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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Keir Starmer MP: Choosing ideological purity before power is a dereliction of duty

The former director of public prosecutions believes getting involved with Brexit negotiations is crucial. 

 

Three weeks after Brexit, Keir Starmer held a public meeting in his London constituency of Holborn and St Pancras. “We had hundreds turning up,” he remembered. “The town hall was absolutely packed - it was standing room only and we had to turn people away. We haven’t had a public meeting of that size for some time.”

When it comes to Brexit, Starmer is an obvious Labour asset. Director of public prosecutions from 2008 to 2013, he has the legal background to properly scrutinise an EU deal. His time spent as a shadow immigration minister means he understands some of the thorniest problems facing negotiators.

But instead, the MP finds himself on the shadow back benches.

“My decision to resign was driven by Jeremy’s decision on the referendum,” he told The Staggers. “I was particularly troubled by his suggestion that we should invoke Article 50 straight away, and start the exit process [Corbyn has since backtracked on this suggestion]. 

“That is not for me a question of left-right politics. When he said that, I felt he was in fundamentally a different place from me in terms of how we fight for the future of our country.”

Starmer is not a man to enjoy life in opposition, and he has little time for airy promises. “Jeremy talks of dealing with inequality and housing projects, and a fairer society - all of which I would agree,” he said. “What I haven’t seen is the emergence of detailed policy that would get us to these places.”

He also gives purists in the party short shrift. “I would reject wholeheartedly any notion of a Labour Party that is not committed to returning to power at the first opportunity,” he said. “Of course that needs to be principled power. But standing on the sidelines looking for the purest ideology is a dereliction of the duty for any Labour member.”

Starmer believes Labour should be joining Scottish and Northern Irish leaders in trying to influence Brexit negotiations. He sees the time before invoking Article 50, the EU exit button, as crucial. 

Nevertheless, the man named after the Scottish founder of Labour, Keir Hardie, is pessimistic about the future of the UK. 

“It is going to be increasingly difficult to resist a further referendum in Scotland,” he said. “It will be increasingly difficult to keep Scotland as a part of the UK. I hope that doesn’t happen, but everyone knows David Cameron has put that at risk.”

Starmer may be a London MP, but he follows events in the rest of the country closely. While still in his shadow cabinet post, he embarked on a countrywide tour to learn more about attitudes to immigration.  

He condemns the increase in racist attacks post-Brexit as “despicable”, but insists there is “a world of difference” between these and genuine concerns about resources. “If you lose your job because there has been an influx of labour from another country, that is a legitimate cause for concern.”

He is equally scathing about the Government’s net migration cap. “If immigration is simply seen as a numbers game, nobody will ever win that debate,” he said. “The question should be: what is it we want to achieve?

“What do we expect of those who are arriving? What is the basic deal?”

In January, Starmer visited the informal camps in Calais and Dunkirk. “What I saw in Calais was appalling,” he said. “It is an hour from London. 

“To see families and children in freezing, squalid conditions without any real hope of a positive outcome was enough to make anybody think: ‘This is not the way to solve the refugee crisis.’”

The new PM, Theresa May, built her reputation on a rigid asylum policy, but Starmer believes a strong opposition can still force change. “If you take the Syrian resettlement scheme, that started life as a scheme for victims of sexual violence,” he said. “When pushed, it became a scheme for 20,000 Syrians but not if they reached Europe. When pushed, the Government accepted the case for some unaccompanied children in Europe to come to this country. 

“Labour needs to keep pushing.”

For now, though, Labour is divided. Starmer has been tipped as a future leader before, in 2015, but declined to run because of a lack of political experience. One year and a Brexit on, he certainly has some of that under his belt. But he rules himself out of the current leadership challenge: “I am 100 per cent behind Owen.” What will he do if Jeremy Corbyn wins? “Let’s cross each bridge when we come to it.”

Starmer is clear, though, that Labour can only win an election if it comes up with a more ambitious project, an economy with purpose. And the Brexit negotiations provide an opportunity. “We have to ask ourselves,” he said. “Do we simply want a series of trade agreements, the more the merrier? Or do we want deals that achieve certain ends? It is a moment to recast the future.”