Monday, April 9, 2012

The spiceless diaries

Michael Spicer, an archetypal Tory Toff and leader of the influential 1922 Committee for nearly a decade, has just published diaries covering his 35-year political career. Reviewers says the new book gives a well-placed insider’s view of the Thatcher years, and of how the Maastricht rebels, of which Spicer was one, seriously challenged John Major’s government. The Spectator, though, says the diaries lack ‘colourful phrase or telling detail’ and are ‘comically unilluminating’.

Spicer was born in Bath, into an army family, and was educated at private school before studying economics at Cambridge. He worked as a financial journalist on Fleet Street, and then, from the mid-1960s to 1980, in economics research. In 1967, he married Patricia Ann Hunter (they have three children). A year earlier, he had first stood for election to Parliament. He failed then and in 1970 as well, before being elected at the 1974 general election. He represented South Worcestershire until 1997 when the constituency was abolished, and then West Worcestershire until his retirement in 2010.

After the Conservative Party came into power in 1979, Spicer was appointed a Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Department of Trade; from 1984, he was a junior minister in the Department of Transport and the Department of Energy, before being promoted in 1990 to Minister of State at the Department of Environment. However, that same year, he lost his ministerial position with the ousting of Thatcher.

Spicer also served in various other roles: deputy chairman of the Conservative Party; chairman of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee in the House of Commons; and, between 2001 and 2010, chairman of the 1922 committee (which, among other things, presides over the election of party leaders). He was knighted in 1996, and given a peerage in 2010 (Baron Spicer of Cropthorne). Further biographical information can be found at Wikipedia or the BBC; and some information on his voting records and expenses claims is available on the They Work For You website.

Biteback Publishing has just published The Spicer Diaries. It says of Spicer that he is ‘one of the most talented and influential Conservative politicians of his generation’. It advertises the new book with quotes from Michael Dobbs, Julian Fellowes and Ann Widdecombe. ‘Michael Spicer is the sort of politician who helps bring a fresh shine to the concept of public service,’ says Dobbs, ‘these diaries are filled with wit, insight and honesty.’ Widdecombe adds that Spicer is a writer and diarist of ‘consummate skill’ and that the book is ‘a rare gem of a political diary’. Fellowes says: ‘Only an informed citizen can explain a strange country, and Michael Spicer treats us to an expert’s view not just of the intrigues and rivalries and hilarities of the Thatcher years, but of that more than strange and endlessly fascinating country called Parliament.’

Andrew Gimson in The Spectator, however, explains that Spicer ‘is too honourable to be a brilliant diarist and that the diaries read like the history of a regiment written by one of its most loyal officers.’ Elsewhere in the review, he notes that Spicer ‘seldom records the colourful phrase or telling detail which would bring a scene alive’ and that he is ‘comically unilluminating’.

The most spicy bit of news The Daily Telegraph - which published substantial extracts from The Spicer Diaries in March - could find in the book was about Baroness Thatcher and how she had confided in Spicer that she would not have gone into politics if she had ‘had her time over again’ because of what it had done to her family. The newspaper says ‘the book gives a well-placed insider’s view of the Thatcher years, including the Falklands War, the Brighton Bomb and her departure in 1990 when she was hounded out of office by her own party.’

Peter Stanford, after interviewing Spicer - the ‘Tory Toff’ - for the Telegraph says of the diary: ‘It is perfectly turned, often witty, and revealing of three significant chapters in the recent history of the Conservative Party - his “short, intense time” around the 1983 election as Margaret Thatcher’s parliamentary private secretary; his central role among the Maastricht rebels who did so much to destabilise John Major’s government in the 1990s; and his chairmanship of the 1922 Committee when, in nine years in the 2000s, he oversaw an unprecedented three leadership elections that finally produced an election winner in David Cameron.’

Here are a few extracts from The Spicer Diaries.

20 December 1982
‘Stood in for CP [Cecil Parkinson] at Conservative Central Office party. Main job was to introduce PM to everyone. She was tired and therefore relaxed and at her most personable. For once got on rather well with her. She actually touched my arm at one point! CP, however, still furious with her performance at Cabinet. She had complained he was taking a week’s holiday over Christmas – skiing – whereas she claimed to be working herself the whole time. Drive down to Chequers with CP for election planning meeting. PM in abrasive form. Clearly does not want a general election until 1984. Sit next to PM at lunch at her request. Why me? Answer: earlier in the day it had been decided that I should replace Ian Gow [Thatcher’s PPS] on her tours round the country when he is in his constituency. Norman Tebbit [Employment Secretary] very much around; he is a favourite. He kept on warning me that unemployment would be the clinching issue. He sat on her other side.’

24 April 1989
‘Lunch at Downing Street with PM. Rather a relaxed atmosphere. At one point she exclaims, “Much to my horror I learnt from my hairdresser that all her sprays were foreign. I said I didn’t want anything but an English spray on my hair.” She is in one of her most protectionist moods.’

20 June 1995
‘Richard Ryder (government chief whip) comes up to me in the lobby. Despite his entreaties, PM will not see me. What this means is that trust has broken down between PM and a large section of his party. The end must be nigh for him; things can’t go on much longer like this - and it may be for the best now if he goes quickly. He may have decided to go already.’

22 June 1995
‘Major’s letter of resignation read out at the 1922 Committee; stand by for a week in which everyone lies through his teeth.’

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