Published in Daily Mail
I have never met Nadine Dorries, but I feel as though I have. She radiates the sort of plain-speaking, unstuffy approachability which is rapidly becoming rather attractive to the disaffected and disillusioned masses – if the Farage Factor is anything to go by. I listened intently to her speeches on abortion 18 months ago – in particular her plea for the utterly common-sense safeguard of separating ‘independent’, NHS-funded counselling from the profit-making abortion providers. I watched with sadness as she was predictably pilloried by the left-liberal media, but I was appalled when she was treated worse by some of her own parliamentary colleagues – simply for having the temerity to inject a little reason into the irrational consensus that constitutes our apparently immutable abortion settlement.
If I’d been in her abused shoes, I might have been tempted to jet off to spend a few weeks with Ant & Dec in the jungle myself, if only out of a preference for piranhas over politicians.
For the past six months Nadine Dorries has sat on the green benches whip-less, as an independent MP, stewing in political purgatory as a punishment for not seeking permission to munch on witchetty grubs and kangaroo testicles. It was a rather disproportionate punitive action, to my mind: her unscheduled absence may have merited a slap on the wrist, but she has endured half-a-year in the Tory Party Guantanamo – no habeas corpus and no trial by her peers; just an interminable, depressing and isolated exile of unknown and unknowable duration.
Now that she’s safely back in the Tory fold, I’m free to write on the more concerning – not to say sinister – aspect of this story.
ConservativeHome alluded to sources which were adamant that the party whips were not the reason for Nadine’s prolonged exclusion from the parliamentary party: ‘The block is coming from Downing Street – especially Number 11,’ they disclosed. ‘Regular observers of Tory politics will know that the Chancellor and Nadine Dorries do not have the best of relationships,’ they added, with a wink.
The Spectator corroborated: ‘George Osborne was widely reported to have been resisting requests from the whips to end Dorries’ exile,’ they nodded.
So, while an impromptu appearance in I’m A Celebrity may have justified the initial act of suspension, her protracted torture was apparently at the haughty whim of George Osborne. A healthy, rehabilitative punishment became a destructive, petty, malicious and vengeful retribution, meted out arbitrarily, with no consideration for natural justice. And all because she called the Prime Minister and Chancellor ‘two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk’ who have ‘no passion to want to understand the lives of others.’
You may not agree with her; you may find her an irritating, arrogant, opinionated harridan – a kind of reincarnation of Doris Karloff, as Ann Widdecombe was once known; or the Tory equivalent of the frightful Socialist-feminist Harriet Harman. But, like her or not, Nadine Dorries was approved by the Conservative Party as a parliamentary candidate; democratically selected by her local Conservative association; freely elected by the people of Mid-Bedfordshire; and she happens to articulate a number of opinions which resonate very widely within the party and without.
George Osborne may not like being called a ‘posh boy’, but there’s no escaping the fact that he is a public-school-educated baronet, with considerable hereditary privilege; very rich, and very well connected.
Nadine is the daughter of a bus driver. She was brought up on a Merseyside council estate, educated at her local comprehensive, and became a nurse. She grasps more than most that the current Tory leadership is ‘slightly disconnected from the rest of the people who are working very hard for true Conservative values and cause.’
And so she is cast as ‘Right-wing’, which basically means hysterical, swivel-eyed and slightly mentally imbalanced. She is obsessed with eccentric ‘fringe issues’ like abortion, gay marriage, immigration, the EU and religion (specifically Christianity). The current leadership might want rid of her simply because she holds an inconvenient mirror up to their vacuous metro-political posturing. She is hardly helping their process of ‘modernisation’ and ‘brand decontamination’.
But her disgraceful treatment by George Osborne is nothing new: indeed, the Conservative Party leadership is acquiring something of a reputation for summary injustice. Last year they exiled their co-treasurer, the generous philanthropist Peter Cruddas, without any consideration of the veracity (or otherwise) of the media furore surrounding him. He had become an embarrassment, and so was swiftly terminated. Lord Ashcroft made it clear at the time that ‘the party’s wider treatment of Mr Cruddas does it no credit.’ Charles Moore went further: ‘What bastards they can be,’ he said of the Tory hierarchy.
You see, like Nadine Dorries, Peter Cruddas wasn’t part of the elite: he is the son of an alcoholic taxi-driver from Hackney, who left school with no qualifications. He became a lowly bank clerk, but worked damned hard to become a self-made millionaire. No privilege, no power, no influential contacts.
To the Tory elite, Peter Cruddas is a ‘barrow boy'; Nadine Dorries is ‘Mad Nad.’ Both are to be pitied and patronised, and, in the final analysis, both are completely expendable.
But they were not the first to endure the worst, and without amendment to the Conservative Party’s constitution, they will not be the last.
