Six years ago this week, I went to dinner with four friends. Three were journalists: James Lyons, Sam Coates, Tim Shipman. The fourth does something else; I’m not going to drag him into this tale.
Dinner was in the Blue Boar, a cornerstone of Westminster entertaining and then, as now, the sort of place you bump into all sorts of political people.
Which is exactly what happened that night. A senior person in the orbit of David Cameron passed our table. Spotting us, the person stopped to chat, gossip and trade information. Business as usual for Westminster, though what happened next was a little out of the ordinary.
First, a bit of context. This was May 2013 and Cameron was struggling with backbench Tory discipline. That month, 114 Tory MPs had rebelled to force a debate on an EU referendum, angry that the Queen’s Speech did not commit the Coalition to hold such a vote. There was also a significant Tory rebellion over gay marriage, though happily that reform passed the Commons anyway.
But that was not what the person (I’m going to call them that throughout this piece – get used to it) who stopped at our table wanted to talk about. In the first instance, they wanted to talk about Ed Miliband’s Labour Party and in particular, its financial arrangements. I won’t rehash the conversation, but the essence was that the person encouraged us all to investigate and report on a particular arrangement Labour had made with one of its major financial backers; this was a theme Conservative HQ was keen to promote to the media at the time.
The point is this: the person was trying to feed tips to journalists. This was not a social occasion. It was a political operative doing what political operatives do. The terms of trade were never discussed, there was no conversation about ‘is that on the record?’, like you might see on TV or in a film: that’s not how it works. Everyone knows that names will not be used, but the content of a conversation like that is fair game, material journalists can take away and use in reporting, pursuing the leads passed on by examining documents, putting the claims to other people, generally doing journalism the way it’s actually done, not the way a lot of people seem to imagine.
Anyway, the person who stopped by our booth at the Blue Boar that night in 2013 didn’t just talk about Labour’s balance sheet. The person also talked about the Conservative Party, a subject on which they were (and are) eminently qualified to comment. One of us (OK, it was Sam) asked about the backbench Tory rebellions. The person’s reply was an attempt to persuade us that such things were not a real problem for Cameron, that his MPs themselves did not really have such a big problem with him or his agenda. The person’s precise phrase later attained a degree of fame:
‘There’s really no problem. The MPs just have to do it because the associations tell them to, and the associations are all mad swivel-eyed loons.’
For all sorts of reasons, this was news. Mainly this was because of the person’s position within the Conservative Party and the Cameron operation. For such a person to say such a thing about Conservative activists revealed something of genuine importance and – at the risk of sounding pompous – public interest. This was a person who we knew with absolute certainty was extremely close to the Prime Minister of the day and whose opinions almost always aligned with those of the Prime Minister. Such fundamental disconnection between the chiefs of the party of government and its active members must, inevitably, influence the business and stability of government.
And anyway, it was such a brilliant phrase, we just had to write it.
So we did, and hell followed after.
I held a journalist’s Lobby pass for 16 years and naturally came into conflict and dispute with politicians and their staff many times. Gordon Brown once followed me into a toilet in Mumbai to yell at me for writing down something he’d said on television; Theresa May’s team once banned me from a Telegraph lunch with her because I’d been unkind about her stance on immigration.
But I think the trouble that came from the story of the Mad Swivel Eyed Loons exceeds any of those spats, and ultimately cost me more than I ever expected when I, like my friends, filed the story later that week.
The spite and grief that flowed from that front page is another story for another day, though. My purpose here today is to draw attention back to that phrase and that description of the Conservative membership.
Because the person who spoke about ‘mad, swivel-eyed loons’ was right. Right about Conservative associations’ outlook. Right about their influence on MPs. How else to explain the current disaster of British politics?
In 2016, David Cameron held an EU referendum he and most of his team believed was unnecessary and unwise, in no small part because of the pressure on him and his MPs exerted by Conservative members. He lost that referendum in part because he could not persuade enough of his party to support him and his campaign to remain in the EU. Some of the Conservative MPs who supported Leave did so not because they wanted to leave the EU but because they believed supporting Leave was the best way to curry favour with the Conservative membership.
Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, began her premiership by setting out red lines on Brexit that dictated a far, far sharper separation from the bloc than anyone on the Leave campaign had suggested during the referendum campaign. She did so not because she believed this was in the country’s best interest – she had voted Remain, after all – but because she believed that was necessary to satisfy a number of political constituencies including a Conservative membership she (at the time, anyway) cherished.
In 2018, she negotiated an exit deal with the EU that fell short of those red lines but still far exceeded the dreams and promises of Leavers just two years before. That deal thrice failed to pass the House of Commons, in part because it was opposed by Conservative MPs who privately regarded it as perfectly acceptable but did not dare support it for fear of sanction from Conservative members.
Later this year, it seems likely that those same Conservative members will choose Theresa May’s successor. The perceived need to appeal to their preferences on Brexit has persuaded several otherwise sensible MPs to claim that they do not fear and even embrace the prospect of leaving the EU without an exit agreement in place.
In short, the Conservative members fixated on Europe above all else have won. They got their referendum, got their Brexit and soon they’ll quite likely get their prime minister.
In that sense then, the person who called at our table in the Blue Boar was quite right. But that’s not the whole story, of course. Because nothing about that tale was inevitable; it didn’t have to go that way. Having identified the fact that Conservative activists were pushing the party and its MPs towards misguided and destructive positions, the Cameron team, like their successors, could have acted. They could have attempted to broaden the membership, to infuse new blood and new opinions into a small and shrinking membership.
This isn’t impossible. Tony Blair did it, and so did Jeremy Corbyn. ‘Change to win,’ the Cameroons used to say, but they never really tried to change their own party. Under Cameron and the person who called at our table, Conservative membership numbers more than halved, handing ever more power to a smaller group of people whose interests and priorities are extremely hard to reconcile with those of the country as a whole.
Did Cameron and his friends mind about that, or about the consequences of their failure? No doubt the man himself will answer that question expensively in his book this autumn, though not in a way that will change the country’s scornful view of him.
As for that person at our table that night six years ago, I have only this to say: he said it and he was right. The mad, swivel-eyed loons were calling the shots then and have done so ever since, taking the country right to the brink today. But since he and his friend David Cameron knew it then, why didn’t they try to stop it? Was it because they didn’t know how, or because in the end, they didn’t really care?
If the person is reading and fancies actually sitting down to eat one night in the Boar, do get in touch. We’ve all got a lot to talk about.