“Lidington is one of the guilty men in this process.” These words, spoken by Iain Duncan Smith, leaped from the pages of yesterday’s Sunday Times.
It is astonishing, and until recently would have been inconceivable, to hear such abuse, flung anonymously in 1940 against Neville Chamberlain and other supporters of appeasement (Michael Foot was one of the three authors), directed by a fellow Conservative MP at the loyal, amiable, capable, self-effacing and unmemorable David Lidington.
Keith Simpson, who has known Lidington since they worked as ministerial advisers in the late 1980s, said of him this weekend: “I don’t think he’s got an enemy in the House of Commons.”
But Lidington, a Remainer who is conventionally described as “Deputy Prime Minister in all but name”, now finds himself suspected, by some Eurosceptics, of colluding with Labour MPs to try to bring about a second EU referendum.
This site yesterday warned of the danger of an “SDP Mark Two” being built from the top down, and remarked of Lidington that “for such a lifelong Conservative – a Tory to his bones – to collude in discussing realignment [with Labour MPs] would surely be several steps too far”.
Lidington responded to the coverage of him in the Sunday press by tweeting, “I listen to views of MPs on all sides of EU debate”, and referring to the opposition he expressed in the Commons last Tuesday to a second referendum.
And one of his Cabinet colleagues yesterday afternoon remarked to ConHome that if Duncan Smith were Prime Minister, Lidington, “a quintessential party loyalist”, would work as hard for him as for any other Conservative leader.
Helping the present Prime Minister get her deal through the Commons entails finding out how Labour MPs might vote, being told by some of them that they yearn for a second referendum, and then putting it to them that since they are not going to get one, they would surely prefer to vote for May’s Withdrawal Agreement rather than allow Britain to crash out of the EU with no deal.
Or as Lidington’s ministerial colleague put it:
“He is not a plotter. He would go to hell and explain to Satan that dominion over all creation is not on offer, and in the absence of that, could we please come to a satisfactory arrangement on the future of Dr Faustus.”
But May’s Cabinet is so divided that any talks held out of the public eye are in danger of being seen as suspicious. A former colleague says of Lidington:
“I did notice how even before Chequers in July he was doing a lot of flying around Europe without the knowledge of Boris Johnson or David Davis.”
Lidington accumulated a detailed knowledge of other European capitals while serving as Minister for Europe from 2010-16, a post he had also shadowed in Opposition. This is one of many reasons why he is so valuable to May. He knows the European issue inside out, and like her is a Remainer who has publicly accepted the referendum result.
This should not, however, be allowed to define his whole identity as a politician. He is a One Nation Tory, a devout Anglican (though born a Congregationalist) who is a man of moral seriousness. In his maiden speech, he quoted Edward Gibbon’s damning verdict on one of his best-known predecessors, John Wilkes:
“A thorough profligate in principle as in practice … His life stained with every vice and his conversation full of blasphemy and bawdy.”
No praise here for Wilkes as “the father of civil liberty” (as Boris Johnson wrote in an admiring essay). Lidington is the sort of Tory who turns out to have rather stern views, as he showed during the debate on the legalisation of same-sex marriage:
“I think that marriage is such an important institution in our society that its definition should not be altered without an extremely compelling case for doing so. The Bill’s supporters have argued that the definition of marriage has changed over the years, citing the institution of civil marriage in the nineteenth century and changes to the age at which a person may legally marry. But that is to ignore the fact that whatever changes have been made, the essential nature of marriage in this country and in Europe as a whole has been as a public institution that binds together one man and one woman, exclusively and permanently. Its purpose is not only to provide mutual love and commitment but also for the procreation and care of children.”
Born in 1956, the same year as the Prime Minister, he was educated at Haberdashers’ Aske’s School and at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he read history, chaired Cambridge University Conservative Association and in 1979 demonstrated his keen but wholesome competitive spirit by captaining the team from Sidney Sussex which won University Challenge.
This feat he repeated in 2002, when he led Sidney Sussex to victory in the “champion of champions” contest held to mark the 40th anniversary of the programme.
He had the intellect required for an academic career, and in 1988 received his doctorate for a thesis on “The enforcement of the penal statutes at the court of the Exchequer c.1558 – c.1576”.
But instead he entered politics, serving in the late 1980s as an adviser to Douglas Hurd at both the Home Office and the Foreign Office. At the 1987 general election he stood and lost in Vauxhall, and in 1992 he won the seat, Aylesbury, for which he still sits. He was able recently to tell his ministerial colleagues that unlike them, he was an MP at the time of Black Wednesday, and they could not have that level of chaos again, which – by implication – they would have in the event of no deal.
From 1994 Lidington served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Michael Howard, and from 1997 in the same capacity for William Hague. He shadowed various posts, including Northern Ireland (in which he has maintained a close interest), before being demoted by Cameron to the role of Foreign Affairs spokesman, outside the shadow Cabinet, followed by the long stint as Europe Minister.
The present Prime Minister is appreciative of merit never fully recognised by the Cameroons, and promoted Lidington to be Leader of the House and then Justice Secretary, before bringing him to Number Ten at the start of this year, when her friend Damian Green was forced to resign and Lidington took over as Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, though not as First Secretary of State.
“I am the man who stands on the stage spinning plates on the top of poles,” Lidington recently told The Spectator. “Every now and then the PM gives me another plate and I have to keep that going as well.”
In the same interview, given at the end of September, he supplied a curiously unclear answer when asked if he wants her to carry on: “She will decide, in due course, what she wants to do. But now, she is focusing on the task in hand.”
He chairs a large number of Cabinet committees, belongs to even more, and deputises for the Prime Minister in the Commons. When she is performing there, he can usually be seen on the left-hand side of the picture, looking cheerfully supportive, though in the last week or two he has appeared markedly less perky.
He has an impressive grasp of the issues in his constituency, is respected by his parliamentary neighbours, who include the Speaker, John Bercow, and is married to Helen, a primary school teacher. They have four grown-up sons.
Although Lidington is unknown to the wider public, and has betrayed no sign of charismatic tendencies, he is liked and trusted by his fellow Tory MPs. As Simpson observes, Lidington belongs to the Breakfast Club of Tories who gather each morning in the Members’ Tea Room, where he can be found fortifying himself with poached eggs on granary toast.
In Simpson’s words, “It’s like an RAF officers’ mess – no larks’ tongues in aspic for us.” There could be few better places to take the temperature of the parliamentary party, while showing one is without side. Regular attenders include Andrew Selous, Alec Shelbrooke, Gavin Williamson, Mark Spencer and two or three of the Scottish Tory MPs. Steve Barclay often comes in to get a coffee and chats for ten minutes.
According to The Times, Lidington belongs to a group of five Cabinet ministers – the others are Amber Rudd, Philip Hammond, David Gauke and Greg Clark – who lean “reluctantly” towards a second referendum if all other options are exhausted.
But despite the convulsions of the last 48 hours, he remains a highly respected figure, about whom encouraging as well as discouraging things are said. In Saturday’s Daily Mail, Peter Oborne ran through the runners and riders for the succession to May, before backing a complete outsider as far as the bookies are concerned (though in political terms, a complete insider):
“However, I believe that another Tory — one who shuns the limelight — is the favourite to be the next PM. I am referring to David Lidington.”