Boris Johnson out campaigning for Tory colleague Nick de Bois in Enfield. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images
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The Tories are just a step below desperation – and thoughts are turning to the threat of Boris

Most Tories still believe they will be the largest party because of what seems certain to happen to Labour in Scotland and because of the gains they expect to make from the Lib Dems.

Nerves are fraying in the Conservative Party. Old stagers such as Michael Heseltine have come out of the retirement home to urge us to keep calm and carry on. Many Tories cling to the view that, when confronted with the polling booth and the ballot paper on 7 May, the Great British Public – or at least the Great English Public – will realise that the Miliband/Sturgeon Terror simply cannot be contemplated and will vote accordingly. But something has started to crack. Or, precisely, two things: the belief that Ed Miliband would have a “Sheffield rally” moment (he hasn’t and he won’t); and that Dave would turn on the turbocharger (he hasn’t and, despite his increasingly hernia-inducing efforts to feign passion, he probably won’t). And the election is but a few days away.

I have never known a campaign in which candidates and pundits have been so fixated by bookmakers’ odds, perhaps because the bookies have never offered such a range of services to those who wish to lose their money on the political game. As one candidate put it to me, “People lie to opinion polls. They tend not to lie with their money.” That, too, explains the pessimism: the money is going on Miliband to become prime minister, eventually. Cameron may have to be defeated on a Queen’s Speech first, because polls suggest his may still be the largest party, but Miliband staggers ashore in the end. And that means defeat, again, for the Tories. If the parliament runs its fixed term, it would be 28 years without an outright Tory victory, something that didn’t happen even in the party’s locust years in the 19th century. And with defeat would come division, upheaval and recrimination. The anti-Cameron faction in the party (which is considerable) is already sharpening its blades.

Despite the now prevailing sense that time is running out and the ship may not be turned around, the Cameronistas are not yet in despair. The news from the West Country remains good; there are hopes of Lib Dem seats elsewhere; Ukip looks weaker; and they are heartened by Nick Clegg’s assertion that in a hung parliament the party with the most seats retains the democratic legitimacy. Most Tories, of whatever faction, still believe they will be the largest party because of what seems certain to happen to Labour in Scotland and because of the gains they expect to make from the Lib Dems. However, there may not be that many Lib Dems left with whom they can get into bed, and some bookies (who have nonetheless shortened the odds on a new Con/Lib coalition) predict that just eight will survive, though most put the likely figure in the teens. So the SNP, with perhaps 45 or 50 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats, would have the whip hand; Nicola Sturgeon would be in a position to put a Miliband administration in power on a confidence-and-supply arrangement on which, under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, it could survive for five years.

“We need to ensure we compose the narrative that explains away a defeat,” a senior anti-Cameron Tory said to me. By this, he meant that what he called the “Blairism” of the past five years should be explicitly blamed for yet another failure to elect a Conservative government and Cameron should be held responsible. The right, to be fair, has been on its best behaviour for the past year or more. When needled and provoked by the progressive smell of some policies, it has held its tongue. When affronted by the dismissals of ministers it liked, such as Owen Paterson, or aggrieved by the demotions of those with whom it had sympathy, such as Michael Gove, it made barely a protest. “Whatever happens,” a retired rebel said to me, “we are not going to be blamed for losing the election, like we were in 1997.”

However, there is an anticipation of the atmosphere of defeat that does remind one of 1997. There will be no landslide and the Tory party may even sit on the edge of power. But many expect Cameron to go quickly, and then a leadership contest that would end in a plebiscite in the country between Theresa May and Boris Johnson.

As with Miliband’s Labour, they fear that the party would end up with a leader whom a vote of the wider movement has forced on a parliamentary party that expressly does not want him. In the past weeks, potential MPs of the left, right and centre of the Conservative Party have told me of their horror at the prospect of Boris Johnson becoming their leader: for there is no Alec Douglas-Home to come through the middle. His buffoonish performance against Ed Miliband on The Andrew Marr Show was not needed to prove their point but it has. There were two sides out there but only one was playing serious politics.

For a party in power to talk days before an election about defeat, about spinning the reasons for that defeat and about the leadership contest that may follow is hardly good news for the Tories now or in the future. Some of the more level-headed suggest that if Cameron is indeed the leader of the largest single party, he should, before doing anything else, suggest an immediate constitutional convention to thrash out an equitable arrangement, similar to a federation, between the four parts of the United Kingdom. One said to me that Labour could be “embarrassed” into signing up to such a convention and that the SNP would forfeit its credibility if it refused to take part. “They did, after all, lose their bloody referendum,” another Tory remarked.

