24 Feb 2015

Sir Malcolm Rifkind resigns: why he decided to stand down

The key moment in Sir Malcolm Rifkind‘s change of heart was the meeting with the chief whip on Monday. At that meeting he was told that the parliamentary commissioner’s inquiry into the Channel 4 Dispatches/Telegraph wouldn’t resolve itself fast enough for the Tory party and he would be subject to an internal party disciplinary procedure to report back in March.

That process would require him to clear a much higher bar than the parliamentary commissioner’s investigation. He would be judged not against whether he had broken the rules laid out in the MPs’ code of conduct but whether he was an appropriate person to be a Conservative party candidate. If not a “smell” test, something not a million miles from it.

Sir Malcolm’s mind didn’t change immediately. That took longer – more contacts and discussions with those closest to him. In a parallel process, Lord Butler, the former cabinet secretary who also sits on the intelligence and security committee, rang round members of that committee to see if there was support for Sir Malcolm staying on in the chair.

Fellow committee members George Howarth and Fiona McTaggart are believed to have signalled they were uncomfortable with Sir Malcolm continuing as chairman. Hazel Blears (who got into a bit of trouble herself with expenses in the past) is expected to be named temporary chair of the committee. She is herself standing down at the general election.

Slowly through Monday, Sir Malcolm came to realise that the die had been cast by his meeting with Michael Gove in the Commons. If he wanted to run again as an MP in the general election, the former foreign secretary would have to submit himself to a process he was far from certain to clear. Indeed, senior Tories said it was a process that was meant to make him realise the game was up. The manner in which he’d dealt with the original allegations – a lawyerly approach that took little account of public opinion – hardened opinon in the party that he had to go. His initial defence hastened his end.

So later, after initially pushing back against the chief whip, sources close to Sir Malcolm persuaded him the best way out of the situation, salvaging as much dignity as was possible, was to leave his Commons seat at the election and stand down now from his chairmanship of the ISC.

Read more: duckhouse to doghouse – a short history of MPs’ scandals

Political loner

Sir Malcolm had always been more of a political loner than his public persona might suggest. He could entertain a crowd with a witty speech as well as any other senior-ranking politician, but he neglected alliances and political friendships throughout his career. But under Margaret Thatcher and John Major his intellectual talents could not be ignored.

His first impact on the political scene was as an early advocate for devolution – he resigned as a shadow spokesman when the party opposed a Scottish assembly. One MP who watched him over many Scottish debates in the Commons remarked on how Sir Malcolm would mercilessly hammer opponents into the ground like tent pegs.

After rising up the cabinet ladder as transport minister, defence secretary and then foreign secretary he was always seen as able but occasionally described by colleagues as prickly. After losing his Edinburgh seat in the 1997 Blair landslide, he returned to the Commons in 2005. It could be said he never quite found his footing again – a bit like Roy Jenkins returning after his stint in Brussels.

The house had changed. A generation he’d probably barely noticed were on the march. He stood for the leadership of the party against David Cameron, David Davis and Ken Clarke. I was in the hall of the Blackpool Winter Gardens for his speech and, though history doesn’t seem to write it up this way, it was actually very popular.

Read more: Straw and Rifkind suspended over ‘cash for access’ claims

Not a natural rebel

The older audience lapped up the after-dinner speech style, the confidence and worldly wise demeanour. David Cameron’s triumph was in part a result of euphoric media coverage and clever advocacy by his well-connected supporters. When Sir Malcolm told the triumphant Mr Cameron he would take the shadow foreign secretaryship or nothing, it doesn’t appear to have taken Mr Cameron long to work out which one he wanted to offer. Sir Malcolm was not cut out for life on the backbenches.

He was not a natural rebel or troublemaker, nor a man greatly enticed by abstract political thinking. When he was given the chairmanship of the intelligence and security committee it was a lifeline of stimulation and status but, as he was exposed saying to the undercover reporter on Channel 4 on Monday night, even that challenging post left him a lot of spare time.

He would not say it himself, but a huge chunk of the money he was trying to earn on the side would go towards the care of his wife, who has been ill for some time. On Monday, under attack for the way he spoke to the fake Chinese company in the secret recordings, Sir Malcolm defended himself on camera, deploying the same dogged lawyerly forensic skills that had propelled his early political career.

But they were ill-suited to the matter in hand, to the times or to the public mood… and even if he hasn’t quite worked out how much he hurt his own case, yesterday evening he worked out it was time to give up.


The intelligence and security committee had led the government to think Hazel Blears was going to be made chair for the last weeks of this parliament. But this evening it’s made it known the committee will be chair-less for the remaining last gasp of this session.

You can’t help thinking they didn’t fancy a series of headlines about Hazel Blears and her own past clash with public opinion on expenses, but the committee is insisting it is simply a sensible move as the report on the implications of Ed Snowden is now on its way to Downing Street and there’s little else in their in-tray that requires them to meet again.

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