The Tories' "decapitation" strategy is likely to backfire

And why are the Tories so keen to oust Ed Balls if he would trigger a Labour civil war?

In the wake of the Lib Dem surge (which shows little sign of abating) it looks like the Tories have all but given up on certain seats. The party has decided to scale back its campaign against the Lib Dems and instead aggressively target up to 20 more Labour seats.

Here's what a senior Conservative strategist told the Telegraph: "As one door closes with the surge in Liberal Democrat support, so another door has opened with the collapse in Labour support." Another said: "We have completely ripped up our plans and changed strategy in order to keep up with the changing situation out there."

This approach is at least consistent with electoral reality. Recent polling in Lib Dem-Tory marginals suggests that Nick Clegg's party will keep almost all of the 23 Lib Dem seats David Cameron needs to win for a majority.

But the decision to adopt what amounts to a "decapitation" strategy, targeting cabinet heavyweights including Ed Balls (notional majority: 9,784), Jack Straw (notional majority: 8,016) and John Denham (notional majority: 8,484), looks like a misjudgement.

As the Lib Dems learnt to their cost in 2005, if you announce your targets in advance, you look rather foolish if you then fail to defeat them. The strategy may have the potential benefit of diverting Labour resources away from less prominent candidates but it's still a risky enterprise.

Meanwhile, in the case of Balls, who George Osborne flagged up as target in a recent campaign bulletin, i'm confused. Tories like Michael Gove never cease reminding us that Balls is a Brownite tribalist whose leadership ambitions could plunge Labour into civil war. So why, in this case, are they so keen to oust him?

 

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.