Thursday, February 21, 2008

Should you ever go back?

The list of prominent Tory casualties at the 1997 general election has become the stuff of political legend, culminating of course in the shock defeat of leader-in-waiting Michael Portillo which irrevocably changed the course of Conservative politics.

One of the less well-known Tory MPs to lose their seats, however, was Phillip Oppenheim, who served as a minister in the department of trade and industry and was also one of Chancellor Ken Clarke's closest parliamentary allies.

Phillip and I go back a fairly long way. From 1983-97 he was MP for the Derbyshire seat of Amber Valley where I live, and our paths crossed several times when I was a reporter on the Derby Evening Telegraph in the late 80s and early 90s.

Later, after I "went into the Lobby" we met up again and he invited me to a couple of legendary summer parties at his basement flat in Westminster. It was a nice gesture as by then I was working for the South Wales Echo and could not have been of any conceivable use to him in his career.

Since Phillip lost his seat and went off to run a Cuban cocktail bar, I have often wondered whether he would return to politics. This post, on his new blog, Party Political Animal seems to give a pretty unequivocal answer.

The post, published in response to the Derek Conway affair, questions what "1997 retreads" such as Conway and Andrew Mitchell achieved by going back into Parliament and earned him this characteristically charming rebuke from Mitchell.

On the point at issue, I happen to think Phillip is wrong. The likes of Conway, Mitchell and Greg Knight were all in their mid-to-late 40s when they lost their seats in '97, which is a bit young in my view to be thinking of abandoning your political career.

He is right to point out that the "retreads" have achieved little since returning in 2001 - but it is scarcely their fault that their party rendered itself so unelectable that it was unable to get back into power.

As far as his own case is concerned, Oppenheim was certainly young enough to have come back and made a big contrubution and, as one of the more socially liberal Tories, I think he probably would have been more comfortable on today's Tory frontbench than the one of ten years ago.

That said, such is the intensity of life at Westminster that, once you've been away, you do tend to get a bit of a feeling of "been there and done that" about the place. Indeed, I feel much the same way about the Lobby.

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