Lord Young: “I am worried about the way the government and the Conservative party is going”
Lord Young of Cookham has spent more than two decades on the Conservative frontbench, in both Houses of Parliament. But the former Leader of the Commons – who resigned over Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament – tells Gary Connor why he “just can’t go along” with the PM’s plans
Delicate talks are underway in the Palace of Westminster as I meet Lord Young of Cookham. But rather than over Brexit, they concern the location of his new desk. Having resigned his frontbench position over the Prime Minister’s decision to prorogue Parliament, Young must vacate the whips’ office and find a desk elsewhere. “It’s being negotiated,” he tells me with a smile.
Taking a break from emptying his drawers and relocating his belongings, he adds this is the only interview he’s giving about his decision to leave the government. “I’ve just written a letter, left it at that, and quietly withdrawn to the backbenches,” explains Young, who has served under every Conservative Prime Minister from Thatcher to Johnson.
Lord Young discovered the PM’s plan to prorogue when it was reported in the press. Unhappy, he slept on it, then decided the next day he had to go. “I rang up the Leader of the House of Lords and said that I was writing to her, and told her what I was going to do. She said that she was very sorry, but that she understood why I was going.”
He’d been reappointed to his front bench position under Boris Johnson, after initially being asked to join the ministerial team in the Lords under Theresa May in 2016. “I was quite happy to go on, and I could accept the policy of trying to get a deal, but at the same time ramping up for no-deal preparations,” he explains. “But when it came to the prorogation announcement, I was very unhappy about that.”
As a former Leader of the House of Commons, he was responsible for implementing the recommendations of the Wright Committee, which gave more power to backbench MPs, and is clearly uncomfortable at any move that suggests the executive is attempting to limit the influence of the legislature. “The government was clearly worried that the House of Commons was not going to vote for the conference recess, and so the decision was taken out of their hands under the cover of saying that we need a new Queen’s Speech.
“I’m just somebody who minds about the House of Commons and I wasn’t prepared to defend it on the floor of the House of Lords.”
Young is almost apologetic about his resignation, conscious of the fact that “I have depleted their ranks at a difficult time”. There’s no animosity, and he insists that he’s not part of a ‘Remainer plot’ or ‘great conspiracy’. He would have been happy to see something similar to Theresa May’s Brexit deal passed by Parliament, so the UK could leave the EU on 31 October. “There comes a point in politics when the government takes a step too far and you just say, I’m frightfully sorry but I just can’t go along with this.”
Young’s resignation brings to an end a ministerial career that spans some 23 years out of the 45 he’s spent in the Commons and Lords. He was the last member of the government to have served under Margaret Thatcher, who made him a health minister in 1979 and later an environment minister. He resigned in 1986 to lead a rebellion to the Poll Tax from the backbenches. He was brought back into government by Thatcher in 1990 after being a ‘nuisance’ and continued under John Major, eventually reaching the Cabinet as Transport Secretary in 1995.
Young served as Commons leader under the coalition government, until David Cameron dispensed with his services in 2012 and he returned to the backbenches. Six weeks later he was back as Chief Whip, after Andrew Mitchell had a run-in involving a policeman, a bicycle and the Downing Street gates, and had to step down.
Politically, he identifies most closely with Major and says that he was very comfortable with the political direction of the party under Cameron. Today’s Conservative party seems less than a happy ship. But he insists that there is still room for One Nation Conservatives like him. “We’ve been through blips like this before and emerged,” he says.
Young had been impressed with the Conservatives’ focus on domestic issues during the summer. ”But when you revert back to Brexit, managing Parliament, managing the party, it’s got more difficult,”
“Is it more difficult than Maastricht?,” he wonders out loud. “Well in a way, the numbers appear to be higher.”
He admits that the Conservatives are in uncharted waters at the moment and thinks a general election before Brexit would be risky. ”I can’t see how it’s going to end up, but I am slightly worried about the way the government and the party is going.”
“I think whichever side of the argument you are on, there will be concerns about what this is doing to the unity of the party at a time when we are in government and trying to take difficult decisions.”
I wonder whether as chief whip he’d ever threatened to remove the whip from any Conservative for not voting in the way he wanted. ‘No’, he replies, adding with a smile, “the only thing I did was suspending Nadine Dorries for a few weeks, for going on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! At the end of the day we came to an amicable conclusion and the whip was restored.”
Insisting he’s been ‘enormously lucky’ in his political career, he laughs off my suggestion that he could make a further comeback. “I am very old, though I know in the House of Lords, these things are relative. I’ve had a good innings. I don’t expect to be recalled.”
As someone who has served for so long in Parliament, he’s seen governments of different colours rise and fall. I wonder if he thinks that the Johnson government’s bid to prorogue Parliament in the lead up to the 31st October has changed the game.
“I think it does set worrying precedents,” he says. “If this government can do this and prorogue for five weeks, what might other governments do?”
He notes Lord Hennessy’s theory of ‘good chap’ government – the theory that our political system only works if those in positions of power understand and obey the unwritten rules.
“I hope Lord Hennessy would regard me as a good chap.”