By Andrew Gimson
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What is the point of Grant Shapps? If the Chairman of the Conservative Party can do nothing else, he ought at least to be able to put fresh heart into the Tory faithful. Yet in the eight months he has been Chairman (or technically speaking, Co-Chairman with Lord Feldman, who runs the business side of the party), I cannot find a single instance of Shapps managing to do this.
It is possible he will grow into the role: possible too that he has won golden opinions of which I have not heard. But it is also possible that Shapps has been given an extraordinarily difficult job, is never going to work out how to do it, and should be replaced by someone better able to cheer the Tory troops in the two years which remain before the next election.
On Saturday 9 March, Shapps addressed the ConHome Victory 2015 Conference, which was attended by a large number of Tory activists. He was by common consent the least interesting speaker of the day. He had nothing to say, and said it badly.
There was no sense of connection between the Chairman and his audience: no feeling that party members were being taken into his confidence and having their spirits raised by being offered a glimpse of the route which together they will tread to the sunlit uplands.
Shapps spoke instead of his success as a local campaigner. “How did I win?” he asked. “I got out there and knocked on doors.” This was an insult. Pretty much everyone in the room had knocked on doors. Shapps had somehow managed to suggest, no doubt unintentionally, that if only everyone worked as hard as he did, all would be well: the corollary being that if things went wrong, it would be the poor bloody infantry’s fault.
Anyone can have an off day. I decided to canvas opinion within the party. But the first person I consulted was a shire Tory who was still fuming over something Shapps had said in January, during a discussion on Radio Four about local councillors’ allowances.
Shapps said councillors should not be paid more: an entirely defensible point of view. But the Chairman proceeded to argue that councillors are volunteers, so if they were to get paid, you would have to starting paying volunteers in every walk of life, such as “scout leaders”.
Anyone but Shapps would have seen it was unwise to compare counsellors, who are elected and look after large sums of public money, with scout leaders, no matter how highly one may think of the latter.
The shire Tory happened himself to be a local councillor, and said: “This was an object lesson in how to alienate people who work hard for you. It was stupid, crass and means he’s not a pin-up among the councillor fraternity. He just gave the impression that they [the Tory high command] don’t really want to listen. They just want to tell people what hoops to jump through. They don’t want to hear what it’s like in the front line. The view from the shires is that basically people in the metropolitan elite aren’t really interested in what’s going on elsewhere.”
Shapps finds himself dismissed as a member of the elite even though he is not metropolitan. He was born in Watford, and went to Watford Grammar School and Manchester Polytechnic before setting up a printing firm. Part of his attraction, from the point of view of the Tory leadership, must be that he is not yet another Old Etonian who went on to read PPE, or indeed anything else, at Oxford. He sounds classless, and worked with great persistence to get himself elected for Welwyn Hatfield, where he lost to the sitting Labour MP by 1,196 votes in 2001 but won by 5,946 votes in 2005 and 17,423 votes in 2010.
On arriving at Westminster, he was quick to prove his value. As one close observer puts it: “He was very, very effective in Opposition – a good attack dog who put out press releases attacking Labour all the time. As shadow housing minister he backed localism. He came out of the expenses scandal very well. He was also one of the first MPs to have his own online forum and to go on Twitter. Nothing seemed to be too small for him.”
In 2010, Shapps became Minister of State for Housing and Local Government, and Quentin Letts, of the Daily Mail, even suggested he might be a future Tory leader. Many people began to think Shapps might make a good party chairman, but in retrospect it can be seen that to give him such a prominent role before he had developed an independent political persona was perhaps unwise. The energy and humility needed to deal with small things may or may not be accompanied by an ability to see the big picture, but in Shapps’s case appear not to be.
After Margaret Thatcher died, Andrew Neil asked Shapps: “Are you a Thatcherite?” The Chairman replied: “I think I probably am.”
Neil also asked: “Are you Chairman of a Thatcherite party?” Shapps replied: “We’re a Thatcher party, but we’re also a John Major party.”
Such feeble responses do not make Tory viewers feel proud that this man is their party Chairman. A Tory lady remarked of him: “It’s not even as if Grant appeals to young people.”
In confirmation of this, a young Tory activist who is currently employed by a think tank said of Shapps: “He’s very pro-active, to the point of being annoying. Obviously he attends every event, and works very hard, but there’s no flair to it and I don’t know what his core principles are. He doesn’t inspire me. I do think he’s been over-promoted.”
A senior Tory backbencher described Shapps as “able, extremely nice, but extraordinarily inexperienced for his present role”. Tory chairmen since the Second World War have included Lord Woolton, Lord Hailsham, Rab Butler, Iain Macleod, Lord Carrington, Willie Whitelaw, Peter Thorneycroft, Cecil Parkinson, Norman Tebbit and Chris Patten. The best chairmen have already been considerable figures when they were appointed.
Another long-serving Tory backbencher was less charitable: “We don’t want Muppets being the voice of the Tory Party, and that’s what we’ve got with Grant Yapps.”
This backbencher insisted, rather unkindly, that Shapps was becoming known as Yapps because of a tendency to yap, and added that “he called himself Michael Green for several years, for reasons no one entirely understands”.
In September 2012, soon after he became Chairman, it emerged that on HowToCorp, an online marketing company Shapps set up, he had indeed called himself Michael Green.
That curious detail is, it seems to me, irrelevant to the question of whether Shapps is capable of encouraging the Tory troops to get out and trounce their opponents. But the fact is that after an eight-month trial it looks most unlikely he is.
Any fair-minded observer would agree that inspiring the Tory footsoldiers is just now more difficult and more necessary than ever, given the shrinking size of the party, and the rise of UKIP. But that is why the Prime Minister should think again, and should appoint someone to the role who is already a big political figure. To leave Shapps there for the next two years would be to insult a party which already feels it has been insulted enough.