I can empathise with the frustrated exasperation of both – that of total impotence against an omnipotent and unfeeling machine – because I’ve been there. I was one of the parliamentary candidates sacked in 2005 by Michael Howard (the day after Danny Kruger in Sedgefield and a week before Howard Flight in Arundel and South Downs). Charles Moore defended me in The Spectator and Telegraph, and William Rees-Mogg commented on my case in The Times. In some ways, as Charles observed, my dismissal was the more unjust of the three: I was sacked for having defended the Act of Settlement in The Spectator two years before I was selected as a parliamentary candidate, in articles which had been commissioned by Boris when he was a vice chairman of the party, and which had also been approved by the then chief whip, David Maclean.
I had cleared all hurdles of approval: I had not only been approved by CCHQ, but doubly-approved. I’ve even got a copy of a letter from Michael Howard telling one of my future constituents what a fine MP I would make. So when I was ordered to resign, I dug my heels in.
It did no good, of course. The Hague reforms to the party’s constitution give the leader supreme power: when you disagree with him – whatever the merits or moral force of your argument – you can expect swift retribution, especially if you’re not part of the elite.
And the party leader can ride roughshod over the democratic rights and devolved powers of local associations, basically because they have none. In order to get rid of me, CCHQ had to put the entire Slough Conservative Association into ‘support status’ (i.e., sack them en masse). As Daniel Hannan MEP observed at the time: ‘Unlike the deselections of Danny Kruger and Howard Flight, whose Associations were pressured into backing the leader’s decision, thus preserving a modicum of legality, Adrian Hilton was backed by his local party. The only way to drop him was to dissolve the Slough Conservatives. This seems to me the most worrying thing of all. If a leader can arbitrarily squash someone he dislikes, without due process, we are concentrating an enormous amount of power in one man’s hands.’
I received a lot of support and sympathy from members of the 1922 Committee, and have kept all the correspondence. I’m intrigued to read now that they think they’ve established a new rule to prevent any recurrence of such abuses of power. They haven’t: the constitution remains unchanged.
I took the Conservative Party to the High Court a few weeks before the 2005 General Election, in order to clarify precisely where power lies in relation to candidates. If Howard Flight wasn’t going to do it, I felt someone had to. And Mr Justice Butterfield determined in his judgment that local associations have no constitutional powers over candidate selection: the Conservative Party Board is omnipotent. Of course, the ’22 could cause the leader some media embarrassment, but according to legal precedent, the backbench group is as neutered as a local association when it comes to candidate selection or any quest for justice.
The Hague reforms rendered the Conservative Party an unincorporated association. They were brought in to ensure there could be no repeat of the Neil Hamilton affair of 1997, when Conservative Central Office wanted him deselected, but the local association wanted him to represent them. After months of wrangling and media embarrassment, the seat was won by former BBC journalist Martin Bell.
As a consequence, CCHQ now has central authority over every aspect of the party’s functioning, including the power to appropriate constituency assets and cash, along with the ultimate authority to determine who may or may not stand as a Conservative candidate. This overturned the historic view that the party had no legal existence as such, and local associations were free to select their candidates. CCO’s function in the process was simply to weed out the mad, the bad and the sad; and certainly not to advance a particular type of candidate (of preferred gender, race or sexuality) over any other. This local autonomy meant that MPs and prime ministers had to woo and charm the party membership: now they can dismiss them with impunity as ‘dinosaurs’, ‘backwoodsmen’ or the ‘Turnip Taliban’.
No wonder Conservative Party membership is declining faster than the Church of England.
In a speech last year, David Cameron said: ‘I run an institution – the Conservative Party…’ This is something Margaret Thatcher could and would never have said: she was mindful and respectful of the party’s essentially ‘bottom-up’ democratic structure, having risen herself through it ranks on merit. David Cameron, despite all his Big-Society rhetoric of localism and devolution, is essentially a ‘top-down’ Tory, like George Osborne. Both have risen through privilege and networks of elite contacts.
There is no longer any separation of powers within the party by which natural justice may be dispensed. CCHQ is the office of the leader, and the Board is his executive arm. The autocracy is exacerbated when you elevate one of your best friends to the House of Lords and make him co-Chairman of the party. When grievances arise, the Board alone is tasked with determining whether volunteers (however senior) have been fairly treated or not. Like the military in Guantanamo, they act as interrogators, prosecutors, judges, and appeal judges. And when death sentences are imposed by the leader (or his elite friends), as executioners.
The trials are all held in private. In my case, I was not permitted to be accompanied, and the panel which sat in judgment upon me included those who sought my removal, and they called witnesses I could not cross-examine. Charles Moore referred to it as a ‘kangaroo Spanish Inquisition.’ Certainly, none of the guarantees of a fair trial were or need be observed: the Conservative Party has become a law unto itself, and we all know what Lord Acton said about absolute power.
The costs of pursuing justice within the Conservative Party are considerable – financially, physically and emotionally. I’m obviously now just a footnote to the 2005 General Election, but it’s a footnote with profoundly disturbing and manifestly ongoing consequences for people like Nadine Dorries and Peter Cruddas. Until the metro-political privileged elite stop treating associations like local franchises; until they open up the party structure so that ordinary members are once again empowered democratically to participate fully within the party; and until they restore natural justice to the heart of the constitution, there will be no Tory revival.