The former government adviser Jesse Norman is perplexed by his sacking last week after abstaining over the vote on intervention in Syria. “I seem to have acquired this reputation as the Che Guevara of the Conservative Party,” he says gloomily.
An academic and biographer of Edmund Burke, he regarded Syria as “an open argument”: “I thought it was clear that I wasn’t bound by ministerial responsibility.”
No 10 took a different view, dumping Norman from the policy board for disloyalty to a three-line whip. Curiously, the minister who roundly opposed Syrian intervention, the Defra Secretary Owen Paterson, went unpunished. Is there something then about the slightly 19th-century looking Old Etonian backbencher that maddens the Prime Minister? Norman, 51, a former academic specialising in the philosophy of mathematics, is unswervingly polite about his persecutors, although his expression is wounded. He believes the sacking was a “misunderstanding”.
“I thought I wasn’t bound, but decisions get made and that’s it.” Might the whips take pity on him and restore him to office? “No, it is final. To adapt Mark Twain, reports of my demise are not exaggerated.”
It is fair to say Norman did not see his punishment coming. After the vote a fortnight ago, he returned to his Hereford constituency on a mission to save the local tennis courts. He gave tea to local volunteers. He returned to London, where the whips were waiting for him, in cheerful ignorance of his fate, had no conversation with the Prime Minister and accepted his removal without argument.
So why was Norman, a gentle philosopher in the field of mathematics, the only victim of the parliamentary rebellion?
Some in the Tory party regard Norman’s ill-timed principles as the greatest threat to their winning the next election. By earlier voting against House of Lords reform, he was thought to have spurred the Liberal Democrats into a revenge attack on boundary changes that leaves the Tories short of seats. Norman, of all people, should have been able to do the maths.
Norman is painstaking in rebutting the logic of this. The Lib-Dems were trading alternative voting for boundaries, not House of Lords reform. He has other arguments about voting patterns and amendments in the House of Lords that go over most people’s heads. He is the Government’s worst nightmare — an intellectual conscience.
On Syria, he voted as his hero Edmund Burke might have done — against the Government line. “I felt there was so much that was unclear and it was a short timetable and it was not at all evident what the future effects of a military strike would be, so the prudent thing to do would be not to vote in favour of the principle of military action.”
He is anxious to draw a veil over the consequences of his free-thinking action. “The invisibility cloak of time has got to settle. The waters of Lethe must lap.”
Norman entered politics as a post-expenses scandal idealist to escape the “sterile nature” of academe and embraced the heady power of Parliament. He is both excited and puzzled by Parliament’s land grab of the executive power to declare war. He is constitutionally respectful that “the executive should have a free hand” but mindful that David Cameron allowed Parliament in: “You don’t make that kind of move if you are not at some level a democrat by instinct and at some level prepared to take the consequences.”
Norman’s argument against intervention has an intellectual subtlety which pits him against the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. It is that doing good makes things worse.
“Sometimes principle can come back to bite you; arguments about ethical foreign policy are an example of that. There is an ethic of punishment but there is also an ethic of making things worse. So you have a moral dilemma. Sometimes people say you obviously don’t care about, say, refugee camps, as though a desire not to make things worse means you don’t care about them.”
Norman tried to express these nuanced arguments but the outcome was blunt.
“I am the new member for Vladivostok,” he says ruefully, referring to the Russian outpost. He is, however, enormously cheered by the outcome of the parliamentary heist. “I don’t think any damage has been done to the PM in the last 10 days and the country is in a much better position in many ways than it would have been and it is a tremendous shot in the arm for parliament.”
But what of the view of Foreign Secretary William Hague that the UK is in danger of retreating into a diminished, isolationist state? What of America? Norman takes a more optimistic long view: “Britain has always been an enormously internationalist country, out of our history. The US hasn’t been like that. America was founded as a political idea. George Washington talked about the danger of entangling alliances.”
Syria looks a good example to Norman of the danger of entangling alliances. “It is an extraordinarily complex situation: it is not clear that the regime is a single unified command in the way that the West assumes.”
Non-intervention may sound less noble, but there is no doubt it chimes with public opinion. “Public opinion is much wiser than politicians give credit for,” says Norman enthusiastically.
The Old Etonian with a gift for rhetoric might find a safer berth outside Parliament. There is something of Boris Johnson about him, although he is a good deal less worldly.
“Boris is an extraordinary communicator, I would never compare myself,” he says. “Boris and Cameron? You are trying to lead me into evil territory. Both are extraordinarily good in different ways. Boris is helped by the fact he is running in a personal capacity. The PM has to keep unruly colleagues under control.”
Norman is clearly torn. He is loyal, in his fashion, to the parliamentary institution. He is also an individualist. Only a political philosopher could square this.
Edmund Burke, Norman’s hero and subject of his book, might agree with the author that “Conservatism is a body of slightly inconsistent principles”. But he is adamant on one point: “In politics, you can’t be a phony.”