THE OLD MANIPULATOR
Outsiders: a profile
of Peter Walker, detached
NO Enigma Machine was necessary to break the code in Peter Walker's address on Monday evening to the Tory Reform Group. With its calls for higher taxation, `vast' government spending, and a level of intervention in the economy on a scale not even envisaged by his old companion in arms Mr Heath, this was a rebellion by a malcontented minister seemingly begging to be released from the misery of unconge- nial office.
If we had not, until this outburst, heard much of late from Mr Walker, it is because he has been carrying out his theories over the Severn Bridge, as Secretary of State for Wales. Now with the Vale of Glamorgan by-election imminent, Walker will have calculated that, until that is out of the way 'I think it best for Laddie to be put to sleep Mrs Fazackerly.'
at least, he is unsackable.
It takes a very special English politician to survive and flourish in Wales, among the wheelers and dealers, fantasists and place- seekers who comprise the Principality's political establishment, people their com- patriot Jan Morris once memorably de- scribed as 'the Sicilians of the north'.
It also takes a very special kind of Conservative politician to accept the ridi- cule and humiliation that accompanied Mrs Thatcher's offer to Walker of the Welsh Office after the 1987 election, 17 years after he had first served in a Tory Cabinet, with Agriculture, Environment, Trade & Industry and the Department of Energy (twice) already on his escutcheon.
If the paths of ambition had remained where the guidebooks of history appeared to point in Walker's Young Conservative days, he might by now have been occupy- ing the Treasury, the Home Office or the Foreign Office, the way made strait for the supreme prize.
But thanks to Mrs Thatcher, it is, at 57, the governor-generalship of Wales. Highly commendable, indeed, for a mere survivor in a landscape so changed in his own time, but bitter gruel for a man of Walker's ambitions. Other Wets have recanted or departed, but he has hung in, licensed discreetly to keep the flag of One Nation Toryism at least flapping limply on its pole; to give the lie to critics who claim that the Prime Minister cannot abide opposition; and with experience enough to put a few spanners in the works of a Whitehall system he knows intimately.
Not only Whitehall. Mr Walker is an astute manipulator of the Press, makes friends of editors, whom he does not disdain flattering, and can summon up columns of laudatory articles as easily as a general arranging an artillery barrage: never has a Welsh Secretary received so much respectful attention in the national Press. (He is markedly less successful, however, and less at ease, on television, where his curious manufactured mock Churchillian accent, — 'less like a plum in his mouth, than a humbug' according to a former political colleague — gives an impression of shiftiness.) The down side, of course, of friendship with editors, is that it earns Walker the hearty dislike of the journalists detailed to write up his achievements. A lovingly- polished anecdote from the Seventies pops up subversively from time to time, provok- ing letters of denial and driving the Secret- ary of State incandescent with rage. It alleges that a journalist visiting the Walker house in Cowley Street, Westminster, was charmed on being greeted by the Minister holding a small child in his arms. With the infant dismissed, the guest was seated comfortably, when the door bell rang again, whereupon Walker collected the child from a nanny to welcome the new visitor.
There is a seductive comparision to be
drawn between Walker and his near- contemporary in the Labour Party, Tony Benn. They have a similar kind of English face and figure, both have been assisted by the possession of wealth — although Benn inherited his while Walker made a pile in the City — both achieved Cabinet rank early — Walker at the age of 38, Benn at 40 — and both probably rose too fast to have made many friends on the way.
Both are ideologues flexible enough in their younger days to have changed their minds: for example, Walker once opposed British membership of the Common Mar- ket, while Benn espoused it. Each has in office been guilty of pushing through dis- astrous schemes, and Walker, less flam- boyantly, perhaps, can even on occasion match Benn's legendary barminess. In another sense Walker and Benn share a misdirected consistency. Both have stuck rigidly to a discredited view of the eco- nomy; Benn's is socialist and Walker's is corporatist.
It is not too fanciful to imagine that had they changed places, Walker would happi- ly have delivered an earnest request to the Queen to remove her effigy from the postage stamps, or pressed ahead, regard- less of cost and noise, with Concorde, while Benn could easily have been the author of Walker's crazed reform of local government, with its Mintech-style new county names. This is Walker's doleful political monument; he rejected the less destructive Redcliffe-Maud report in 1970 with the immortal judgment that it was unacceptable because it 'paid little regard to the question of existing boundaries and existing loyalties'.
And it is no doubt recalled by those ministers now bearing the cross of water privatisation that Walker was the author of the present unsatisfactory arrangements, which he described at the time as giving Britain 'the most effective machinery for handling water and sewage of any country in the world'.
It is always said that Walker survived as the licensed wet in Mrs Thatcher's Cabinet because he came up with the inspired notion that council houses should be sold to their tenants. In fact, the idea came from an academic at the London School of Economics and in its original form sug- gested that they should be presented as a gift, once the tenant had paid 20 years' rent.
Largesse on this scale would, of course, present political difficulties, particularly among working-class Tories who had re- jected council housing and struggled to buy their own homes on mortgage. Walker failed to appreciate this dimension, though he subsequently amended his qualifying time-scale from 20 to 30 years. If this was Indeed the bone he laid at Mrs Thatcher's feet, it proved, once sensibly modified, to be a very juicy one indeed.
The timing rather than the content of his Tory Reform Group speech is what is now intriguing. It comes at a moment when the Government's fortunes are low, and when the Labour Opposition, boosted by finding themselves equal with (MORI), or (Gal- lup) just ahead of the Tories in the polls, have just launched their campaign for the local authorities, and European Parliament elections.
With the Vale of Glamorgan by-election approaching, Walker may be worried that the result may be seen as a test of his governorship of Wales. The successes of his stewardship, and the interventionist manner in which they have been achieved, formed a boastful coda to his wider advice on Monday as to how the economy should be run.
But suppose the Government wins? Who is then to get the credit, the enlight- ened lord lieutenant, or Mrs Thatcher? What agonies of conscience, what fine degrees of calculation must be coursing through the Walker breast.
From the Government's viewpoint, Pe- ter Walker has long outserved his useful- ness. By remaining in the Cabinet, he weakened the political clout of the Wet faction, but there is nothing in his views and opinions, as expressed on Monday, which will strike fear and trembling into the hearts of the Government should he be returned to the back benches.
As his political career fizzles to an end, Peter Walker has little to show for it but the hope of a welcome awaiting him in the hillsides of Wales for as long as his grants and subsidies are remembered. And the curse of those in the English counties who still yearn for the old names to be returned.
`We've decided to have a sponsored mug- ging.'