What a mistake that Christmas card was, says Jasper Gerard. Didn’t Derek Conway know that a Tory MP posing with his family meant he had something to hide?
The Daily Telegraph 31st January 2008
Reaching for the marmalade, you glance at the photo on the Telegraph’s front page – and you are suddenly consumed by an unfamiliar, yet urgent, need to hurl the jar at someone. Or to be more precise, to hurl it at anyone called Conway: oh boy, what a family portrait. Short of Conway giving the V-sign to his voters, his Christmas card could hardly have been more Alan B’Stard You would start with dodgy Derek, Del Boy, the Hon member for Sidcup; move on rapidly to the MP’s daughter, whom he almost certainly calls “Princess”; pause briefly over his fur-coated wife, before really setting to work with the Glasgow kisses on his apparently supercilious sons in their Sloaney Hackett finery. There is not a jury in the land that would convict you. Indeed, you would probably crop up in the New Year Honours List for services to the community, be made a UN goodwill ambassador and have a dinner thrown in your honour by Lady Antonia Fraser.
Short of Conway giving the V-sign to his voters, his Christmas card could hardly have been more Alan B’Stard. There was his family, personification of the old smug Tory party, standing before the Palace of Westminster that Clan Conway was busy bleeding dry. This arriviste not only employed his wife as his secretary, he also rewarded his sons handsomely for their “research” – even though they were at university at the time. It is commendable for a Tory MP to uphold family values, but couldn’t he have demonstrated how highly he values his family with his own money?
Conway could not have seen the Little Britain sketch in which the Tory MP drags his family before the cameras to explain his latest transgression. Doesn’t he realise that any Tory MP posing with his family instantly lobs up the question: hmm, so what’s he hiding? Other MPs, kind enough to send me Christmas cards, limit themselves to snowy Westminster scenes from Victorian watercolours. Why did Conway, knowing of his dextrous employment arrangements, feel the need to flaunt how well he had done courtesy of the constituents who sent him there?
And you have to feel sorry for David Cameron. He has spent two years hugging hoodies, huskies, Polly Toynbee and everyone else a good Tory would despise – all to convince us the Conservatives have changed. And in the flash of a camera, all those engaging images were swept from our minds, replaced by a more familiar picture of the party: snouts in troughs.
advertisementThe Conway exposé is, I would argue, worse than those chalk-striped, on-the-make Tories of the Major years: their scandals tended to involve sex or private money. This is public bunce. There is nothing hypocritical about Tory lads done good, of course: making money is the party’s creed and Derek is a believer. But no party that has banged on about benefit scroungers can afford an MP who is an allowance scrounger.
True, Conway is not unique. Years ago, working as a Commons researcher, I was staggered to open the internal telephone directory and find page after page of assistants sharing a family name with the member. And those were the vaguely legitimate ones: many more wives were on the payroll without ever hearing the bongs of Big Ben.
But would any such MP have been quite so gauche as virtually to boast about this felicitous arrangement in a photo? Del has a furtive hand in pocket, as if fingering a folded wodge of crisp fifties he has just trousered for flogging a hot motor on a Bexley forecourt. Daughter Claudia, who is innocent of any involvement in this saga, looks hilariously Tory retro: perhaps she is a Norland nanny, or attending a Swiss finishing school, though it was remiss to forget the pearls. If she had been born 20 years earlier, Jonathan Aitken might have broken her heart.
And then there is Mrs C. The wives of Brisbane bookies like deporting themselves in fur coats; not, you understand, because they are cold – far from it – but because they can. As for the vulgar Versace-esque scarf, well, it reminds me of Elsie Tanner. It says many things, that fur-coat-silk-scarf-gold-earring ensemble, but little of it shouts “public service”. How does it go down in the typing pool?
And then there are the sons, whose image mesmerised us yesterday, like a picture of some fascinating deformity. No self-effacing modern Toryism here: Henry Conway has thrown “F*** Off, I’m Rich” parties and dresses as a New Romantic, which leaves him looking like an indeterminate love child of Simon Le Bon and Gillian Taylforth. He also admits to being, or perhaps aspiring to be, a Sloane; if one must revel in snobbery, Conway Jr will forgive us for pointing out that Papa was brought up working-class in Tyneside.
Frederick looks equally to the manor born. He has a far-off look in his watery eyes, perhaps imagining some amusingly well-paid job for Cazenove if things don’t work out at Sandhurst – though as he lists his hobby as “sleeping”, I suspect he might have to settle for Knight Frank.
Mark Borkowski, public relations fixer, is amused by the photograph, too: “It contains every cliché of English life: if Sam Taylor-Wood had taken it, we would laugh at the irony: togged up to open the village fête, or to go to church, or an 80th birthday party. It screams ‘smug’. The Tories are trying to present a picture of modernity, yet this is the opposite.”
And the Tories have form, he adds. “Because Conservatives believe in traditional family structures, they have a very unfortunate way of using their children: think David Mellor posing on the gate with his, or John Gummer stuffing beefburgers down his kid’s throat.”
Still, there are compensations for this PR calamity: although Conway has lost the party whip and his local association is under pressure to deselect him, at least he will have a happy family memento to remember the days he could dip into the public purse in such a civilised fashion.