Monday, August 13, 2007

Redwood and the Reverse Midas Touch

One of the very best books ever published about the decline and fall of the Tories between 1992 and 1997 was Guilty Men, written by Hywel Williams who was John Redwood's special adviser at the Welsh Office between 1993 and his resignation to challlenge for the Tory leadership in 1995.

Despite that previous working relationship, or perhaps even because of it, the book is not written from an especially pro- or anti-Redwood perspective. But what it does demonstrate is that most of the political enterprises with which the Wokingham MP has been associated have ended in failure.

I have met Redwood a few times, notably when I was doing the Lobby job for the South Wales Echo in the mid-90s, and while he is clearly an intensely intellectual person who finds it hard to descend to the level of ordinary mortals, the overall impression one comes away with is of a fairly decent human being.

But for all his decency and for all the genuineness of his convictions, Redwood has throughout his political career demonstrated the Reverse Midas Touch, ie everything he touches turns to shit.

Redwood's public reputation has never really recovered from that period in the early 1990s when he became the Tony Benn figure to John Major's Harold Wilson - an ideological maverick who behaved as if collective Cabinet responsibility did not apply to him, used left-leaning Wales as a test-bed for loony-right policies, and finally launched an opportunistic challenge for the leadership.

Call it being wise after the event, but I knew instinctively that Ken Clarke's 1997 leadership bid was doomed the minute he teamed up with Redwood in an attempt to block William Hague. Most Tory MPs thought it was more important to stop Redwood becoming Shadow Chancellor than to stop an untried and untested 36-year-old being handed the poisoned chalice of the Tory leadership at a time when Tony Blair was carrying all before him.

Hague, to his credit, realised that Redwood reminded the voters of the worst aspects of the Major years and sacked him from the Shadow Cabinet after a year, although his decision to replace him as Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary with the business guru turned failed politician Archie Norman was scarcely one of his most inspired appointments.

So, at a time when David Cameron as leader is trying to undo all the damage of that baleful period and reposition the Conservatives on the political centre ground, his decision to hand Redwoood the task of presiding over a policy review on business taxation and regulation policy has to go down as yet another strategic blunder.

There may be merit in some of his proposals. Much health and safety legislation, for instance, is as burdensome and annoying to the customer as it undoubtedly is for the businesses themselves.

On the other hand, making it easier for firms to make people redundant is absolutely the last thing we need in a country riven by job insecurity - the biggest single reason, in my view, why in spite of our increased prosperity, we are generally much less happy than we were 30 years ago when the British economy was regarded as a basket-case.

But that is not really the point. The point is that someone who is seen by the electorate as emblematic of Toryism's darkest hour and who was presumed politically dead and buried, has popped up wraith-like to remind them of exactly why they rejected the party in the first place.

The Tories will not like the comparison - but it is as if Neil Kinnock, at the start of his crusade to modernise the Labour Party in the mid-80s and wrest control from the loony left, had asked Benn to chair a review of party policy. The idea is as laughable as it is preposterous.

But the controversy over Redwood's tax cutting plans is symptomatic of a wider problem for Mr Cameron, in that, in contrast to New Labour during the 1994-97 period, the policy review process he has initiated is not under the control of the leadership.

This is the second one in succession, following Iain Duncan Smith's report on social policy which recommended restoring marriage to the heart of the tax system, which has presented the Tories as retreating into a right-wing comfort zone at a time when Gordon Brown is determined to drive them off the centre-ground.

Bizarrely, Cameron seems to view the job of chairing policy reviews as some sort of long-service reward for party grandees and figures from the past such as Redwood, IDS and Clarke rather than acting as central drivers of the party's modernisation programme.

He now needs to do two things. Firstly, ensure that all future such reviews come under the direct control of his office, and secondly, ensure that John Redwood and all other vestiges of the failed Major era are finally put out to grass.

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Matt Wardman said...

