Reaction to Obama victory shows growing Tory confidence

Downing Street thinks this is may be their lowest point. And it isn't too low.

In case anyone missed the news that David Cameron was pleased to see his buddy Barack Obama re-elected, Downing Street released a photo of the Prime Minister chatting with the newly re-mandated Commander-in-Chief:

(It'’s a phone call, so you can only see Cameron and have to imagine Obama smiling affectionately at the thought of the future summits he'll spend in the company of his most essential strategic partner.)

The significance of the US election to the Cameron project has been heavily analysed and spun. (There are interesting pieces on the subject here, here and here. I also touch on it in this week'’s column here.)

In brief, the good news angle for the Tories is that an account of Obama’'s victory –- incumbent overseeing tricky economic repair job wins second term to complete task -– rehearses the campaign Cameron wants to run in 2015. The bad news angle is that Romney was ahead in opinion polls on measures of economic confidence but way behind in responses to the kind of “"understands people like me”" proposition that Cameron also struggles with.

Plus, the Republican image as overly concerned with the interests of rich white rich men is a hindrance that has certain resonance for the Tories. (Although that can be sold as good for Cameron, since it empowers him to slap his own right wing down a bit.)

In reality, the US election simply isn'’t that important to British politics. We obsess about it because American democracy is fascinating, it’'s a powerful country that matters to the rest of the world and the players have the courtesy to speak our language so it is accessible as spectator sport. 

One of the interesting things to observe in the UK aftermath of the poll is not the result itself but the licence it appears to have given top Tories to be visibly optimistic. The positive interpretation of Obama’'s win outlined above requires all sorts of caveats, not least the fact that Cameron might yet have to fight an election with an economy that has made people feel poorer, in which case a “let-me-finish-the-job” proposition rings pretty hollow. Yet the Conservative high command clearly feels it has turned some kind of corner.

That is certainly the impression I get from loyal MPs and ministers who, while wary of celebrating the emergence of green shoots, are ready to sound cautiously upbeat about both the economy and their prospects for victory in 2015. One factor informing that view is the feeling that Ed Miliband hasn’t capitalised on his relatively successful annual conference. They see no sign of momentum or surge of project-building energy –- no radiation of collective charisma –- from the Miliband camp.

Tories fully expect to lose next Thursday’'s Corby by-election, but even that doesn't seem to be getting them down. That is because they see most of their current woes as symptoms of a generic mid-term malaise and not necessarily irreversible structural weakness. 

Andrew Cooper, the Downing Street pollster, has a presentation that he gives to cheer MPs and party staffers up on this subject. It involves looking at long term trends in incumbent/opposition relations over time, with special attention paid to periods when the Tories are in power.

What tends to happen is that the party in office loses popularity, takes a real opinion poll pasting in the middle of the parliament, then recovers in the run-up to an election until it is within reach of victory. According to this analysis, the Tories are better off now than they were in the mid-80s. To make this model work you have to discount the period 1997-2005, when the Conservatives were behind in the polls almost constantly. That is explained away by claiming that Blair was a unique candidate, barely Labour at all in many traditional respects and the Tories were in a particularly dark place.

In other words, it was an anomalous time, whereas now normal cyclical service is resumed. The Conservatives are in power facing an untrusted and not entirely plausible Labour opposition. They are a bit behind –but who would expect anything else, especially given the economic circumstances. Arguably, they are nowhere near as far behind as they ought to be and there is plenty of time and capacity to bounce back. So, the pep talk goes, this is the bottom for the Tories and it isn’t all that low down.

Privately some senior Labour folk agree. One party strategist commented to me recently that “the Tories won'’t be losing much sleep over their poll ratings at the moment.”

Of course, this could all be wildly hubristic on Downing Street'’s side. There are plenty of public sector cuts yet to kick in which could suck demand out of the economy and produce gruesome social effects that reinforce the “nasty party” image. International economic turbulence is never far away. European divisions remain ruinous to the party’'s image as an effective force in government. The Tories’ well documented problems winning votes in the North and Scotland and among non-white communities haven’t gone away.

But Downing Street’'s hope is surely that a bit of confidence in the prospects for 2015 will promote discipline in the ranks and a virtuous cycle of unity and an aura of governing competence. (There is a solid core of MPs who remain implacably, viscerally hostile to Cameron but the appetite for harmony in the rest of the party is quite strong and impatience with the wreckers is growing.)

A steady spell of non-chaotic, half-way dynamic administration, coupled with positive GDP and unemployment indicators could see the situation quickly looking rosier for the Tories. More important, it would look bleaker for Labour, provoking another round of doubts in Miliband’'s capacity to animate an election-winning project and an explosion of disunity in the opposition ranks.

I don'’t say this is what will happen, just that it is a scenario the Tories think plausible and that allows them to feel upbeat enough to look at events across the Atlantic and put a quite fancifully positive spin on them. They may not know how to win, but they don’'t yet feel as if they are losing.

Barack Obama and David Cameron at Camp David earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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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.