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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.