In this week’s New Statesman: The Tory Conference Special

Andrew Gimson on Boris Johnson, Neil O'Brien on the Tories' challenges, David Blanchflower on Osbourne's "porkie pies", and a collectors cover from David Young. PLUS: Sophie Elmhirst profiles Hilary Mantel.

Andrew Gimson: The man who would be king

In our cover story this week:  Andrew Gimson, author of Boris: the Rise of Boris Johnson, takes a look at one of the most fascinating relationships in British politics. The “rivalry” between Boris Johnson and David Cameron - which dates backed to their shared school days at Eaton - may seem like a game but Gimson asserts it is deadly serious.

“Boris Johnson is trying to kill David Cameron,” begins Gimson:

“That may sound like an exaggeration, but the word “kill” was used by Johnson himself, in a column about “the basic drama of politics” written soon after the Labour landslide of 1997: “Politics is a constant repetition, in cycles of varying length, of one of the oldest myths in human culture, of how we make kings for our societies, and how after a while we kill them to achieve a kind of rebirth – as Tony Blair would put it, new life for Britain.”

As a society who favours the “theatre of politics” with a taste for the melodramatic, the battle between Dave and Boris pits the establishment against an outsider. It hinges upon the wooing of Conservative backbenchers, many of whom are “fed up” with Cameron. Gimson writes:

I have been taken aback by the vehemence with which many Tories now dislike him. As one of his backbenchers, first elected in 2010 but involved in Tory politics for much longer, put it to me: “I’ve known the man for years. He’s just no good with his backbenchers, just doesn’t want to give them the time of day.

[...]

A third backbencher, first elected in 1992, said: “I regard Boris affectionately and wistfully, because he is someone who makes the party feel good about itself, feel loved. David Cameron seems to go out of his way to make the party not feel loved. I don’t know how Cameron thinks the army of Tories [in the constituencies] is going to fight for him at the next general election. Secretly I’m one of the people who hanker after Boris. He would make the thing such fun. It would be a white-knuckle ride.”

Despite parallel backgrounds, Gimson goes on to points out the differences between the two politicians. On the charm of Boris’ frazzled spontaneity against Dave’s flawless preparedness...

Like many Englishmen, Etonians are seldom inclined to risk making fools of themselves by trying out new activities in public. Cameron is a typical Etonian: he hardly ever looks unprepared. Johnson is, in this and other respects, untypical: he has attracted an adoring public by appearing never to be prepared.

On their alleged Oxford “rivalries”...

At Oxford, the pattern of school repeated itself. Johnson was a well-known figure, regarded by some as a future prime minister – by giving the wittiest speeches, he managed in 1986, at the second attempt, to get himself elected president of the Oxford Union...A friend of Johnson says he would have viewed the idea of going on holiday with Cameron’s set as “atrocious”, and one can be sure the feeling was, and is, mutual. For Johnson, it would have been absurd to regard the younger, less intellectual and seemingly not very dynamic figure of Cameron as a rival.

And on their respective careers in the Commons...

But while Cameron soon began to make a reputation at Westminster as one of the most astute and diligent members of the new intake, Johnson soon came to be regarded by his fellow MPs as lazy, unprofessional and irritatingly well known...The parliamentary path to power was blocked, and so Johnson decided to have a crack at a popularity contest that no other well-known Tory dared to enter. In 2008 he ran for mayor of London against Ken Livingstone and won. For the next four years, he let no chance go by to attack Cameron, and this May Londoners rewarded him with a second victory over Livingstone. Johnson had demonstrated that, unlike Cameron, he is an amazing campaigner who knows how to persuade Labour supporters to vote Conservative. The mayor celebrated his victory by repeatedly upstaging the Prime Minister at the Olympics.

 

Neil O'Brien: The challenge for the Tories is to find their own version of Blairism

In this week’s Guest Column, Policy Exchange director Neil O’Brien numerates the “four main challenges” facing the Tories as their turn to take the stage approaches. First among them is a need to garner votes outside its “southern heartland”. Second is the issue of anti-Tory “urbanites” and the lack of elected councillors in cities like Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Newcastle.

Third is the issue of the Tories’ “poor showing” amongst ethnic-minority voters (“Among black voters, fewer than one in ten vote Tory” O’Brien reminds us). All tie into the fourth and long standing issue that “the Conservative Party looks after the interest of the rich, not ordinary people.” He concludes:

In summary, a political consultant or a pollster would tell the party it needs to get less pale, less southern, more urban, and do better among ordinary people. That means changing the look and feel of the party on the one hand, and their policy platform on the other...

Voters want to know the Tories aren’t just going to look after their rich mates. At the next election, Tory candidates need a clearer offering for those who work hard on low incomes; something to say to the fifth of households who live in social housing; and an agenda that makes sense to people in areas of high-unemployment and to the millions who work in public services.

The brilliance of Blairism was to detach the popular parts of Labour’s wish list (such as the minimum wage) from the unpopular items (being soft on crime, defence and public spending). The challenge for the Tories is not so much to lurch right or left, but to come up with an equivalent of Blairism.

