Why "badly wounded" Fox remains a problem for Cameron

Tory backbenchers hope ex-Defence Secretary will help fight Liberal Democrat "nonsense".

One of the reasons it was said that David Cameron was reluctant to get rid of Liam Fox -- even when the weight of evidence was stacked against the now ex-Defence Secretary -- was a fear that Fox could cause trouble on the backbenches. A standard bearer of the party's right -- "the most influential Thatcherite in the Government", in the words of this morning's Telegraph -- Fox could provide the leadership disgruntled Tories crave.

Will he?

Nick Robinson, the BBC Political Editor, told the Today Programme this morning that he thought that was unlikely because Fox has been "quite badly wounded" by the events of the past week. That's true and there will be further embarrassment when the results of Gus O'Donnell's inquiry into the Adam Werritty affair are published early next week -- but wounds heal and Fox may yet offer a rallying point around which the Tory right can gather.

That's certainly the hope of Peter Bone, MP for Wellingborough and an influential member of the backbench 1922 Committee.

Speaking just before Robinson on Radio 4, Bone said that the "silver lining" of Fox's exit is that the Tory backbenches had got stronger. Fox, he said, would help "move the coalition government in a certain direction". Asked to define that direction he said:

Unfortunately because of the coalition government Conservative policies are being held back and the Prime Minister has his arms tied behind his back half the time by the Liberals . . . I'm there to help [Cameron] by pushing the government towards Conservative policies and stop some of the Liberal nonsense we have.

He clearly believes Fox will be there to support him in this endeavour.

(Bone has form when it comes to taking on the Prime Minister, or "helping" him as he suggests here. When, in May 2010, Cameron tried to reform the 1922 Committee by allowing frontbench involvement, Bone led the very personal charge against the new Prime Minister. "You wouldn't get away with that in an African state," he said of the proposal. When 118 backbenchers rebelled, Cameron backed down -- it was his first U-turn coming just 14 days after he entered number 10.)

Back to today's Telegraph editorial:

Thatcherite Tories already felt under-represented in a Government led by a Macmillanite Old Etonian; Mr Cameron must be careful that, with Dr Fox on the back benches, this wing of his party does not become even more isolated.

The paragraph ends:

Equally, Dr Fox should have the good sense and the good grace to support the Coalition and not allow himself to become a focal point for Tory discontent.

It will be interesting see which Liam Fox re-emerges in a few months time.

A couple of months before last year's election, the New Statesman listed the ten people on the right Cameron should fear. Number five on that list was Fox. We wrote:

Though it is unlikely he will overtly undermine Cameron while remaining on the front bench, Fox sees himself as a possible future leader, and would certainly stand next time there is a vacancy. In the meantime, he is a danger to the party's leadership because he will seek to pull it further to the right.

Incidentally, Ladbrokes is offering 25/1 on the former Defence Secretary becoming the next prime minister.

 

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Labour's purge: how it works, and what it means

The total number of people removed will be small - but the rancour will linger. 

Labour has just kicked off its first big wave of expulsions, purging many voters from the party’s leadership rolls. Twitter is ablaze with activists who believe they have been kicked out because they are supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. There are, I'm told, more expulsions to come - what's going on?  Is Labour purging its rolls of Corbyn supporters?

The short answer is “No”.

If that opener feels familiar, it should: I wrote it last year, when the last set of purges kicked off, and may end up using it again next year. Labour has stringent rules about expressing support for other candidates and membership of other parties, which account for the bulk of the expulsions. It also has a code of conduct on abusive language which is also thinning the rolls, with supporters of both candidates being kicked off. 

Although the party is in significantly better financial shape than last year, it still is running a skeleton staff and is recovering from an expensive contest (in this case, to keep Britain in the European Union). The compliance unit itself remains small, so once again people from across the party staff have been dragooned in.

The process this year is pretty much the same: Labour party headquarters doesn’t have any bespoke software to match its voters against a long list of candidates in local elections, compiled last year and added to the list of candidates that stood against Labour in the 2016 local and devolved elections, plus a large backlog of complaints from activists.

It’s that backlog that is behind many of the highest-profile and most controversial examples. Last year, in one complaint that was not upheld, a local member was reported to the Compliance Unit for their failure to attend their local party’s annual barbecue. The mood in Labour, in the country and at Westminster, is significantly more bitter this summer than last and the complaints more personal. Ronnie Draper, the general secretary of the Bfawu, the bakers’ union, one of Corbyn’s biggest supporters in the trade union movement, has been expelled, reported for tweets which included the use of the word “traitors” to refer to Labour opponents of Corbyn.  Jon Will Chambers, former bag carrier to Stella Creasy, and a vocal Corbyn critic on Twitter, has been kicked out for using a “Theresa May” twibbon to indicate his preference for May over Andrea Leadsom, in contravention of the party’s rules.

Both activities breach the letter of the party’s rules although you can (and people will) make good arguments against empowering other people to comb through the social media profiles of their opponents for reasons to dob them in.  (In both cases, I wouldn’t be shocked if both complaints were struck down on appeal)

I would be frankly astonished if Corbyn’s margin of victory – or defeat, as unlikely as that remains in my view – isn’t significantly bigger than the number of people who are barred from voting, which will include supporters of both candidates, as well as a number of duplicates (some people who paid £25 were in fact members before the freeze date, others are affliated trade unionists, and so on). 

What is unarguably more significant, as one party staffer reflected is, “the complaints are nastier now [than last year]”. More and more of the messages to compliance are firmly in what you might call “the barbecue category” – they are obviously groundless and based on personal animosity. That doesn’t feel like the basis of a party that is ready to unite at any level. Publicly and privately, most people are still talking down the chances of a split. It may prove impossible to avoid.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.