‘Not since Caligula appointed his horse as his chief adviser has such an inappropriate appointment been made’. Those were the words of not one, but two Tory MPs, speaking to me about John Hayes being made the Prime Minister’s chief parliamentary adviser. I wouldn’t quite go that far myself, but I can understand the sentiment. One minister when told the news seriously believed it was an early April Fool. Only when he logged onto the BBC News website did he finally believe it.
I’ve always got on rather well with John Hayes, and I have a sneaking admiration for his utter shamelessness. He really does have the ability to argue that black is white. And he did it today on PM. ‘My kind of Conservatism is the Prime Minister’s kind of Conservatism’ was one of his more memorable quotes from the interview. It may be that he believes it, but if he does he couldn’t be more wrong. His is a kind of Christian fundamentalist conservatism which is about as far removed from David Cameron as you can possibly get. He’s a sort of ‘Kinder, Kueche, Kirche’ Conservative who is viscerally opposed to any form of liberalism. He’s a climate change sceptic, ambivalent about women’s rights and a vocal opponent of gay marriage. Does he sound like a typical Cameroon to you?
Now in itself, holding views like that shouldn’t rule him out from advising David Cameron. It’s good for any Prime Minister to hear different views. But the thought that John Hayes is representative of the Right of the Conservative Party is slightly fanciful. The tensions between him, Edward Leigh and Christopher Chope, the other two leading lights of the Cornerstone Group are palpable. When Cameron made him a Minister there were gasps from various corners of the Tory Right. Why him? That was the question most were asking. The simple explanation is that he enjoys the patronage of Iain Duncan Smith. IDS was quite open that if Cameron didn’t promote several of his proteges, he wouldn’t be joining Cameron’s government.
Hayes was a rather good Minister in charge of vocational education and apprenticeships. He did the Prime Minister’s bidding and his policy area was seen as one of the Coalition’s successes. But most pundits were left open mouthed when he was promoted to the Department of Energy & Climate Change. Everyone knew his non PC views on global warming, so a clash with the LibDem Secretary of State Ed Davey wasn’t difficult to predict. On a personal basis they rubbed along OK, but Davey was furious at his junior minister’s public utterances on wind farms.
There is only one reason for this mini reshuffle, which sees the excellent Michael Fallon take over John Hayes’ responsibilities at DECC. It has to have been because the LibDems insisted on it. I can think of no other reason. So Hayes moved across to Number 10 and is elevated to the Privy Council. That’s how Coalition politics works at the moment. Nick Clegg says jump, and the Prime Minister obeys.
Margaret Thatcher once said that ‘every Prime Minister needs a Willie’. She was right. But is John Hayes a ‘Willie’? The key point of any ‘Willie’ is that they don’t want to be a player. They retain the trust of their master because they have no agenda, no ambition and don’t gossip. Can John Hayes truly be said to have no agenda, no ambition and to lack the desire to gossip?
Ah, say Number 10, he will be a bridge to the right. Up to a point Lord Copper. He is indeed of the right, but he is not massively popular on the right. Liam Fox and David Davis, the two big guns on the right are certainly not massive fans of his. Will he really be able to reflect right wing opinion to the Prime Minister any better than the Prime Minister’s PPS Sam Gyimah? If I were Gyimah I’d regard this as a huge slap in the face.
The trouble is, John Hayes sees himself as an operator, and an operator is not ideally suited for the role of ‘Willie’. Let me tell you a story,…
On my first day working as David Davis’s chief of staff back in May 2005 John Hayes paid me a visit. I had never met him before, but I was greeted like a long lost friend. After some initial pleasantries he got down to business. “I can deliver David 30 votes,” he said with a knowing wink. And with that he departed. Later that day I was in Portcullis House and spied John on the second floor talking to one of David Willett’s key advisers, Mark Fox. I saw Mark later and asked him what John Hayes wanted. “Oh,” he said. “He was telling me how he could deliver 30 MPs for David Willetts.” I roared with laughter at the sheer bravado of the man.
Throughout the next few months I would have some very interesting conversations with John, all of which revolved around how many MPs he personally could deliver, if only DD would ‘play ball’. I enjoyed talking to him. He would always have some snippet of information to divulge and reveled in the inevitable plotting that was going on. He imagined that he was at the centre of most of it. What he failed to realise is that neither we, Liam Fox’s campaign or David Cameron’s campaign operators took him remotely seriously, because he was saying the same things to all of us. Cameron dubbed him ‘Shrek’, which may have seemed unkind, but became a term of endearment.
So to conclude, I would say that John Hayes chances of success in this job depend on his ability to transform himself from being an operator to being a Willie. He will have to learn that keeping his mouth shut and listening is far more important than opening his mouth and trying to be a player.
Not giving interviews to Radio 4 programmes might be a good start.