Does Labour now fear Boris more than Cameron?

The Mayor of London is increasingly viewed as a threat by Labour.

"I think the biggest threat to our chances now is …" I eagerly awaited the conclusion to this sentence uttered in a conversation earlier this week with a senior figure in the Labour Party. This is someone who, not surprisingly given the coalition’s travails, is very upbeat about Ed Miliband’s chances of becoming Prime Minister. (He referred to "when" rather than "if" it happens, which is a new development in the tone around the shadow cabinet.)

So what would that threat be? Ongoing doubts about the party’s fiscal credibility? Lack of a clear narrative on what to do with public services? A divisive row with the Unions over how reconciled the party should be with the cuts it will inherit?

"… Boris," he said. This surprised me. I’m a bit of a Boris-sceptic, thinking much of the cheerleading on his behlaf is an expression of Tory frustration with Cameron, rather than a serious movement to get the London Mayor promoted to the job of Prime Minister any time soon. But the case was persuasively made. Everything that is now being said about his unsuitability for the top job and the unlikelihood of it actually happening was once said about his chances of being London mayor. He is, I was told, a real star who has managed his career well and, crucially, who animates people who don't usually care about politics. That is the Holy Grail in Westminster these days. The fact that he isn’t in parliament now and has another job? A minor hurdle, apparently. Once Tory MPs are convinced enough that Cameron is leading them to defeat their famously regicidal tempers will be fired and a way will be found.

I’m still not entirely persuaded but it is certainly revealing that Labour people are taking the prospect very seriously indeed. (My colleague George points out that Jacqui Smith, former Labour Home Secretary, has intervened in a fairly vigorous attempt to debunk the myth of Boris bonhomie.) It wasn’t that long ago that Labour people were actually rather enjoying Johnson’s not so secret campaign to undermine Cameron and Osborne. They may have hated the way he kept Labour out of City Hall but the prevailing feeling was that his function on the national stage was as a convenient thorn in the PM’s side - an enemy’s enemy and therefore kind of a friend. No longer.

I was reminded also of a conversation I had a while ago with one of Ed Miliband’s advisers about the issue of charisma and personal ratings, where Cameron still beats the Labour leader in opinion polls. Wouldn’t a presidential-style contest between the two men be a problem for Ed? The answer: that is the received wisdom, yes. But consider how much of a hit Cameron’s personal brand has already taken, how limited his power is in coalition, how much some his own MPs dislike him, how jaded his act will seem by 2015. Is it so hard to think that, by the next election, a presidential face-off would be something Miliband might even relish? I was deeply sceptical of that proposition at the time and most people I have shared it with (including pollsters) have looked puzzled or snorted in disbelief.

But to hear Tories talk about their own leader is a masterclass in disillusionment and pessimism. Sometimes they seem to do a better job of talking up Miliband’s chances than their Labour counterparts. Partly that is because Labour MPs are desperate not to sound complacent and because they have more of an insight into how brittle and unready the party machine is when it comes to the prospect of fighting an election. The Tories know their own weaknesses on that front too, of course.

The Labour high command certainly isn’t writing Cameron off. Far from it. The feeling I get from talking to Miliband’s closest aides is that they know Cameron still outpolls his party and remains a formidable politician  - "clearly he is still their strongest asset" – says one. The Tories, goes this view, would be crazy to change leader before the election. That remains a very remote possibility in any case. But something has definitely changed in the way Labour views their main opponent.  There is now someone in the wings they would want to take on even less.

The Mayor of London is increasingly viewed as a threat by Labour. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories