How to rally the Tory troops

Michael Gove didn't deliver a speech, so much as a series of "dog whistles".

When, three months ago, an Ipsos MORI poll for the Observer put the gap between the two main parties at just 6 per cent -- in contrast to the more common double-digit Tory lead -- it was seen as an outlier at best, a freak by most. But now, in the course of seven days, we've seen successive polls showing the Tory lead down to 6, 5 and today -- startlingly -- just 2 points.

The Sunday Times/YouGov poll is the talk of the Conservative party spring conference here in Brighton. Or rather, it's the hushed whisper. Every few yards delegates gather in twos and threes to discuss it; stoicism combines with fatalism and fear. Meanwhile, a BBC crew is barging around a Metropole antechamber "vox popping" on the same subject.

Through into the hall, the atmosphere is subdued (so far). Shadow cabinet ministers take turns to warm up the frigid hall before Dave's appearance: it's a tougher than expected gig for many.

Not for Michael Gove, however, who's got the measure of his audience. The shadow schools secretary doesn't deliver a speech, so much as a series of "dog whistles". Although he summed up his speech, and Tory education policy, as "social justice combined with hard Conservative common sense", it would be more accurate to précis it thus: "Discipline, authority: hurrah. Human Rights Act, health and safety, thugs and Ed Balls: boo hiss!"

Nor did he forget to deploy the "five more years of Gordon Brown" line you will hear a dozen times a day once the official campaign kicks off. And he threw in the spectre of "five more years of Ed Balls" for good measure.

This is an audience that loves to hate a pantomime villain, perfect to take minds off the front page of the Sunday Times. For a while at least.

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Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

Grant Shapps on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty
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Grant Shapps resigns over Tory youth wing bullying scandal

The minister, formerly party chairman, has resigned over allegations of bullying and blackmail made against a Tory activist. 

Grant Shapps, who was a key figure in the Tory general election campaign, has resigned following allegations about a bullying scandal among Conservative activists.

Shapps was formerly party chairman, but was demoted to international development minister after May. His formal statement is expected shortly.

The resignation follows lurid claims about bullying and blackmail among Tory activists. One, Mark Clarke, has been accused of putting pressure on a fellow activist who complained about his behaviour to withdraw the allegation. The complainant, Elliot Johnson, later killed himself.

The junior Treasury minister Robert Halfon also revealed that he had an affair with a young activist after being warned that Clarke planned to blackmail him over the relationship. Former Tory chair Sayeedi Warsi says that she was targeted by Clarke on Twitter, where he tried to portray her as an anti-semite. 

Shapps appointed Mark Clarke to run RoadTrip 2015, where young Tory activists toured key marginals on a bus before the general election. 

Today, the Guardian published an emotional interview with the parents of 21-year-old Elliot Johnson, the activist who killed himself, in which they called for Shapps to consider his position. Ray Johnson also spoke to BBC's Newsnight:


The Johnson family claimed that Shapps and co-chair Andrew Feldman had failed to act on complaints made against Clarke. Feldman says he did not hear of the bullying claims until August. 

Asked about the case at a conference in Malta, David Cameron pointedly refused to offer Shapps his full backing, saying a statement would be released. “I think it is important that on the tragic case that took place that the coroner’s inquiry is allowed to proceed properly," he added. “I feel deeply for his parents, It is an appalling loss to suffer and that is why it is so important there is a proper coroner’s inquiry. In terms of what the Conservative party should do, there should be and there is a proper inquiry that asks all the questions as people come forward. That will take place. It is a tragic loss of a talented young life and it is not something any parent should go through and I feel for them deeply.” 

Mark Clarke denies any wrongdoing.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.