Andrew Kennedy is the Group Agent & Campaign Director in West Kent. He blogs at Diary of a Conservative Party Agent, and writes here in a personal capacity.
The post of Chairman of the Conservative Party is widely regarded as a poisoned chalice. The appointment is the personal gift of the Party Leader, but the holder of the office must balance many competing demands: from managing the finances and creative chaos at CCHQ, motivating and enthusing the voluntary party in the country, and defending the Party’s public image and reputation in the media – whilst always maintaining the Party Leader’s confidence and support. It is a broad skill-set possessed by few including, sadly, several of those who have held the office.
The first Conservative Party Chairman (from 1911-1916), was Arthur Steel-Maitland, and there have been 43 since, with an average term in office of just two years and four months. This average tenure is extended, however, by six Chairmen who were in situ for five plus years: remove them from the calculation, and the average term is just over 18 months. With such short periods at the helm, it is little wonder that so few have made any lasting impact, and that one or two are not even remembered.
During my time in the Party (as a volunteer or agent), I have “served” under 23 of them, starting with Peter Thorneycroft during the late 1970s (yes, I started young). It is these Chairmen I am going to examine, and they tend to fall into three categories.
Consolidators: These were largely post-election appointees with a remit to ‘calm things down’ after a period of upheaval, and ensure that internal housekeeping was done before the campaign to come. I would include in this group John Gummer, Peter Brooke, Caroline Spelman, Norman Fowler and Cecil Parkinson (the second time around – he is, to my knowledge, the only person to be appointed Party Chairman by two different leaders).
Campaigners: Attack dogs with a good campaigning reputation to put the Party on a war footing, and see it through a General Election. Norman Tebbit, Chris Patten, Brian Mawhinney and Cecil Parkinson on his first incarnation).
Reformers: These are fewer in number, and often their zeal for reform came after their appointment, along with an understanding of what really needed to be done. I would place Francis Maude into this group and, of course, Andrew Feldman. But the greatest and most successful reformer of all must have been Lord Woolton (who was Chairman between 1946 and 1955). I think it is no surprise that both Feldman and Woolton had similar backgrounds. Both were very successful businessmen before getting involved politically. Both were brought into CCO/CCHQ with the specific task of reshaping it after a difficult period of decline and, perhaps most importantly, neither felt constrained by past emotional connections or misplaced loyalties to a Party structure clearly not fit for purpose.
So, putting aside the present incumbent and all those whose tenure predates my own involvement, who were the great Party Chairmen of my time, and why? The following list is mine alone, though in compiling it I sought the views of my blog readers and I am grateful to several senior members of the National Convention who shared their own thoughts in confidence. So, in no particular order:
Norman Tebbit: He was a rottweiler, and during the mid-1980s he appealed to the heart and soul of Thatcher’s Britain, and to the new generation of Party activists. His political skills were then at their strongest, and his narrative successfully hit its target audience. He oversaw a sharpening of CCO’s printed and broadcast message. “The Next Moves Forward” campaign gave new direction and purpose to a Government fighting its third election and in danger of looking tired. It is a shame that the biographies and history books have focused on his 1987 rows with Lord Young and on Margaret Thatcher’s “wobbles” mid campaign, which damaged their relationship.
Andrew Feldman: David Cameron’s friend and loyal lieutenant, he took over a party in financial collapse, restored its balance sheets to the black, reformed CCHQ and gradually won the grudging respect of the membership, despite one or two own goals. He clearly had no political ambitions of his own, and took on a difficult role as a favour to his friend. Over time he grew in confidence and stature. By the time I contributed to his Party Review, he was on top of his game, and knew exactly where we needed to go. It is a shame his early departure led to a watering down of those changes, and I fear the Party will live to regret that. I was pleased when every mention of his name in Birmingham drew warm and much deserved applause.
Kenneth Baker: He took on the role in the darkest days of the 1987 government during the poll tax riots, and whilst the government was tearing itself apart over Europe and the leadership. His confident and optimistic media performances provided hope and stability, and his handling of the 1990 local election meltdown, by focusing the media’s attention on the only two good results in the UK (Wandsworth and Westminster) was nothing short of genius. By co-incidence, I greatly look forward to welcoming Lord Baker to West Kent this coming Thursday.
Chris Patten: A man whose intellect and moderate demeanour made him an unlikely choice for an election Chairman, but who is widely acknowledged for delivering a victory few of us expected in 1992. “Labour’s Double Whammy”, “Labour’s Tax Bombshell” and “gobsmacked” are the three defining phrases of that campaign, which was ruthlessly “on message” and waited for Labour to implode.
Francis Maude: I believe that Maude’s tenure is overlooked and under-rated. He came in at a bleak period, after two dreadful election defeats, and had the courage to speak truth to those who probably didn’t wish to hear it. He recognised that the Conservative Party’s image at that time was so bad that “it was damaging good conservative policies”, and he implemented a series of reforms which not only paved the way for Cameron’s leadership, but also changed the party’s position and image, which was necessary for it to win in 2010.
The above list ,however, excludes the man who, for me, was the greatest Party Chairman of them all, even though he died two years before I was born. Lord Woolton took over a battered, bewildered and defeated Conservative Party in 1946 and remained its Chairman until 1955. His nine years at the helm was the longest ever term for one individual in the office. He reformed constituency finances, widened party membership, raised the money to recruit and train a new generation of agents, reformed parliamentary selections, limited the amount that parliamentary candidates could donate to just £25 – thus reducing the tendency to select only wealthy men – and in doing so forcing Associations to widen their base and seek new support. He strengthened the Research Department, launched the Young Conservatives and brought in major reform at local level by renewing the Party’s local government selection rules.
Lord Woolton realised that political parties could only rebuild and reconnect from the bottom up, not the top down: a lesson we should remember today as the political establishment reels from the victories of those who seek to “drain the swamp” and “take back control”.