John Bercow was one of the most high-profile Reformist figures in the National Party
“MP John Bercow is right that National can’t afford to wait for the economy to fail. But that may still represent one of their best chances of regaining power. National is, as we write, embarking on a divisive disagreement on the required depth, breadth and meaning of its ‘transition’. Such reform is hard to sustain as many traditionalist Nationalists do not believe such changes are necessary. For all the talk of a large influx of reformists among the 2005 intake, they still constitute a minority in the party. For every Michael Gove, there is a Mike Nattrass. Any attempts at radical change could result in renewed factional infighting within the party. This is unlikely to help it regain power.”
- New Office, Same Problems: The National Party, Lecture by Philip Cowley, University of Nottingham (2005)
Whilst the SDP’s honeymoon momentum was seemingly unstoppable, over in the Norman Shaw building of Parliament, Opposition Leader Tim Collins was getting comfortable in the Leader of the Opposition's Office, the first permanent residence since 1968. The elections had been fairly disastrous for National, whilst they had expected to lose they hoped fear of change and Collins’ personal popularity would keep them above 200 seats, now they were solidly in the wilderness. The National Party hadn’t experienced failure for over 30 years, for many of its MPs the election was traumatic.
As well as being political damaged, National was in dire financial straits, struggling to afford it's headquarters in central London
National had always been a confederation, Tories, Liberals, Ulster Unionists, army officers, businessmen and media moguls made up its founding. It’s modern caucus was split between several factions, from the hardliners on the right who wanted to go back to the good old days of troops on the streets, to the reformists, eager to put the Junta behind them and get Britain into the EU. Collins found himself between the two wings, a former Governor of Northern Ireland, Collins was used to people not getting on, but not to treachery. Thanks to the newly freed press, leaks became a thing again, parliamentary questions, press releases, PMQs, Collins was in a brave new world, and not all his troops were behind him.
His most pressing concern was the more radical liberals in his party, many of them would naturally feel at home in the SDP, staying in National out of loyalty or opportunism, now National’s polling had taken a nosedive they might defect or even start their own party. Men like David Laws and John Bercow who’s political instincts were for Europe and deeply distrusted the hardliner factions of the party. Whispers in the Parliamentary tearoom said Laws was already having conversations with the SDP around defection, even possibly being offered a Cabinet job, if MPs began to jump Collins would quickly find himself alone with the hardliners.
“Tim Collins today put Europe centre-stage in an interview with The Sun , pledging a referendum on joining the EU if he became prime minister. Although Collins stops short of suggesting Britain not join the EU, he says a referendum would "give us the view of the British people". His tactic was immediately attacked as a "whip up their core vote" strategy by EU Minister Geoff Hoon. Mr Hoon, told the BBC: " I hope this doesn't mean that National are going to the, 'Let's whip up our core vote with right-wing issues' approach to elections. In his interview with the Eurosceptic Sun newspaper General Collins said if he became PM he would not secede powers on a variety of issues to Europe. A poll, he said, would allow voters to judge if joining the EU would deliver for Britain.”
- Collins pledges EU referendum, Matthew Tempest, The Guardian (2005)
Collins pledged a referendum on joining the EU to placate his hardline wing
To his right there were the hardliner factions, made up of various nationalists, officers and spooks. Amongst the colonels and admirals their unlikely leader was Robert Kilroy-Silk. Kilroy was the former head anchor of the BBC, he had served as the Junta’s erratic propaganda mouth since 1983 and had built up quite a following, especially amongst older people. The Labour MP turned Junta hardliner was captivating, charismatic and most of all ambitious. The threats from stuffy old generals Collins could handle, but Kilroy was a force unto himself, a certain song about clowns to the right sang true for Collins.
Collins and his aides, in typical military fashion, dubbed their plan “Operation Strategic Retreat”, this would include a unity reshuffle and reforms to the National Party’s head office, including an unequivocal condemnation of political violence. Collins hoped Strategic Retreat would stop the party bleeding support in the polls, reform it as an effective opposition tool, and shore up Collins’ own position at the head of the National Party. The Shadow Cabinet would be the most difficult task, Collins had to balance the competing factions of his party to create a competent face to the public. To great fanfare Collins unveiled the first Shadow Cabinet for forty years.
Opposition was a bitter pill for National to swallow
Tim Collins Shadow Cabinet 2005-
- Leader of the Opposition - Tim Collins (National)
- Deputy Leader of the Opposition - Theresa May (National)
- Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer - Nick Clegg (National)
- Shadow Foreign Secretary - David Davis (National)
- Shadow Justice Secretary - Kenneth Clarke (National)
- Shadow Defence Secretary - Vacant (Non-Political)
- Shadow Home Secretary - Ian Blair (National)
- Development Secretary - Robert Kilroy Silk (National)
- Shadow Education Secretary - Liam Fox (National)
- Shadow Industry, Tourism and Trade Secretary - David Willets (National)
- Shadow Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Secretary - David Laws (National)
- Shadow Public Administrations Secretary - Nicholas Soames (National)
- Shadow Culture Secretary - Oliver Letwin (National)
- Shadow Health Secretary - Mark Oaten (National)
- Shadow Environment Secretary - Bob Stewart (National)
- Shadow Housing Secretary - David Richards (National)
Collin’s reshuffle included a major promotion for Theresa May, a key Collins ally and the only woman to serve in the Hill-Norton Government as it sank. May was promoted from Environment Secretary to Deputy Leader. Nick Clegg, former ambassador to the European Union and a key member of the reformist faction was promoted to Shadow Chancellor. Ian Blair, the former Commissioner of the Met Police was made Shadow Home Secretary in a nod to some of National’s more hardliner MPs. The reshuffle was noticeable for the lack of military officers in senior positions, Soames, Stewart and Richards remained the only senior military figures, with Davis being a squaddie and almost all other Shadow Ministers being civilians. Collins hoped the reshuffle and the sacking of the officers would show National’s Junta days were behind them.
“Hard line former Minister Norman Tebbit has wondered whether Tim Collins is ‘National's chairman Mao, intent on purging the memory of Mountbattenism’ . By the summer of 2005, Tebbit was becoming unhappy at the direction in which Collins was leading the Party. He warned that the ‘present National strategy is eroding its ultra-loyalist bedrock vote’. Also attacking the reformist's’ ‘myth’ that supporting further democratisation provides electoral success is Maurice Saatchi. He has argued that National should once again embrace ideology rather than become slaves to pragmatism. Indeed, without actually naming Tim Collins, Saatchi has called on true nationalists ‘to man the barricades’. Quite apart from their disapproval of his ideology, many of Collin's critics are aggrieved at his refusal to stand up for the military amidst inquiries into their conduct during the Junta years.”
- A New Direction or Another False Dawn? Tim Collins and the Crisis of the National Party, Peter Dorey (2007)
Theresa May, a civilian and a woman, became the second most senior National politician