>failed Major era.

That's a phrase I have never quite got my head around.

Perhaps it can be attached to the first 2 years, but after that did he not lay the foundations for those successes (N Ireland, economic growth etc) which we have seen since. And in a far more difficult political environment.


ted harvey said...

I have to say that Redwood conveys an image as one of the oddest individuals in the British political arena. I watched him a few days ago in an ill-advised mini-scene for the TV news cameras. He was supposedly perusing his recently published British economy report.

What came across were the strange wobbly way he juts his head around and his quirky little silent expressions. So long as that is how he comes across, his undying image will be that horrendous scene where he stood clueless as the Tory Welsh Secretary among a gathering in Wales trying to mouth the words of the Welsh anthem that he so clearly did not know.

Of much more importance is the fact that he is once again a contender for major office. This can only spell significant trouble for the Tories - are they really so keen to revisit the past scenes of bloody internecine warfare; for Redwood is indeed a truly divisive figure.

It reminds my of the comments of a prominent right-wing commentator writing in one of the Sunday quality newspapers after he had been out of the country at the time of the Tory party leadership election that Redwood stood in. The writer was openly grateful for his luck in being out of the country lest he too would have been taken up by the nonsensical group-think among many Tories that started out as seeing Redwood as a serious contender for leadership.

Tim J said...

It's an interesting point - Redwood has always been political death. But is it possible that in this case his kryptonite touch might be alleviated? Redwood is an intensely intellectual chap - fellowship at All Souls and all that, but communication has never been his forte.

But if Cameron and Osborne, who are accused of being hazy on details, take over the job of presentation, couldn't the Tories accrue the benefits of Redwood's eye for detail (thereby avoiding the 'your sums don't add up' line) as well as Cameron/Osborne's presentation (thereby alleviating the 'this is a ghastly lurch to the right' angle). Just a thought.

Matt Wardman said...

>What came across were the strange wobbly way he juts his head around and his quirky little silent expressions.

I find such superficial judgements depressing. Did you even consider listening to what he was saying?

Would you make such a snap judgement because someone was female, or black or in a wheechair?

Frankly, I expect better.

Norfolk Blogger said...

I saw Redwood at a debate in 1996 at Warwich university where he had come to debate with Leon Britian about Britain and the EUOn every single poitn Redwood was shown to be wrong and he lacked the abolity to express his views. Only a few die hard Conservative Students applauded his every line.

Captain Spaulding said...

"Bizarrely, Cameron seems to view the job of chairing policy reviews as some sort of long-service reward for party grandees and figures from the past such as Redwood, IDS and Clarke rather than acting as central drivers of the party's modernisation programme."- Very good point.

I didn't think that the Tories would actually implode before, but now that Redwood has been let off his leash, I think it could happen by the end of this week.

He will apparently go back on a lot of Dave's environmental stuff, thereby making him look a fool. Committing the Tories to renegotiating key EU treaties will be politically impossible for centrist Tories and he is going much further to the right in this respect than even Hague or Howard.

skipper said...

Agree Redwood has the kiss of death somehow bestowed on him at birth but I agree also he seems a decent guy when giving interviews. Also, I can never quite escape having a liking for cricket enthusiasts, and redwood is certainly one of those. Dawkins would upbraid me for my superstitious belief in a mere sport. Oh he of little faith...

Ted Harvey said...

matt wardman, and can you now re-read my posting, especially the bit beginninng "Of much more importance"?

And please, don't make any more such 'superficial judgements', frankly I expect better (than 'oh we must not comment on anything that we actually feel or observe about each other as sentinent beings, it would be too depressing')).

Matt Wardman said...

>matt wardman, and can you now re-read my posting, especially the bit beginninng "Of much more importance"?

Hi Ted - ran across this thread again.

I did read your posting carefully, and I still can't find a word addressing the content of what he actually said - rather than what you think about his appearance and your views about his "image".