By Paul Goodman
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Michael Fallon's long media weekend began last Saturday afternoon when he got early notice of the Sunday Times's Peter Cruddas expose, and it ended last Monday evening with a Jeremy Paxman interview on Newsnight. Between the two, Fallon was grilled by Andrew Neil on the Sunday Politics, Dermot Murnaghan on Murnaghan, Jon Snow on Channel Four News…a strike force of interviewers as fearsome as the famous 1970s quartet of West Indies bowlers – plus others. Nor this long innings unique. During the run-up to the budget, Fallon was crouching at the crease; as the Leverson enquiry loomed, Fallon was at the wicket. The MP for Sevenoaks is the Conservative Party's man for all media seasons.
Sayeeda Warsi's non-TV presence over Cruddas-gate was commemorated by Matthew Barrett on this site earlier this week. In the spirit of accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative, it is time to celebrate that of her deputy. The essence of Fallon is that he is an old political hand who belongs, psychologically as well as politically, in the pre-spin age when MPs knew their minds and took on interviewers. He is also a Thatcherite old political hand – as dry on economics as a sheep's skull left to bleach in the desert. Although he now sits for deep-blue Sevenoaks, his early Commons years were a precarious business: he was elected for marginal Darlington during the Thatcher high tide of the 1983 election, surviving in 1987 only to lose to Alan Milburn in 1992.
Fallon thus missed the strife-torn Maastricht Treaty Parliament of 1992-97, and re-entered the Commons for the Kent seat after the first Blair landslide more refreshed than many who had held their seats in 1992. He was soon back on the front bench in the Trade and then Treasury teams, but came off it in 1999 to the Treasury Select Committee, where he has remained ever since. He was also a regular contributor to ConservativeHome, coming at the economy from a right-wing angle – more so, certainly, than George Osborne, then Shadow Chancellor. Fallon warned against taxing non-doms in opposition, just as he queried a tycoon tax in Government – only a few days before the last budget.
The failure of the Coalition to follow-through its first summer attack on Labour – and in particular the shortcomings of the CCHQ operation – became gradually unmissable, at more or less the same time as Fallon's cool and experienced Commons performances began to stand out against the background of such a big new intake of MPs. I listed him as someone that the Party might draft in as an attack dog that September; later in the year, he was made Deputy Chairman of the Party – and he has been whizzing out press releases and popping up on television ever since. He is in and out of Downing Street as well as CCHQ, offering advice on what Tory backbenchers think – and operating as an early warning system.
What happens next? His role as a link-man with Conservative MPs – particularly those on the right of the party – leaves him bridging part of the gap left by the departure from the Commons of Andrew Mackay: he is in effect David Cameron's Parliamentary political adviser. There is a school of thought which holds that Fallon should go to the whips' office – he was a member of it during the Thatcher years – but some of his colleagues find him a little stiff and forbidding. Besides, sending him backstage would be a waste of his front-of-shop talents. A member of the right-wing student generation who graduated from St Andrews during the 1970s, Fallon is bright and driven enough to run a Ministry: this son of a surgeon has a certain incisive quality.
Since he isn't one of the beautiful people, this probably won't happen – though as a former Education Minister he would be well-qualified to see through Michael Gove's reforms were the Education Secretary required elsewhere: Fallon's website notes that when in the Department he introduced the Local Management of Schools programme, giving some 20,000 primary schools control of their own budgets. He contested the Chairmanship of the Treasury Select Committee at the start of the Parliament, but is thought not to have built as successful a cross-party alliance as his party rival – and winner of the election – Andrew Tyrie. Fallon is still an important figure on the committee and seems in no rush to leave. But whatever the future may hold, this is a good opportunity to mark the present: the tireless media labours of Michael Cathel Fallon.