Cameron has morphed into the candidate the Tories wanted in 2010. What do they want in 2015?

The PM has found the campaign that the Tories wish they had used to win the last election. That is less than he needs to win the next one.

Three years late, the Conservatives are celebrating victory in the 2010 general election. They still don’t have a majority in parliament but they believe they have won the argument. Labour forfeited its right to govern – so the story goes – by presiding over economic calamity, squandering public money on benefits and opening Britain’s borders to an army of foreigners. The remedy was a Tory government that would cut spending, reform welfare and cap immigration.
 
At the party’s annual conference in Manchester, David Cameron and George Osborne will say their methods are vindicated by incipient economic recovery. Some Tories concede that the truth is more complicated but there is little doubt over who is winning the politics of blame and credit. “The economic argument is not as clear-cut as we’re making out but George has played it well,” says one Conservative adviser.
 
The Prime Minister and the Chancellor will avoid sounding boastful at the conference. They aren’t stupid. They know that the recovery is more legible on paper than it is palpable in pockets. Bills are rising; wages aren’t. In his speech at Labour’s conference, Ed Miliband accused the Tory leader of planning an undeserved “lap of honour”.
 
Cameron won’t oblige with crass claims of missions accomplished. Nor will he respond directly to the charge that the Tories are presiding over a “cost-of-living crisis”. Downing Street knows it has to do something to help struggling households but that task will be addressed later in the year, in a series of policy announcements building up to the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement.
 
At the Tory party conference, the message will be that the Conservatives are on the side of industrious people, while Labour favours freeloaders (domestic and foreign). What excites Tory strategists is that, after three years in office, they feel they have a record to support their argument. They also feel that the party’s MPs are happy with the message and well drilled at delivering it. Effort spent at summer garden parties mending relations between No 10 and backbenchers – the “barbecue offensive” – appears to have paid off. That doesn’t mean the Conservative Party automatically does the Prime Minister’s bidding, as his defeat in the vote on military intervention in Syria proved. But a year ago, such a rebellion would have triggered leadership speculation and lurid tales of panic in the ranks. This time, the disturbance was quickly contained. Cameron wriggled out of his foreign policy humiliation within 24 hours. His spin operation has become sharper and the number of Tory MPs who want nothing more than to hurt him has dwindled to manageable proportions.
 
Labour has watched this transformation with dismay. The Tories can no longer be relied on to deliver a steady flow of bungles. The new ruthlessness and discipline of the Conservative machine is noted with grudging respect by shadow ministers. Tories who once despaired of the way Downing Street was run now speak in reverential tones about Lynton Crosby, Cameron’s campaign director and the man credited with sharpening the party’s sense of strategic purpose.
 
But there is a difference between attacking the opposition harder and governing better. There are also great gaps between what Cameron and Osborne say they are achieving and what has actually been achieved. The deficit and public debt have not been trimmed to anything like the extent that was promised in 2010. Claims to have cracked down on immigration will look shaky when the controls that restricted labour migration from Bulgaria and Romania as a condition of their EU membership are lifted in January. The government’s flagship welfare reform – Universal Credit – has shrivelled from a national revolution in the benefits system to a pilot scheme in Ashton-under-Lyne. With it has shrunk the moral authority of Iain Duncan Smith, who sold Universal Credit as an emblem of “compassionate Conservatism” – easing the path from benefits to work, not just shredding the social safety net.
 
Labour has waited in vain for the public to recoil at the wounds inflicted by the Chancellor’s axe. MPs on both sides note the equanimity with which their constituents have tolerated the hardships of recent years. There is a stoical acceptance of financial insecurity as a force of nature rather than a consequence of government policy. As one Tory MP in a bellwether constituency tells me: “People don’t love us but I don’t get the sense that they are desperate to get rid of us.”
 
Others are less relaxed. “I’d like to show George around parts of my constituency to let him see what poverty really looks like,” says one Conservative defending a marginal seat. The Tories still struggle to shed their image as a favour factory for the rich and powerful. Cameron has steadied his party’s nerves but he hasn’t established what one influential backbencher describes as “a morality behind the narrative”.
 
In the conference hall, Cameron will be unchallenged. He will fight the next election as Tory leader. However, in the hotel bars, the gossip will revert to the discreet beauty contest among potential contenders for the succession – Michael Gove, Theresa May, Philip Hammond, Boris Johnson, George Osborne – because Tories also know that outright victory in the next election is still a remote prospect.
 
The criticism that Tories habitually level against Cameron is that he lacks fixed beliefs and that he changes his political clothes to suit the weather. With the help of Lynton Crosby’s natty tailoring, Cameron has at last found a costume to match his party’s tastes. He has persuaded the Conservatives that he really is their leader but he hasn’t imprinted his own politics on them. He is secure and confident because he has found the campaign that the Tories wish they had used to win the last election. That is less than he needs to win the next one.
David Cameron prepapres to greet his New Zealand counterpart John Key ahead of a meeting in Downing Street on September 18, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.