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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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.