I omitted to mention this story during the week. The Telegraph reported on Wednesday:
Sir Patrick Cormack, one of the longest-serving Conservative MPs, signalled last night that he is ready to stand as an independent if he fails to overturn a surprise decision to dump him as Tory candidate at the next election. Sir Patrick, 67, who has been MP since 1970, said he would not give up his political career without a fight. He narrowly lost a secret vote on Monday night to re-select him as Tory candidate for South Staffordshire. He now has the opportunity of appealing to the 500 members of the constituency in a secret ballot for the decision to be overturned.
Sir Patrick said he had been the victim of a "coup" but had been encouraged by messages of support since the decision to deselect him by the local association's 30-strong executive.
"I am looking upon this as a very minor setback. I have every intention of giving the electors of South Staffordshire the chance to pass their verdict on my services at the next election. I wish and very much hope that I shall be standing under the Conservative banner," he said.
This affair is not to the credit of the Conservative Party. An established party system is an asset to an effective parliamentary democracy, if not a prerequisite for it. The system breaks down when faction supersedes party. Sir Patrick Cormack is an example of the self-correcting mechanism necessary for any party seriously aspiring to government. When the party is wrong, he's prepared to be in a minority of one in saying so. He's done so in the past over foreign policy. Throughout the Bosnian crisis of the early 1990s, when the Conservative government of John Major proved itself inadequate to the task of countering the aggression of Slobodan Milosevic and uninterested in it, there was only one parliamentary division on the issue. It took place in November 1992, at the request of the Liberal Democrats (whose then leader, Paddy Ashdown, perceived the significance of the issue much earlier than most British politicians, apparently to the discomfort of many of his party colleagues). Brendan Simms records, in his book Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia, 2001, p. 275:
The motion - condemning government action as 'too little, too late' - was defeated by 166 votes to 37. Only 206 MPs actually voted. Patrick Cormack was the only Conservative MP to vote against the government.
Sir Patrick also has the distinction - not that it will have taken much effort - to have shown in the House the uselessness of Ashdown's immediate successor, Charles Kennedy, even when Kennedy was not incapacitated through his alcoholism. In the parliamentary debate of 18 March 2003 that preceded military action in Iraq, the Lib Dems simultaneously professed support for British troops and ureged an amendment requiring a second UN resolution. Sir Patrick asked Kennedy the obvious question: "Can I therefore take it that if the amendment is lost the right hon. Gentleman will vote for the substantive [pro-Government] motion?" The obvious answer, as the Lib Dems had aligned themselves to the anti-war movement, would have been "no"; but Kennedy fumbled and lost his place altogether. If you scroll down the page of the Hansard report, you'll see he eventually resorts to the blustering and evasive reply: "We do not need moral lectures from the Conservative party."
Sir Patrick's deselection has met with spirited criticism, according to the Pandora column of The Independent:
Nadine Dorries, the MP for Mid Bedfordshire, is furious about the attempt in South Staffordshire to deselect Tory grandee Sir Patrick Cormack - the party's longest-serving MP, and a Westminster character tipped to become Speaker. Dorries is threatening to campaign against any replacement candidate, "regardless of whatever 'you will never be given a job' threats will be thrown at me by the whips".... When I call Cormack, he's chuffed to hear of Dorries' support. "I find it very touching," he says. "I've been inundated with support across the political spectrum for which I am very grateful. I've even had generous offers for a war chest if I do go independent."
If Sir Patrick is denied the Conservative candidature - and indeed even if he retains it by only a narrow margin - then I certainly hope he will campaign as an Independent. If he does, he will have the support of Martin Bell, who writes (and gives me permission to quote):
Patrick Cormack was one of the few MPs who understood from the start the gravity of the Bosnian crisis, and who was not afraid to challenge his own party (then the party of governnment) on it. He deserves great credit for that. His constituents should be proud of him.
In the almost inconceivable event that he were deselected.... If he chose to stand as an Independent, I for one would be honoured to knock on doors in South Staffordshire on his behalf.
Sir Patrick Cormack is not only an adornment to public life but also a wise and cussed political observer. I wish him success.