Or – and one encounters this opinion more and more – there could be a grand coalition between Labour and the Tories based on saving the Union, renewing Trident and, at some point, ending the deficit. One senses when one hears this that the Tories are just one step below desperation, and that that state could be achieved any day now.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Scots are coming!

Photo: Getty
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Unite stewards urge members to back Owen Smith

In a letter to Unite members, the officials have called for a vote for the longshot candidate.

29 Unite officials have broken ranks and thrown their weight behind Owen Smith’s longshot bid for the Labour leadership in an open letter to their members.

The officials serve as stewards, conveners and negotiators in Britain’s aerospace and shipbuilding industries, and are believed in part to be driven by Jeremy Corbyn’s longstanding opposition to the nuclear deterrent and defence spending more generally.

In the letter to Unite members, who are believed to have been signed up in large numbers to vote in the Labour leadership race, the stewards highlight Smith’s support for extra funding in the NHS and his vision for an industrial strategy.

Corbyn was endorsed by Unite, Labour's largest affliated union and the largest trades union in the country, following votes by Unite's ruling executive committee and policy conference. 

Although few expect the intervention to have a decisive role in the Labour leadership, regarded as a formality for Corbyn, the opposition of Unite workers in these industries may prove significant in Len McCluskey’s bid to be re-elected as general secretary of Unite.


The full letter is below:

Britain needs a Labour Government to defend jobs, industry and skills and to promote strong trade unions. As convenors and shop stewards in the manufacturing, defence, aerospace and energy sectors we believe that Owen Smith is the best candidate to lead the Labour Party in opposition and in government.

Owen has made clear his support for the industries we work in. He has spelt out his vision for an industrial strategy which supports great British businesses: investing in infrastructure, research and development, skills and training. He has set out ways to back British industry with new procurement rules to protect jobs and contracts from being outsourced to the lowest bidder. He has demanded a seat at the table during the Brexit negotiations to defend trade union and workers’ rights. Defending manufacturing jobs threatened by Brexit must be at the forefront of the negotiations. He has called for the final deal to be put to the British people via a second referendum or at a general election.

But Owen has also talked about the issues which affect our families and our communities. Investing £60 billion extra over 5 years in the NHS funded through new taxes on the wealthiest. Building 300,000 new homes a year over 5 years, half of which should be social housing. Investing in Sure Start schemes by scrapping the charitable status of private schools. That’s why we are backing Owen.

The Labour Party is at a crossroads. We cannot ignore reality – we need to be radical but we also need to be credible – capable of winning the support of the British people. We need an effective Opposition and we need a Labour Government to put policies into practice that will defend our members’ and their families’ interests. That’s why we are backing Owen.

Steve Hibbert, Convenor Rolls Royce, Derby
Howard Turner, Senior Steward, Walter Frank & Sons Limited
Danny Coleman, Branch Secretary, GE Aviation, Wales
Karl Daly, Deputy Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Nigel Stott, Convenor, BASSA, British Airways
John Brough, Works Convenor, Rolls Royce, Barnoldswick
John Bennett, Site Convenor, Babcock Marine, Devonport, Plymouth
Kevin Langford, Mechanical Convenor, Babcock, Devonport, Plymouth
John McAllister, Convenor, Vector Aerospace Helicopter Services
Garry Andrews, Works Convenor, Rolls Royce, Sunderland
Steve Froggatt, Deputy Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Jim McGivern, Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Alan Bird, Chairman & Senior Rep, Rolls Royce, Derby
Raymond Duguid, Convenor, Babcock, Rosyth
Steve Duke, Senior Staff Rep, Rolls Royce, Barnoldswick
Paul Welsh, Works Convenor, Brush Electrical Machines, Loughborough
Bob Holmes, Manual Convenor, BAE Systems, Warton, Lancs
Simon Hemmings, Staff Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Mick Forbes, Works Convenor, GKN, Birmingham
Ian Bestwick, Chief Negotiator, Rolls Royce Submarines, Derby
Mark Barron, Senior Staff Rep, Pallion, Sunderland
Ian Hodgkison, Chief Negotiator, PCO, Rolls Royce
Joe O’Gorman, Convenor, BAE Systems, Maritime Services, Portsmouth
Azza Samms, Manual Workers Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Dave Thompson, Staff Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Tim Griffiths, Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Paul Blake, Convenor, Princess Yachts, Plymouth
Steve Jones, Convenor, Rolls Royce, Bristol
Colin Gosling, Senior Rep, Siemens Traffic Solutions, Poole

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.