London calling the shots

London Labour has been buoyed by election results thought impossible a year ago.

So, the one definite thing in what happens next is that Gordon Brown won't be a part of Labour's future.

The other certainty is the release of the grip that Scottish politicos have had over the Labour Party -- and British politics by default.

Power fills a vacuum, and that hole has already been filled by Labour London, which has created a formidable fighting machine and is buoyed by election results thought impossible a year ago. It is the kingmaker that will decide if David Miliband will take over.

The political map of the capital now has a solid core of red. It controls eight more Labour councils, having gained more than 180 councillors. Westminster seats were secured despite Ashcroft cash; the party held Hammersmith -- home of the Conservative easyCouncil project -- plus Westminster North and Tooting. And it won the marginals of Harrow North and Enfield.

The BNP and Respect were seen off by what Tessa Jowell called "highly targeted campaigns", run by disciplined and focused teams which get the job done with little fuss.

And now the area organisers are looking for both blood and payback. Labour central had already been told that Brown was no longer an asset. "This makes it easier to put the knives in," was the reaction by one activist to the PM's statement.

What is not generally known is that a team within London Labour -- including senior MPs from the capital -- had quietly opened negotiations with the Liberal Democrats over power-sharing months ahead of the election to lay the groundwork for a deal.

Ed Balls is out of favour (too close to Brown), but David Miliband cannot take support as a given: London members long ago tired of being taken advantage of.

The local party's intense focus is now on the city's mayoral race, which it believes is for the taking with a decent "non-Ken" candidate.

"Oona [King] is a possible, but she's got a life outside politics and needs some convincing," said one Hackney activist.

London Labour is confident it can turn a possible bid by Boris Johnson for David Cameron's job into a chicken run -- and the Tories are seriously worried by the Labour turnout.

One Tower Hamlets member reflected on Winston Churchill's wartime coalition as its 60th anniversary fell this week: "This is not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. We're just getting started; it's time one or two in the party sat up and took notice."

Chris Smith is news editor for the MJ and a former lobby correspondent. A specialist on UK government at all levels, he has written for the Guardian, the Times, Sunday Times, the Channel 4 News election FactCheck, Auto Express, HSJ and ePolitix.com.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.