I didn’t weigh in on the Conway con as the story broke yesterday because, frankly, I don’t believe that any political party has a monopoly on foolishness when it comes to money, family members and employment.
That says more about my view of human frailty that it does about political parties and politicians. If you put temptations in front of any group of 650 people, chosen how you like, some of them will fall. Of course, I’d like to believe that a belief in Socialism or Social democracy inoculates you from such temptation, but I very much doubt it’s so.
So to a certain extent, Derek Conway’s personal affairs are not a party political issue. If Mr Conway happened, by chance, to be a Labour MP my reaction would be no different*.
Yet at another level they are absolutely political. When the Committee on Standards and Privileges published their report, The official reaction of the Conservative party was pretty clear. They released a statement saying:
“Derek Conway has apologised fully on the floor of the House of Commons and the Whip has not been withdrawn. The appropriate punishment is being administered”
Less than 24 hours later, that statement was, as they say, no longer operative.
The new line was:
“The usual procedure in these cases is to leave the punishment to the House of Commons authorities, however, having asked the Chief Whip to speak again to Mr Conway and having personally reflected overnight I have decided to withdraw the Conservative Whip from Mr Conway.”
This strikes me as rather an odd statement. After all, when the Standards and Privileges committee report came out, it contained everything that was in the public domain the next day. The details about Freddy and Henry Conway’s payments, the fact he employed his wife as a researcher, all of it’s in the report. So what could have changed David Cameron’s mind?
The headlines? Of course not. David Cameron is a man of principle, n’est pas? He doesn’t change his mind because of headlines, not like that nasty Gordon Brown.
The reaction of his party? No, no, no. David Cameron is a capital L leader, so there’s no way he could be backtracking because his activists were baying for blood.
New Evidence? That would be helpful, except that there wasn’t any. The allegations in the papers this morning were all sourced from the parliamentary commissioners report.
So the only reason David Cameron could give for changing his mind on the subject of Derek Conway’s fitness to be a Conservative MP was that he’d had a bit of a think about it.
Still, fair enough. A man’s allowed to change his mind.
But if he held out from sacking him for a day, he must have had a reason, so it does make me wonder about the counter-pressures Cameron was considering in the first place.
I believe the new Tory party is a reasonably slick media operation. So when David Cameron first decided to do nothing about Conway, it was in the knowledge it would be pretty bad for him. Tory MPs can’t pay their sons several thousand pounds for not much work without it reflecting a little on their leaders anti-sleaze image.
Yet Cameron chose to hang tough. Why? Nick Robinson explains some possible reasons here. The crucial part is this
“Conway is a popular Tory MP who looked set to be his party’s Chief Whip if David Davis had become Conservative leader. He was even talked of as a possible Speaker. Although David Cameron might be tempted to make an example of him he would be taking on a powerful coalition consisting of those who never wanted him to be leader plus the parliamentary old guard who regard questions about their allowances as challenging the assumption that all MPs are “honourable members” until proven otherwise.”
This gets to the heart of it, I think. Cameron couldn’t just dump Conway- he’s too well connected, too popular, too close to key Tory figures like David Davis.
At the same time, Cameron probably has little time for the tough Geordie former Maastricht whip. So when it got hot, he felt able to dump him, safe in the knowledge that the Tories who liked Conway would be unlikely to put their heads above the parapet to criticise Cameron’s decision today.
So fairly clear political ju-jitsu.
I’ve no doubt Cameron’s inner circle are irritated and frustrated by what Conway did. Cameron’s move is a perfectly respectable political decision (or re-decision), though clearly not a deeply moral and principled one.
Yet it does store up some interesting problems for Cameron. It irritates some old guard MPs and David Davis supporters, who might be tempted to put the pressure on at another time.
Second, If another Tory MP is revealed to have employed a family member as a researcher on a less than clear empoyment basis, will they be sacked too? Is Cameron’s office convinced that this isn’t the case? An article by former Tory MP Keith Best strongly hints that it might have been normal practise in reasonably recent history.
So while David Cameron will have quieted the dismay in places like ConservativeHome, he might have solved one set of problems by accepting the burden of another.
* The same applies to other alleged personal failings. If Nigel Waterston or Andrew Pelling were Labour MPs, the allegations against them would be just as grave and no more a reflection on the beliefs of their party.