Magazine article The Spectator

The Phantom Shadow Cabinet

Magazine article The Spectator

The Phantom Shadow Cabinet

Article excerpt

LET me be the first to say, it's been a good couple of months for the Conservative party. No doubt about that. First there was the pretend pogrom against the non-existent asylum-seekers, when Hague's Tories thrashed Jack Straw's boys in the matter of how many non-existent immigrants they could verbally expatriate. Then came the big moment of Hague's leadership to date, the canonisation of `quick-draw' farmer Tony Martin. As one unusually forthright (though not to the extent of agreeing to be identified) Tory MP quipped, `We were thrilled when William came out for shoot-- to-kill, but we never dreamed it would be on the mainland. Superb.' Not only did Hague's sharp tack to the right warm the Tory cockles in Parliament, but April's electoral Super Thursday - when Labour was annihilated in London by Ken, and the Tories made 600 gains in the local elections - seemed to confirm that he was striking a chord in the country as well.

So the Tories are on the march again, hurrah, hurrah. `At last,' confided a backbench foot-soldier, `we're making the weather. Fingers have finally been extracted and since Easter we've actually been saying something.' Among the Tory grassroots, as well, party members are starting to come round to Hague. There is a sense that finally he is talking their language.

According to that unusually honest (but actually very objective) shoot-to-kill MP, `It has now become the general assumption that Hague has got a second term in him. You don't hear any of that Portillo speculation any more. He begins to look more like a Kinnock 83-92 figure: Not exactly brimming over with optimism, then, but an enormous improvement on what Tories were saying privately in January.

It is all Hague, though, and nobody else. In the first instance it's right that it should be so. He is the leader. Leaders must lead. Leaders who lead are what parties need. So it was Hague - not Ms Widdecombe who decided and then propagandised the line on asylum-seekers and Tony `Death Wish' Martin. It was Hague - that man o' t' people and Magdalen - who most effectively joined battle on elitism (though he showed his old lack of touch in his failure to lead it). It was Hague, on Tuesday, who led the van on the plan to send naughty children to labour camps (I find it puts Comrade Stalin in quite a new light if you think of Ivan Denisovich as just cooling his heels in a sin bin). The shadow education secretary was nowhere to be seen.

Which leads us, as Mr Eliot said, to an overwhelming question: who is the shadow education secretary? It would be wrong to say that the identity of the shadow education secretary is a closely guarded secret. But it is nearer to that than it is to common knowledge, even among those who ought to know. And even those who sort of know in theory don't actually do so in practice. When I asked four lobby correspondents with a century's parliamentary experience between them (three of them from Conservative newspapers) who was the shadow education secretary, they all shot back `Theresa May' without hesitation. But when I asked them for their opinions of her they all replied, `Couldn't say; I've never met her.'

For it is she, the 45-year-old former adviser on international affairs to the Association for Payment Clearing Services, who has sat for Maidenhead since 1997, who now speaks for the Conservative party on education. Perhaps I should not intrude on private grief, but all the Tories I know are privately fuming at their spokesman's invisibility during two solid weeks of nothing but higher education. …

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