 

David Blanchflower: Osborne's lies

In the Economics Column this week, David Blanchflower wonders how George “Slasher” Osborne will “wriggle out” of his austerity mess at the Birmingham Conference this weekend. But before looking forward, he looks back to some of Osborne’s biggest “porkie pies”: 

It seems appropriate to go back and look at the claims Osborne made, in his speech in 2009, about what he would deliver. First, he said that the Tory party would “lead the economy out of crisis”. That could hardly be further from the truth, as the coalition has pushed us into an even deeper crisis. We are in the slowest recovery since the Second World War and are perhaps even headed for a triple dip.”

Second, Osborne argued in 2009 that the Tories would protect public services and claimed: “We are all in this together.” He had the audacity to repeat this phrase seven times. He went on to claim: “Our determination as compassionate Conservatives [is] to protect the most vulnerable.” In truth, the poor are all in it together and the rich are holidaying in the south of France.

He advises the Shadow Chancellor to avoid the similar pitfalls of mistruth:

My main advice to Ed Balls, though, is to stay away from the pork pies. We all know who told “shameful lies”.

 

Rafael Behr: Rumbles of discontent surround the chancellor and his sidekick

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr charts the Tories’ “line of attack” against their leader in opposition:

Tory strategists have let it be known that they intend to torture Ed Miliband to a slow political death with attacks on his personal authority and his party’s alleged addiction to dissolute spending.

It’s “peculiar”, points out Behr, considering Miliband’s explicit commitment to a future Labour’s fiscal restraint, not to mention the Chancellor’s own “moribund” fiscal strategy which has “led to public borrowing bursting out of its intended constraints”.  Discontent brews around George Osborne and his “sidekick” Steve Hilton:

As the Chancellor’s reputation as a strategist has collapsed, his reliance on a young sidekick to run the Treasury has fuelled charges of arrogance and complacency. They are seen as a double act, obsessed with political machination and uninformed about life on the front line of austerity. One senior Lib Dem aide is caustic: “They don’t know any normal people. They don’t know anyone who has claimed benefits."

Liberal Democrats have an obvious reason for presenting Osborne in such callous terms. They hope to fight an election as the guarantors of kind-heartedness in the coalition. However, that ulterior motive doesn’t mean the attack lacks resonance.


Sophie Elmhirst: The unquiet mind of Hilary Mantel

In the week’s NS Profile, Sophie Elmhirst meets the author Hilary Mantel at her home in Devon. Mantel’s novel Bring Up The Bodies is shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, an award she already took home in 2009 for the first instalment of her Tutor trilogy Wolf Hall.  

Mantel speaks candidly about her life, her writing and her battles with physical ill health. Of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, she says, “it was a book in which I felt instantly at home. I felt I’d been waiting all my writing life to get there.”

Though some readers were put off by the book’s style and found its narrative voice confusing, Mantel decided against simplifying her writing, saying, “You simply cannot run remedial classes for people on the page”. Although she knows she will lose readers, she doesn’t mind:

It makes me think that some readers read a book as if it were an instruction manual, expecting to understand everything first time, but of course when you write, you put into every sentence an overflow of meaning, and you create in every sentence as many resonances and double meanings and ambiguities as you can possibly pack in there, so that people can read it again and get something new each time.

And what if she hadn’t become a writer? She says, she:

 ...would just have suppressed that part of my personality. I think I would have put it in a box that I never opened. I’m not sure I would have been happy doing that. Sometimes people ask, does writing make you happy? But I think that’s beside the point. It makes you agitated, and continually in a state where you’re off balance. You seldom feel serene or settled. You’re like the person in the fairy tale The Red Shoes: you’ve just got to dance and dance, you’re never in equilibrium. I don’t think writing makes you happy, not that you asked that question, I’m asking myself. I think it makes for a life that by its very nature has to be unstable, and if it ever became stable, you’d be finished.

In The Critics

In the Critics this week, our lead book reviewer John Gray considers a new collection of interviews with the novelist J G Ballard. The conversations gathered in this book remind us, Gray concludes, that “Ballard’s stories are metaphors, not literal renditions of events – actual or realistically possible … [They are] creations of the imagination that expand our sense of possibility and affirm the renewal of life.”

In the Books interview, Rachel Haliburton talks to A N Wilson about his new novel The Potter’s Hand, based on the life of Josiah Wedgwood. Wilson’s father was a director of the Wedgwood pottery firm and he tells Haliburton that the novel “did come from a deep part of myself. So in that sense, it was very easy to write.”

Also in Books, novelist Margaret Drabble reviews J K Rowling’s first work of fiction for adults, The Casual Vacancy ;Helen Lewis on Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre ; Rebecca Abrams on The City of Abraham by Edward Platt ; Hans Kundnani reviews Gunter Grass’s diary of the year 1990, From Germany to Germany ; PLUS: the NS’s lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson assesses the shortlist for this year’s Man Book Prize.

Our Critic at Large this week is the Russian-born American writer and co-editor of n+1 magazine Keith Gessen. Gessen writes about the friendship between Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, which was the laboratory for Amis’s debut novel Lucky Jim, published in 1954.

Elsewhere: Rachel Cooke praises “Best Possible Taste”, the BBC’s Kenny Everett biopic, Ryan Gilbey reviews “Taken 2”, in which Liam Neeson confirms his transformation into an action hero, and Will Self talks bowel movements and wheat-free sausages in Real Meals.

 

Elsewhere in the magazine

 

  • Dan Hodges on a good speech by Ed Miliband
  • Samira Shackle on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws
  • Jonathan Derbyshire on Eric Hobsbawm.

 

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.