I am a “disgusting”, one of the 160,000 Conservative Party members who will choose the next Prime Minister – and therefore part of the electoral arrangements that have been denounced as “disgusting” by every political commentator I have read and heard.
You, too, can be a “disgusting” for the modest sum of £25, the minimum subscription recommended when you join the Party, although you have to be a member for three months before you can vote on anything.
That means it’s too late now to exercise your preference and prejudices in the current contest between Boris, a two-bob Churchill in anyone’s money, and Jeremy, immediately dismissed as “Mrs. May Mark 2” – though that’s not going to stick in the coming days, as we witness a knock-out championship to rival anything seen since Charles Dickens’s Eatenswill by-election in Pickwick Papers, during which the Buffs and the Blues outdid each other in dirty tricks and blatant inducements to the voters.
During my 20 years at the BBC, staff were forbidden to be members of any political party. And quite right, too. The highest public office you were permitted to hold was that of parish councillor and so I became the Chairman of Somerleyton Parish Council on the Broads.
At the BBC, I was one of just five Tory-supporting employees, this limit being strictly enforced by an unwritten staff regulation that ensured the leftist orthodoxy of Corporation was never sullied.
So, I was allowed to be mildly right-wing while the other 27,995 staff were all lefties, to a greater or lesser extent. This secret statute of understanding, which is invisible in the BBC archives, and therefore deniable, must still be operative because the numbers in the Corporation now remain roughly the same.
I didn’t join the Party when I left the BBC to become a main board director of a large company. Because I had to deal with governments of alternate stripes, I decided that it would not be right. What I did do, though, was to oppose any donations to any party and, in my time, none was ever made.
But three years ago, and now running my own company, I joined my local constituency party in Suffolk. I wanted to work with anyone who was against the Conservative Party, once again, driving its ship towards a jagged rock called “Europe”, as it has done for the last 45 years.
I wanted to try to understand why a Party once renowned for pragmatism, common sense and loyalty to the leader was continuing to turn on itself and devour one leader after another.
That is why Michael Gove’s plaintive cry for “Unity”, during a BBC debate that was truly “disgusting”, was particularly hard to stomach, coming from a man who proudly claims to have devoted his political life to Brexit, but now asks his colleagues to come together on the very issue that has driven them apart. Where has he been all these years? Clearly not taking notice.
I seem to have joined the Party just in time to witness what may be its death throes. David Cameron’s referendum was entirely unnecessary. His reckless misjudgement was made even worse by his scuttling out of Downing Street just hours after the fateful count. The Conservatives have not had a good leader since Margaret Thatcher in 1989, when her cabinet colleagues disgustingly – there’s that word again – forced her out of office when she would have won the 1992 General Election at a canter, if only they had kept their heads. But Cameron is the worst, for sheer dereliction of duty.
This leadership contest might just save the country and the party. But it’s unlikely. I shall not decide which way to vote until I have given both candidates a fair hearing. I have never met Jeremy Hunt but he seems a decent bloke and reassuringly normal. I do know Boris Johnson slightly, which is quite sufficient.
One Friday morning, as I was about to leave London, the phone rang: “Michael, Michael, can you help me?” It was Boris. “You know I do this profile piece every Saturday on the back of The Telegraph?” I didn’t. He went on: “Could you be my interview for tomorrow? Could you?”
“I see”, I said to Boris. “Whoever you were planning to interview has let you down. And I am your ‘Plan B’, your substitute, right?” Boris burbled for a while but admitted I was right.
It was eleven o’clock. Because I was a daily journalist for 27 years, I decided to help him out. “But be here by noon,” I said. He was in Canary Wharf. I was in South Kensington.
His photographer came and went. So did noon. At 2.00 p.m. I called him. “Where am I?” he asked me. “I don’t know. I think I am on the District Line. Can you meet me at the station?”
It was like dealing with a child. If he’d had a satchel filled with half-eaten toffee apples and copies of the Beano, he could not have been more like an errant schoolboy, hoping to get away with it, again.
On another occasion, a charity asked me to stand by as their guest speaker because its founder had booked Boris but wasn’t sure he would turn up. He did, on his bicycle, just in time, spouting profuse apologies.
A prominent businessman, who after countless requests agreed to be interviewed by Boris, sent him away because his suit was filthy, with what looked like strange organisms growing in the creases. Boris admitted he had worn the suit every day for years and agreed that it was indeed “disgusting” – that word again – hoping his profuse apologies would charm the interviewee. They didn’t.
Can the Party of Peel, Salisbury, Churchill and Eden – the best-dressed statesmen of the 20th century, who created fashion with everything he wore – be succeeded by a man who cannot put his socks on properly?
The trouble is, women adore Boris, especially Tory women. They might not want to marry a serial womaniser who, according to his latest love, has no regard for money and is thoroughly spoiled, but they are captivated by Boris’s Man-Child Act: the pretence that he’s hopeless and helpless and only needs the love of the next good woman to make it alright again by tea-time.
Will his personality win the day? There have been many greater politicians who have grabbed the glittering prizes through charm, a way with words and the ability to sprinkle stardust that makes people feel privileged to know and vote for them. John Kennedy had this star quality' so did Bill Clinton to a lesser extent, with David Lloyd George and Benjamin Disraeli in British politics capable of turning pinchbeck into gold by the magic of their oratory.
Is a winning personality enough to win Boris Johnson the key to Number 10? Or would that be like putting a ten-year-old in charge of the family housekeeping? And what would the neighbours say – the Chancellor next door in Number 11, guarding the purse, not to mention the ones in Europe?
It’s now down to me and the other members. Don’t envy us the task. It is not easy