The numbers that show Tories really weren’t trying in Oldham

Conservatives spend less than 40 per cent of by-election limit.

Just under a month before the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election, David Cameron told a Brussels press conference that he wished his Lib Dem coalition partners well in the forthcoming poll. To quote:

Obviously, in a coalition, you always wish your partners well. I think the coalition has worked extremely well. All I would say is, the context of the by-election is the MP elected at the election has been found in court to have told complete untruths about his opponent.

I think that is an extremely important context. In that context, we wish our partners well. They had an extremely tough time. All the unfairnesses and untruths about their candidate – he's now been exonerated. So of course I wish them well.

We'll be patrolling the same streets and fighting for the same votes. But I hope that will be done in a slightly more friendly manner than it has in the past.

On the eve of polling, by contrast, the Tory candidate in that by-election insisted he and his party had put everything into the campaign. Kashif Ali told politics.co.uk:

This suggestion that we're running a soft campaign is a complete nonsense. There's no truth in it.

And in the wake of a disappointing showing on 13 January that saw the Tory share of the vote drop from 26.4 per cent at the general election to 12.8 per cent (which still did not facilitate a Lib Dem win), senior members of the party insisted that they had given it all they had. One of them was the Tory co-chairman Baroness Warsi, who told the BBC:

It was resourced properly. We had volunteers on the ground. We had professionals on the ground. We had a great local candidate.

But now suspicions that in fact the Tories weren't really trying appear to have some numerical backing. According to figures disclosed to Newsnight's Michael Crick by Oldham Council, the Conservatives spent less than half both Labour and the Lib Dems during the campaign. Indeed, the party spent £4,000 less than Ukip. The breakdown is as follows:

Conservatives: £39,432
Labour: £97,085
Liberal Democrat: £94,540
Ukip: £43,855

As Crick points out, "the Conservatives spent less than 40 per cent of what they were legally entitled to". And as James Forsyth notes over on the Spectator's Coffee House tonight:

These figures show just how absurd it was for the Tories to claim that they were fighting a normal-style by-election campaign. There was clearly a deliberate decision to go easy in the seat to give the Liberal Democrat candidate the best chance possible. Those, like Baroness Warsi, who hotly denied this charge look rather silly this evening.

It seems Cameron's initial sentiment was closest to the mark, after all.

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

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.