In this week's New Statesman

Honey, I shrunk the Tories: Are the Conservatives still capable of thinking big?

Cover story: Honey, I shrunk the Tories

In this week’s New Statesman Leader, we ask if David Cameron is capable of restoring the Conservative Party to its former status as “one of the most formidable election-winning machines in Europe”. The portents for the Tories are not good: 

If Mr Cameron is to win a majority he will need to do what no prime minister has done since 1974 and increase his party’s share of the vote. One would not wager on him succeeding where Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher failed. But to do that, he will have to decide if he is a One Nation Tory pragmatist or a consensus-breaking radical. At the moment he is neither.

As Jason Cowley writes in his review of the updated edition of Francis Elliott and James Hanning’s 2007 biography of the Prime Minister, Cameron’s views are an incoherent “pick’n’mix of old-style shire Toryism, soft Thatcherism and Notting Hill social liberalism”. The comparison with Thatcher is unflattering:

Cameron has none of the originality of Thatcher, who was not constrained by class and tradition and had a story to tell the electorate of where she’d come from and how she intended to remake the nation through conflict. 

We search in vain, Cowley concludes, for evidence of a settled Cameroonian world-view, because “[he] has published nothing of significance”.

It makes a startling contrast with the torrential literary output of one of Cameron’s predecessors as Conservative leader. In his review of Mr Churchill’s Profession by Peter Clarke, the former Tory foreign secretary Douglas Hurd examines Winston Churchill’s literary career. In the 1930s, Hurd notes, “Churchill’s personal finances were in a state of crisis. His solution to the problem was simple: he had to step up his literary output.” Clarke’s book, Hurd writes, leaves the reader with “a vivid mental picture of Churchill working night after night in his study at Chartwell, brandy in hand, having played his nightly game of backgammon with Clementine [his wife] and packed her off to bed”.

Also in Books, Vernon Bogdanor considers the legacy of a man who sought but never claimed the Tory leadership, Enoch Powell. Reviewing Enoch at 100, a collection of essays edited by Lord Howard of Rising, Bogdanor writes: “Enoch Powell was, like Thatcher, a teacher of the right . . . But what did he teach?” Powell’s lesson, Bogdanor argues, was a pernicious one. The notorious 1968 speech in which he imagined “the River Tiber, foaming with much blood” because of immigration, “made Powell a hero”, Bogdanor observes: 

. . . particularly to the lumpenproletariat, astonished and gratified to discover a person of culture and refinement prepared to echo their fouler thoughts. There are signs in this centenary volume that Powell came to regard the speech as something of a mistake. It was, in truth, unforgivable.

And returning to the present day, Rafael Behr argues in the Politics Column that David Cameron and George Osborne are failing to rise to the challenge of multiple crises that will come to define our era:

Moral decay at the heart of the British economy and the fracture of our European relations – these are not ordinary political challenges. They are the stuff of epochal change. Yet the Prime Minister and Chancellor respond as if peeved by the inconvenience and impatient for normal service to resume. They loiter at the gates of history, sucking on the fag end of the old era, unable to conceive of the new one.

Neil O'Brien: "Milibandism" as seen from the right

The leading conservative thinker Neil O’Brien argues in a New Statesman essay this week that it’s time for the right to take Ed Miliband seriously. O’Brien, director of the political think tank Policy Exchange, looks to the Labour leader’s past to offer a right-wing perspective on “Milibandism”:

His story could keep a psychologist busy for years. Just think: your beloved father warns you that Labour are a bunch of sell-outs. You ignore him, and after the 1997 election it looks like you were right. But subsequent events might make it look (to someone who grew up on the left) like Labour were in hock to high finance and Rupert Murdoch all along. So what now, if Dad was right?

Torn between fierce “pragmatism and radicalism”, Miliband needs to resolve his “split-personality dilemma” soon, O’Brien writes:

[W]ill he use the midterm bounce he is experiencing as an opportunity to duck, or to embrace difficult decisions? Underlying everything is a bigger question of who Ed wants to be. The heir to his father and the great breaker of the Thatcher-Reagan consensus? Or just a slightly leftier version of Tony Blair?

Kenneth Branagh Interview

In the NS Interview the actor and director Kenneth Branagh tells Sophie Elmhirst how he responded to his recent knighthood:

I see it as an acknowledgement that makes you think about every person you’ve worked with. My experience is so collaborative. A moment like this just seems – at this end of my life – to be a very nice thing to happen if you’ve been lucky enough.

And he discusses his impressions of the Swedish landscape from his time spent in the country filming Wallander:

[Y]ou look around and there are no street lights and you think, ‘God, what is this like in the winter?’ That may be the product of a weirdly overanxious, overthinking mind, but there is a sort of deadly or dangerous element in the land as well. It’s unforgiving.

In The Critics: A jazz special

A jazz special in The Critics opens with an article by this week’s Critic at Large, Christopher Reid. The poet was “slow on the uptake where jazz was concerned”, but now, listening at home on YouTube to Billie Holiday, “backed by a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of jazz’s finest that included Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge”, he finds himself transported to “another dimension”. 

Elsewhere in the package, the New Statesman republishes a piece from 1960 by the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who moonlighted as the NS jazz critic under the pseudonym Francis Newton (a name borrowed from a communist jazz trumpeter who played on Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”). Hobsbawm’s musical tastes were formed in the 1930s and 1940s, which might explain his disdain here for the “aimless” experiments of the “young modernists” of the 1950s.

Elsewhere in the New Statesman

  • The NS economics editor and former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, David Blanchflower, weighs in on the Barclays market manipulation scandal and argues that Paul Tucker has to go
  • Mehdi Hasan and Maajid Nawaz debate whether political Islam, as a “conveyor belt” to terrorism, is to blame for Muslim extremism. Or is the real culprit western foreign policy?
  • Clive Stafford Smith on his 18-year fight to free Kris Maharaj from the failed US justice system
  • In Observations, Mehdi Hasan argues that testing makes a mockery of British citizenship; George Eaton on how the Qataris are snapping up prime London real estate; and Nelson Jones on Scientology’s credibility problem
  • Nicholas Wapshott analyses the fallout from the Supreme Court’s Obamacare ruling in the NS Letter from America
  • The author and former cricketer Ed Smith describes the mysterious phenomenon of being “in the zone”
  • In Madness of Crowds Will Self expresses his horror at growing bald

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.