As you might expect of the Director of the Bruges Group, I’ve been closely following the progress of Roger Helmer’s retirement and the replacement of Strasbourg’s leading Tory Withdrawalist by Rupert Matthews. What has puzzled me is that it would seem that everyone involved surely wants pretty much the same thing? Which is to say, an orderly succession to the position of Conservative MEP in the East Midlands – and yet there is a logjam stopping this from happening.
Everyone has better things to do than get involved in an unnecessary fight. Here in London we have the Boris election in May, and in the East Midlands there will be local elections. So how should we avoid what must surely be a pointless, self-inflicted dispute?
Unity and loyalty have always been the key weapons of the Conservative Party. Everyone involved in this matter needs to remember that and behave accordingly. Roger Helmer has been a fine MEP. He has been tireless in pursuit of the causes in which he believes. Chief among these have been opposition to a fully federal EU and scepticism about climate change. Roger has ruffled some feathers along the way, but that is part of his style. He has achieved much, and in particular has done wonders raising the problems and questions over wind energy. Even those who disagree with him must respect his tenacity and skill.
When Roger announced his retirement last autumn I was sorry to hear he was going, but I presumed he had his reasons and of course respected him for this typically honourable course of action. Now, however, he is saying that he wants assurances from CCHQ that the succession question will be settled properly and lawfully. This is fair. Nobody wants to see something like this handled improperly.
CCHQ has been less public than has Roger over this business. It is difficult to know exactly what their position is here. Perhaps they just can’t be bothered to deal with this issue having too many other things to do. I suspect that CCHQ does not want a big row over this. They will know that Rupert Matthews is very popular among the Party in the East Midlands, that he has always been a loyal and hardworking activist for the Party and that to block him without giving a good reason would just cause utterly unnecessary trouble.
Yet I fear that CCHQ will not want to give Roger assurances in public. Having been challenged in a very public way, the powers-that-be may not want to look as if they have given way. Even if they are going to do exactly what Roger wants, they might think it would look weak to say so. Rupert Matthews, meanwhile, has remained silent. This must be a trying time for him. He has a young family to care for and a business to run. He must find this all very unsettling. But from his corner, there has not been a peep of factional grumbling or mumbling: his conduct through this ordeal pointlessly inflicted upon him has been exemplary. So what should be done to get the Party out of the mess it has gotten itself into over this affair?
Roger clearly wants to retire or he would not have announced his decision to do so. He has always behaved fastidiously with regards to the rules and courageously as far as his political battles have been concerned. So it would be a great shame if circumstances not of his making not obliged him to be like a rock star who keeps coming back for one more “final farewell tour”. I respect him too much to want to see that happen. He can go now with his dignity and principles intact and with the respect of us all. I am sure that he will not be idle for long. He will soon find people and organisations queuing up to use his talents.
CCHQ will not want to appear weak in the face of Roger’s demands, but nor will they want a row – a deep and poisonous one – over this. Not least as it involves the issue of Europe and will be a gift to our political opponents. Perhaps they will feel able to give some private assurances to Roger or to Rupert, maybe through a trusted intermediary. Once Roger has retired they can allow Rupert to take his place, which is clearly the correct, legal thing to do. As for Rupert. I can only advise him to put his tin hat on, keep his head down and hope for the best.
Robert Oulds is Director of the Bruges Group.