Some of this applies to Andrew Feldman, whose sole qualification to work at (let alone chair) Conservative HQ appears to be that he played tennis with the Prime Minister while both men were undergraduates at Brasenose College, Oxford, in the Eighties. However, the party co-chairman is not just a crony. He is also a key link between the Prime Minister and Conservative Party donors (I would imagine his fingers are all over the knighthood awarded to Sir Michael Hintze, a hedge-fund manager who has given more than £1.5 million, for “services to the arts” in this week’s birthday honours).
Recently Andrew Feldman was accused of calling Tory activists “swivel-eyed loons”. He has denied doing so, unconvincingly. I have no doubt, having consulted relevant sources, that the remarks made were actually his. It comes as no surprise that a Tory party chairman whose real constituency is not the Tory membership but wealthy donors should have expressed such sentiments.
But he is the least of Mr Shapps’s numerous problems. The Tory chairman also has to cope with George Osborne. Though officially Chancellor of the Exchequer, in practice Mr Osborne spends a great deal of his time overseeing Tory politics, attending many of the relevant meetings. The lurking presence of the Chancellor is the main reason why Mr Shapps has no authority.
Mr Osborne’s main channel of influence is through Stephen Gilbert, the prime minister’s political secretary. Mr Gilbert (seen internally as a far more important figure than Grant Shapps) is also, in effect, head of campaigns at Central Office. It is conceivable that Mr Gilbert might do one of these jobs well. It can be said with certainty that he does both badly.
One of the functions of the political secretary (one done well by Jonathan Hill, now Leader of the Lords, during the Major premiership, or Sally Morgan for Tony Blair) is to establish a passage between the prime minister and the parliamentary party. At times this is close to a full-time job. Unfortunately Stephen Gilbert can only devote a small amount to this because of his other responsibilities, one of the main reasons for the catastrophic disconnection between David Cameron and his Tory MPs.
The campaigning situation is yet worse. Back-bench MPs complain about poor briefing and lack of strategic direction, a problem that was glaringly obvious during the Eastleigh by-election, when it was never clear who was in charge. The hapless Mr Shapps could do nothing about this shambles, even if he wanted to, because while he occupies high office he is not permitted to exercise real power.
There is also Lynton Crosby, recently appointed political strategist to the Prime Minister. There are conflicting views of Mr Crosby, but almost everyone agrees that he gives focused and tough advice. However he is at the moment part-time, which means that nobody reports to him and he is not part of the command structure.
To sum up: Conservative organisation is a mess of special agendas, secret influence, and back-channels of communication. Contempt for traditional party structures is complete, meaning that conflicting messages and operational incompetence have become the hallmark of the Tory machine. One MP told me so many people carried out the role of chairman that “if one of them won’t do what I want, I go and ask another”. As a result the superb work which is being carried out by many ministers is hardly recognised, while the relationship between Downing Street and Tory back-benchers and activists is the worst I can remember.
The underlying responsibility for this shambles must lie at the door of David Cameron. From the very start he and (in particular) George Osborne have shown a point-blank refusal to relinquish control of party organisation, which explains why no Tory chairman has been able to make a mark. It is very hard to see how the 2015 general election could be won in these circumstances.
There is a very obvious solution, but it would require courage. Mr Cameron could bring in a heavyweight politician – his own Patten or Thorneycroft – with the vision and substance to shape his own election-winning machine. Such a character would, however, have to be given overall control. He or she could not be second-guessed by Downing Street.
There are three candidates: William Hague, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. Mr Hague, I am told, shudders at the thought of returning to the boredom, squalor and anxiety of domestic politics. Mr Gove cannot be spared from education. It is hard to think of any modern Conservative better suited for the job than Mr Johnson. Popular with the public, loved by the party, he has reinvented the rules of political discourse since becoming Mayor of London.
So far he has been kept at arm’s length by the Tory leadership, who feel envious and threatened by the Mayor’s charm and ease. The most intelligent reaction is to tie Mr Johnson in – by making his fortunes dependent on those of Mr Cameron. Both men come, after all, from the same stable: socially and economically liberal, defiantly optimistic. There is an inevitability that, over time, Mr Johnson would use his position to mount a challenge for the leadership. But the immediate task is to win the general election, and Mr Johnson is the only Conservative with the proven capacity to do just that.