Crystal-ball gazing No 4010

<em>Set by John O'Byrne</em>

"For me 2007 has been the year of the historians," wrote <strong>Dav

Report by Ms de Meaner

A bumper postbag! But what can it mean that so many of you had Gordon commit suicide in 2008? Couldn’t you have got him out of the way by gentler means? I was amazed, too, by the number who sent in handwritten entries and by how many have almost identical handwriting (Mike Mason, Alan Griffin, G Johnson, Harry Glenister). I suspect no plot – perhaps compers just naturally write alike. £20 to the three winners. Tesco vouchers go to the overall winner, Michael Cregan.

Is there anybody out there?

Hello? Hello? Can anybody hear me? I’m all alone and the needle keeps flickering . . . If anyone’s listening, you already know . . . January, there were floods through Europe. February, the Conference on Climate Change said it would report in due course. March and April, major US cities destroyed by lightning storms . . . hello? . . . hello? May and June, drought as far north as Baffin Bay. July, Conference on Climate Change said deliberations were continuing. August, hurricanes destroyed Scandinavia. September, a giant wave submerged Australia. October, Conference on Climate Change reported satisfactory progress. November, 300mph winds swept away the Conference on Climate Change. December, the world was covered in a mile-high ice sheet . . . Hello?

Michael Cregan

Dirty washing at the White House

The election of a 19-year-old student, Bilawal Zardari Bhutto, in Pakistan was a refreshing change to the political scene. Zardari’s initial tendency to fail to attend debates was resolved by switching these to the late afternoon. Pakistan’s ambivalent relations with the US improved once Zardari stopped arriving at the White House with bags of washing, pleading with the new incumbent for loans to see him through to the end of term, inviting friends to stay at summit conferences, leaving pizza cartons, potato wedges and open tins of beans lying around the Oval Office, and generally “treating Camp David like a goddam hotel”.

David Silverman

Compulsory churchgoing

The collapse of the Virgin Group early in 2008 meant that the government had to raise income tax to pay off its debts. The Daily Express published a photo of Madeleine McCann riding Shergar, but this failed to divert attention from revelations that the Labour Party had received donations from the Bin Laden family. Gordon Brown became the first British prime minister to commit suicide while in office. His successor, Ruth Kelly, broadened the base of her government by giving senior ministerial posts to Davina McCall and Jeremy Clarkson. She made contraception illegal and church attendance compulsory, but a major speech in which she declared that God would take care of climate change was overshadowed by the disappearance of Southampton beneath rising sea levels.

Ian Birchall

No 4013 Simmer a chimera

Set by Hank T Romein

We want a poem in honour of Vincent Cable (who pronounces awry to rhyme with Tory), with the rhyme-words showing similar misunderstanding of how they should be spoken, eg, misled rhyming with fizzled, etc.

Max 16 lines by 31 January


This article first appeared in the 21 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Art is the new activism

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide