Nicholas Soames is in the grip of powerful emotions. Words pour out of him during this interview. He feels very strongly that various people and institutions – Iain Duncan Smith, Liam Fox, Boris Johnson, the British press and the Conservative Party – have not behaved as they ought to behave.
Of IDS’s resignation he says: “I think he did it in a very gauche way, and I shall be having words with him next time I see him. He’s my friend, but what he did is very regrettable.”
Of Fox: “I’m ashamed that Liam Fox should have thought it necessary to write to the American ambassador, as if the President of the United States will breach the constitutional niceties. I hope that when the American President comes here he will make plain the views of the American Administration on what they believe to be good for security in western Europe, and peace, and prosperity.”
Of Boris: “I deeply regret the fact that he’s jumped ship.”
Of the press: ““I am quite confident that such is the attention span of the press, which makes a gnat look like an intellectual giant, that within a week you will have moved on.”
And of the effect of IDS’s resignation on the Conservative Party: “It’s not dangerous, but it’s a bloody nuisance, and it has destabilised an already fractious and not very well disciplined party, with a lot of new people to whom the concept of loyalty and sticking with it under fire appears to be in its infancy.”
The Europe issue is of profound importance to Soames, and helps to explain why he is so steamed up. He is committed to the cause of keeping Britain inside the European Union, and uses a vivid analogy to convey his frustration with the refusal of successive Tory leaders to confront their Eurosceptic opponents:
“If you have an Alsatian sitting in front of you, and it growls at you and bares its teeth, there are two ways of dealing with it. You can pat it on the head, in which case it’ll bite you, or you can kick it really hard in the balls, in which case it’ll run away. Successive Prime Ministers, and it’s not the present Prime Minister alone, have never understood that they have to take these people on.”
But in this conversation, held just before the Prime Minister’s Commons statement yesterday afternoon, we started with IDS, whose resignation on Friday night had surprised Soames as much as everyone else.
ConHome: “What do you make of this whole IDS business?”
Soames: “Well I tell you what I make of it is this. Nothing that I’m going to say is off the record, and I’m going to tell you the truth of what I think, OK, so it may not be popular.
“But I have known Iain Duncan Smith for a very long time. He was the ADC to the General in Rhodesia when my father [Christopher Soames] was the Governor. He was John Acland’s ADC, and a brilliant man he was.
“He was an honourable, straightforward, decent soldier. My father christened him Iain Drunken Smith because he wouldn’t drink. He had all the young gentlemen to dinner and Duncan Smith wouldn’t drink.
“So I’ve known him since then and my parents were very fond of him, and that counts for something with me.
“And I liked him, the little I knew of him, and I could see he’d done a very good job, and the next time I see him, he’s in the Houses of Parliament, where he comes in representing the ferret stranglers’ seat of Chingford.
“And we’re not on the same wing of the party, we’ve always had a cordial relationship, I did not want him to be the leader of the party, and I did not think it was a successful leadership, personally I think it was crazy, like a fox, that he tried to do it, but anyway he did, and you know, he did his best, you can’t fault him on his effort.
“And then he goes off and he has a damascene experience, which presumably the vile reptiles laugh at, that he went to Gallowgate and those terrible housing estates, and I know them quite well, because I fought a Glasgow seat in the ’79 election, I fought Glasgow Clydebank so I know exactly what he saw, and I’m not as good a man as he is, because I didn’t do anything about it, which he did.
“He came back to London, all fired up, and he set up the Centre for Social Justice, with that wonderful lady Philippa Stroud, who I think is tremendous, and I think they’ve achieved a great deal.
“He volunteers out of a sense of – again, these are all words that people loathe now and laugh at – but it was a high sense of public duty, to come back into the government, rather in the same way that Alec Home came back as Foreign Secretary, he came back to do this one job.
“So I can’t tell you – because I’m just a very junior humble backbencher, and I know nothing of what goes on in the gilded inner things of the Government, any more than anyone else does who isn’t there – I had no idea he and the Chancellor didn’t get on – I always thought and know the Prime Minister had a very high regard for IDS, what he’d done.
“And so what happened on Friday evening came to me as a shock, and I didn’t realise it was all so bloody difficult
“I have to say, I am surprised at the way it happened. And it seems to me that if you are a big, grown-up man – and he was a serving soldier, he felt the whistle and crack of the enemy’s displeasure – you can sit down at a table with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor and say, ‘I want you to know that unless you sort this out, I am going to resign.’
“So I on the one hand am very sad to see him go, but I’m very displeased at the way that it’s happened. I do not believe it had anything to do with Europe.
“I do not believe that Duncan Smith is in any way a dishonourable human being. He’s on the hard right of the party and I’m on the soft left, and I’m a profound pro-European and he’s a profound anti, but he always has been.
“So the people in the Tory Party who are Outers will try to work this thing up as being, nudge nudge, wink wink, really about Europe. It’s got F— All to do with that.
“And it’s quite clear from his interview on Andrew Marr that that was the case. I thought it was a formidable performance, a formidable performance, and I believed every word of it.”
ConHome: “How dangerous is it?”
Soames: “It’s not dangerous, but it’s a bloody nuisance, and it has destabilised an already fractious and not very well disciplined party, with a lot of new people to whom the concept of loyalty and sticking with it under fire appears to be in its infancy.
“So I think it’s been a damned nuisance, and that’s the point. And I want the Prime Minister to come to the House of Commons today, and reset the north star on the compass, and refind true north, tell it the way it is, and then we’re going to get on with it.
“And I think the Conservative Party has got to take a rain check. Some of our colleagues, I mean over the weekend on the television I saw a young man called Mr McPartland, and another woman called Miss Allen, neither of whom I’m conscious of ever having seen before in my life, talking in the most unbelievable terms about the Government.
“They completely seem to forget the extraordinary triumphs of the Chancellor on the economy, the Government’s success on the academies, on welfare. What other government since 1948, including Lady Thatcher, has managed to get a grip of the welfare state?
“It’s got great credit to it in home affairs, in social reform, policing, education, I mean it’s an extraordinary government, and it can and will go on to be an extraordinary government.
“This is what my father would have called a kick in the gullet, these are inconveniences, what did Harold Macmillan say, these are little local difficulties.
“And of course we live in a 24-hour world. So I read the press today, and you know, I sometimes wonder which country I’m living in. Read the Mail. It’s absolutely fantastic. You’d have thought there’d been a coup by a black African dictator. It’s just absolute f***ing nonsense.
“A minister has resigned in unusual circumstances. He hasn’t been found rogering a guardsman in Hyde Park or stealing stuff. He’s resigned on a point of principle.
“And that of course is beyond the press.”
Soames: “It is beyond the press. It’s done because he feels he can no longer do it. But I think he did it in a very gauche way, and I shall be having words with him next time I see him. He’s my friend, but what he did is very regrettable.”
ConHome: “What do you think about Boris joining the…”
Soames: “I love Boris. He’s a great friend of mine. When Boris wrote that book about my grandfather [Winston Churchill], I think he did a brilliant job.
“I love him for everything that he is, and I love him for his failings as well as his triumphs. I deeply regret the fact that he’s jumped ship.
“I know for a fact he’s not an Outer, because he told me, and I think that he went through agony to come to this decision, and that’s his look-out, but I spoke to him, actually from the carpark at Ascot Race Course, where I was about to go and enjoy a nice day’s steeplechasing, and it was on the day before he announced, he announced on the Sunday, and he was under great personal pressure, and he said ‘You don’t know how awful this is’, and I’m not Diogenes, I’m afraid, I take people as they say it, and I think he was under great pressure. And I think he came down on the wrong side.”
Another subject occurred to Soames: “I’m terribly interested in ConservativeHome. I think it’s got very good journalists and I think it writes very well. But you keep banging on about the Conservative Party. Now what is the Conservative Party? I don’t know how many members it’s got. But I mean it’s tiny. It’s absolutely minute.
“You show me how many parliamentary constituencies have more than 1,000 members. One, two? I’ve got 500 members [in Mid Sussex], and I’ve got a majority of 24,000. I do not believe I am in Parliament to govern for the Conservative Party. I am genuinely a One Nation Tory, always have been, and I wholly support the Prime Minister. What is the party? It’s 200,000 very old people.”
ConHome: “One hundred thousand, I think.”
Soames: “OK, but the population of this country is 70 million. The Tory Party is not Britain. It is a political party.
“I’m not dissing them, I love them, I grew up in it, and my own association are absolutely marvellous, they’ve supported me through thick and thin, I’ve never had a cross word with them ever, and I wouldn’t be a Member of Parliament without them.
“But the idea that the whole of this thing we’re trying to do is about the Conservative Party is not true. It’s about the nation. That’s what I’m trying to say. This is going to read so badly.”
ConHome: “No it’s not. I’m interested in how worked up you are.”
Soames: “I am worked up about it. Because I think we could throw away something really amazing. I think this is one of the great reforming governments in this country, and it’s got a long way to go. And suddenly one of the great architects and leaders of it has butted out, and I’m really upset about that.”
ConHome: “But you still look at some of the newspapers?”
Soames: “I read them every day, but they just drive me to drink. The Daily Mail’s a fantastic newspaper, unbelievably successful. But I violently disagree with everything that it stands for, just about everything. And yet I’m a staunch Conservative.
“But you look at a man like Dacre. Paul Dacre must be one of the greatest editors Fleet Street’s had for years. Amazing man. Spends his whole life talking about fat cats. He had two boys at Eton! And he owns a deer forest in Argyllshire! How dare he! I can’t stand the cant. You’re going to have fun with this, aren’t you. I just think the hypocrisy of the whole thing is rank, rank.”
ConHome: “Have you recently started tweeting a lot more?” Soames’s tweets have a unique flavour, especially his hashtags: #wrongthingtodo, #steadyupkeepthefaith, #makethebestofit, #gatheryeroses, #infuriatingforpassengers.
Soames: “Do you know, I never tweeted until I had dinner with two of my favourite Members of Parliament, the wonderful Margot James and Karen Bradley, who is a Home Office minister. I find it a discipline, to have to say it in 140 letters. Brevity is a wonderful thing. I go sort of feast and famine on it.”
ConHome: “On Sunday you retweeted something Thomas Aquinas said: ‘Friendship is the source of the greatest pleasures, and without friends even the most agreeable pursuits become tedious.’”
Soames: “Friendships matter very much in the House of Commons. And that’s why I think it’s a pity in our own party, you know when I came here [in 1983], we were all much closer together, much more bound together even if we disagreed. We all tended to pull together.
“The Chancellor went to the ’22 last Wednesday, after the Budget, and I shouldn’t think there were 60 people there. I’m not sure whether it’s because so few of them have been in the Army [in which Soames served as a young man]. When I joined there were still in the Whips’ Office two people who’d been ashore on D-Day.”
ConHome: “Europe you obviously care very deeply about.”
Soames: “Yes I do.”
ConHome: “The comparison with the 1975 referendum is interesting. Not many people now speak of Europe as a noble cause, which some of the war generation did.”
Soames: “Will you let me give you a copy of the speech I made in the European Affairs debate? That says it all. Our whole political discourse no longer carries any reference to what went before. And I grew up in an era, and in a household, where history mattered and where it was a beacon and a reference point for how you went forward.
“It is so historically important for Britain to be part of the European Union. Europe is so much more than milk and money. I know how irritating it is, and I know in parts how badly run it is. I know all of that.”
Again Soames leapt to another aspect of the subject: “I think it’s very important the American President coming here. I’m ashamed that Liam Fox should have thought it necessary to write to the American ambassador, as if the President of the United States will breach the constitutional niceties.
“I hope that when the American President comes here he will make plain the views of the American Administration on what they believe to be good for security in western Europe, and peace, and prosperity. He has every right to say so, and I commend to you John McCain’s statement – a man whom Liam Fox regards as a hero, on the hard right of the Republican Party, absolutely adamant that Britain has to stay.”
“This is the single most important political decision that’s going to be taken in my lifetime. I’m coming to the end of my political life [Soames is 68], and I am going to do whatever I can to hopefully persuade my fellow citizens that they must vote to stay in the European Union, even if they have to hold their nose doing so.”
ConHome: “Was it a mistake to have this referendum?”
Soames: “Well what is the point in giving a hostage to fortune when you don’t need to?
ConHome: “Well Cameron probably did need to.”
Soames: “There are two ways in my view to deal with this. If you have an Alsatian sitting in front of you, and it growls at you and bares its teeth, there are two ways of dealing with it. You can pat it on the head, in which case it’ll bite you, or you can kick it really hard in the balls, in which case it’ll run away.
“Successive Prime Ministers, and it’s not the present Prime Minister alone, have never understood that they have to take these people on, and that if you really believe that Europe is Britain’s destiny, and we have to be part of the European Union, then you should always say so.”
ConHome: “If when he gave that Bloomberg speech…”
Soames: “I thought the Bloomberg speech was absolutely excellent.”
ConHome: “It wasn’t exactly kicking the Alsatian in the balls.”
Soames: “No it wasn’t. But I thought it was a bloody good speech. It had a construction, an architecture and a plan. But we got off the plan a bit.”
ConHome: “Well the plan was to say to the Eurosceptics, look, you can have your referendum, but I’m going to win it… Incidentally, how do you feel about being the centrepiece of a satirical column on ConHome?
Soames: Oh well I adore Reggie. No, no, no, I regard it as a tremendous honour. I don’t think I’ve ever been mentioned on ConservativeHome except in his column.”
As Soames rushed off to the Chamber, he offered a final thought about the IDS affair: “I am quite confident that such is the attention span of the press, which makes a gnat look like an intellectual giant, that within a week you will have moved on. Meanwhile, this is the story, and it is a minor bump in the road of delivery of this great programme of reform.”