By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter.
A very senior Downing Street insider told me earlier this week that it, CCHQ, Conservative MPs and the media had underestimated the Adam Afriyie operation when news broke of his leadership ambitions: "We all did," he said. Today's news that Afriyie has hired Phil Hall, a former News of the World editor, to provide media advice confirms this. The self-made millionaire MP for Windsor isn't short of a bob or two, and is in a position to finance a big push. Afriyie has his supporters at Westminster. Bill Wiggin and Jonathan Djanogly seem to be well and truly signed up to Campaign Afriyie, and there is a circle of admirers that includes Mark Field and Patrick Mercer. But the dispositions of Tory MPs are notoriously tricky to read. I take claims of 40 signed-up backers with a pinch or two of salt.
What Afriyie has written and said so far show him as what he is – a successful businessman with straightforward Conservative views on how to revive the economy: higher tax thresholds, employers' NIC cuts, lower corporation tax, capital gains tax exceptions (though I would drop or downplay all the paperclips stuff were I him). The party undoubtedly needs more people with business experience in high places, and many of his ideas are attractive. His piece on this site earlier this week showed him taking a view on legislation for an EU referendum before 2015. I don't see him as a future party leader, though he played an admirable role in trying to halt the horrors of IPSA, and has provided a reliable shoulder for some of its victims to cry on. Downing Street and the Treasury will be watching his relations with them very closely.
In particular, claims that his back story would sway voters are wide of the mark – because there's no evidence that politicians' back stories make a big difference to voters: if it did, William Hague would have won in 2001. But what Afriyie's campaigning has done is put him in play for a slice of the future if the party goes into opposition in 2015. We will doubtless hear more from him after next week's elections. The mood of Conservative MPs is never less than mutable – so the post-Baroness Thatcher death improvement in relations between the Prime Minister and his backbenchers should be kept in perspective – and if the local election results are calamitous it is hard to predict what will happen (though a challenge to the Prime Minister is extremely unlikely).
Some Afriyie supporters and diehard opponents of Cameron are saying that any challenge before next year's European elections are mistimed – since UKIP will do very well, whoever leads the party – and that the time for change is after they've taken place. We will see.