Commons Confidential: When Tory chips are down

Plus: The misfiring Adam Afriyie.

I appreciate the rapidly dwindling Conservative Party – down to half the size when David Cameron was elected leader – is desperate to win new recruits but the latest drive to boost membership is a bit fishy. A snout rang with the tale of an Essex man who went along to a Clacton fish-andchip supper organised by the local MP, Douglas Carswell. The chap paid his £10, enjoyed his cod and then listened to the debate before going home unconvinced by the Tory case on Europe. So imagine his perturbation at a letter from Carswell’s office informing him that his tenner would be converted into membership of the constituency association unless he wrote back renouncing the party. The chap couldn’t be bothered to reply and – hey presto! – an unwanted Tory membership card duly popped through his letter box. It’s no surprise Carswell can boast he’s doubled membership in Clacton when it’s as cheap as chips.

Fun and games are often had behind the Speaker’s chair during Prime Minister’s Questions. If Michael Gove arrives too late to squeeze on to the front bench, the school pugilist stands out of John Bercow’s sight and, rocking back and forth on his heels, deliberately winds up Labour MPs with a stream of sneers. The strapping six-foot two Labour whip Tom Blenkinsop has the job of blocking Gove to minimise altercations, but the language can still be unparliamentary. My informant clutching an order paper swore he heard Dame Margaret Beckett, a former foreign secretary well versed in the art of diplomacy, call Gove a “ducking twit” or some such creature.

Cameron’s pet northerner, Eric Pickles, helps keep Ed Miliband’s children in shoes. The Labour leader’s significant other, the barrister Justine Thornton, fights planning cases on behalf of Big Eric’s Department for Communities. She’s assured friends the work is on the legal cab rank principle. Small worlds, politics and the law.

The misfiring Adam Afriyie is a Tory with a bank account to match his ambition. The multimillionaire wannabe leader is employing the ex-News of the World editor Phil Hall to give him PR advice. Another wealthy Tory, Frank “Zac” Goldsmith, hires the ex-Mailman Ian Monk to burnish his image. Both are thorns in Cameron’s side. A newsman on the payroll is the new must-have accessory for the Westminster elite.

Ivan Lewis, the shadow cabinet minister, is unhappy he’s been banished to Northern Ireland. Lewis, whom Damian McBride admitted smearing during the Big Gordie era, was overheard moaning: “The Brownites finally got me.”

The Tory Tyke Alec Shelbrooke, asked if his Jack Russell-poodle cross, Boris, was a randy pooch, answered bluntly: “No, I chopped his balls off.” A course of action that Mrs Johnson may wish she’d pursued.

Tory membership: cheap as chips. Montage: Dan Murrell.

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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