiating and drafting the Good Friday agreement, virtually becoming Mr Blair's emissary to the Unionists.

The Cecils were originally noblesse de robe, and Lord Cranborne will sometimes insist that as they have only been around for 500 years, they are barely entitled to be described as aristocrats. That disclaimer is not entirely serious; Robert Cranborne himself is one of the last members of his order who will behave like a pre-Tudor magnate during a period of monarchical weakness. He sees no reason to be bound by a government - or opposition -- policy of which he disapproves; instead, he will substitute his own.

Or, as last week, that of his Lords supporters. Many Tories had been in favour of scorched-earth tactics on Lords reform: fighting the government all the way and refusing to assist its escape from its selfinflicted difficulties. But there was one problem with that tactic: their Lordships are incurably constructive. Unlike many of their supporters, most peers have now accepted that Lords reform is inevitable. Their concern is not the protection of their own privileges; they merely want to ensure that the new second chamber is as soundly constructed as possible. …

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