Reflections from Manchester

Are the Tories "ready"?

The weather over the Labour and Conservative conferences was the reverse of the parties' moods. In Brighton, Labour gathered amid a sense of panic but bathed in seaside sun. Here in Manchester, the mood is calmer as the Tories prepare for power in the dreary autumn rain.

Are the Tories right to be upbeat? On the face of it, yes. David Cameron has carefully and skilfully led his party through a period of success not seen for ten years. As I discuss in my column tomorrow, he has done so without abandoning ideology, unlike the Labour Party when it was modernising itself.

George Osborne's speech on the economy yesterday was well received, his uncharismatic style compensated for by the realism and modesty of his message.

But beneath the gloss, this is the same old party: on the fringes, delegates express predictable views on immigration, Europe and spending. Their spectacles may have thicker and trendier rims, but Tory members remain overwhelmingly male and -- in the description of one broadcast journalist yesterday -- "hideously white".

On the other hand, although this party has not changed substantially, there is almost zero dissent or division. With victory perceived to be round the corner, this is the most united Tory conference I can remember. Eurosceptics are careful not to be provoked into deriding Cameron's own-goal on a Lisbon Treaty referendum. And MPs on the pro-European left are passive. The Tory Reform Group/Conservative Mainstream fringe has in recent years been a hotbed of rebellion and dissent, with Kenneth Clarke or Michael Heseltine challenging the leadership. This year a supportive Damian Green was on loyal form, refuting claims that Cameron has betrayed the Tory left. Steve Norris, the arch-moderniser, expressed genuine support for Cameron's leadership on and off the record. And it was left to Normal Lamont to say Labour could yet pull off an economic and then political recovery.

The Tories appear to be ready to take office. But there is something indefinably wrong here. Something about the collective psche that betrays complacency. This is a professional party, but it is not a government-in-waiting.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.