The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s notes

7 July 2016

1:00 PM

7 July 2016

1:00 PM

Before she was murdered, Jo Cox MP had written most of a report. She worked on it jointly it with the Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat for the Britain in the World project at the think-tank Policy Exchange. Its publication had been intended to coincide with that of the Chilcot report this week. Because of her shocking death, it is now delayed. But the project wants to continue her work, and the report’s bipartisanship. The essential point on which Mrs Cox (who opposed the Iraq war) and Mr Tugendhat (who served in it) agreed is that total non-intervention is not a foreign policy strategy. If Iraq shows the horrors of ill-planned intervention, Syria shows how non-intervention can cause worse suffering and instability. All those, conservative or moderate left, who call for Tony Blair’s prosecution for war crimes, do not realise how they play into the hands of extremists like Jeremy Corbyn, who teach that any robust western foreign policy is evil. Mrs Cox is doing a service from beyond the grave.

It is funny that Conservative MPs regard Theresa May as a sound, reassuring figure and so, on Tuesday, put her way ahead of her rivals. Listening to her speech launching her leadership campaign last week, I noticed that she trumpeted three times how she had attacked the police about this and that. There is certainly much to worry about in our police force, but should Tories admire a Home Secretary who constantly passes the parcel to them when things go wrong? What would they think of a Defence Secretary who boasted of bashing the army, or a DTI minister who specialised in attacking business?

Such aggression skews everything. On the conservativehome website in May, Nick Timothy, until recently Mrs May’s chief of staff, argued for a public inquiry into the ‘Battle of Orgreave’ during the miners’ strike in 1984. He wanted to find out if the police had ‘pre-planned a mass, full-frontal assault on the miners’, sought to cover this up, and arrested miners on trumped-up charges. He is right in principle that iniquity should be exposed, but in so readily accepting the suggestion of iniquity here he was embracing the hard-left version of events and their comparison of Orgreave with what happened at Hillsborough stadium. The comparison is offensive because the victims of Hillsborough were innocent, whereas the striking miners at Orgreave were trying, violently, to stop lorry drivers making their lawful collections and deliveries (of coke). The defeat of Arthur Scargill’s insurrection by the forces of law was a turning-point in our history. If the police had not won at Orgreave, British industrial relations would have remained in pawn to Scargill, as they had been since he beat them at Saltley coke depot 12 years earlier. This week, Kenneth Clarke was caught referring to Mrs May as ‘a bloody difficult woman’, half-consoling himself that this was true of Margaret Thatcher. But Mrs Thatcher did not direct the ‘bloody difficult’ aspects of her personality at her party’s natural supporters.

Everything that has happened since the referendum proves the point (see last week’s Notes) that Vote Leave should not have been wound up. Far from being ruthless power-grabbers, the political leaders of the Leave campaign turn out to be political innocents. They won, but didn’t know what to do next, like Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobites reaching Derby. While it still has all its funders, supporters and emails in reasonable order, Vote Leave should relaunch as a national campaign to make sure that the beaten Remainers do not nullify what people voted for. It might be called the 17.4 Million Committee.

Shocked Remainers want a new political party — pro-European, ‘pro-business’ and free of any viscerally right- or left-wing taint. They anxiously insist that it will not be like the SDP in the early 1980s, but it is hard to see why not. Both then and now, the appeal is to a particular idea of virtue in politics. Then as now, the new party defines itself by its distaste for people it sees as unvirtuous and lower-class. Then as now, it therefore lacks roots outside bits of London, university towns, and the well-off and well-educated. Above all — then as now — the new party underestimates the capacity of the Tory party to resist its appeal and of the Labour party, however useless its leader, somehow to survive. There is one important difference between 1981 and now, however. The SDP was not hitching itself to the losing side in a popular vote. This proposed new party would be.

When we leave the EU, we recover parliamentary sovereignty. So MPs should take this chance to improve Parliament. Such is the shocked state of the Conservative party that this has not so far featured much in its leadership election, but surely anyone seeking to win should explain how she (or he — but, as I write, that seems less likely) will govern through the House of Commons. One gesture in that direction would be to promise to restore Prime Minister’s Questions to the twice-a-week status which Tony Blair abolished. This would discourage prime ministers from being captured by officials and advisers and help them to understand the full range of government activity and answer for it to the people who ultimately guarantee their job. It would also allow short periods every Tuesday and Thursday where individual MPs could meet the Prime Minister in the House afterwards and pour out their woes.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the referendum result put an end to HS2? A lunch companion recently pointed out to me that the project will be rendered obsolete by the era of driverless cars now almost upon us. The chief attraction of rail travel is that you ‘let the train take the strain’ (as the British Rail ads used to put it). If the car can do that for you, why struggle to a station? By the time HS2 finally slouches towards Blackburn to be born, its purpose will be half-dead. We need more roads.

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