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. 

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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

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