Why Cameron must withdraw the whip from Chris Heaton-Harris

The Prime Minister cannot allow Conservative MPs to support rival candidates without consequences.

If there is one cardinal sin in any political party's rulebook, it is campaigning for a rival candidate in an election. Yet that is what Tory MP Chris Heaton-Harris, the party's campaign manager in Corby, has done.

Undercover footage obtained by Greenpeace (reported in today's Guardian) reveals that Heaton-Harris encouraged Telegraph blogger James Delingpole to stand as an anti-wind farm candidate in the byelection in Louise Mensch's former constituency and provided him with a "handful of people" to run his campaign.

He told film-maker Chris Atkins, who posed as a representative of a fictional lobby group called Windefensible, "There's a bit of strategy behind what's going on. I'm running the Corby byelection for the Tories … And Delingpole, who is my constituent, and a very good friend [inaudible] put his head above the parapet, but won't put his deposit down … It's just part of the plan."

He added: "I've managed to provide [Delingpole] with a handful of people who will sort him out. So my deputy chairman, political, resigned from my local party and is running his campaign as his agent. So it's all professionally done. The whole point of that is to actually just put it on the agenda."

It is clear that "the plan" was to use Delingpole's candidacy to shift government policy on wind farms, primarily through the energy minister, John Hayes. Heaton-Harris said: "Next week hopefully John Hayes, James Delingpole and I will have a meeting somewhere."

Delingpole eventually withdrew from the race after Hayes declared in an interview with the Daily Mail that "we can no longer have wind turbines imposed on communities." The plan, it appeared, had worked. In the film, Heaton-Harris is shown saying:"Delingpole can go and endorse the Ukip candidate, don't give a toss about that. Maybe we've just moved the agenda on."

The MP has responded to the story by insisting that he is not guilty of supporting a rival candidate since, because Delingpole never paid a deposit, he never technically joined the race. But only a fool would accept such pedantry. At a time when he should have been putting all his effort into supporting the Conservative candidate, Christine Emmett, in a seat that the Tories stand to lose to Labour, Heaton-Harris arranged for Tory staffers to be seconded to Delingpole's campaign as a part of a crusade against wind farms (thus contravening the government's policy).

Last week, the Conservative whip was rightly suspended from Nadine Dorries after she chose to abandon her parliamentary duties in favour of appearing on I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here! If David Cameron retains any self-respect, similar action must now be taken against Heaton-Harris. The Prime Minister owes it to those who, whatever their misgivings over coalition policy, loyally support the Conservative candidate to punish those who do not. He must kill the Tories' Militant Tendency at birth.

Tory MP Chris Heaton-Harris supported anti-wind farm campaigner James Delingpole in the Corby byelection. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

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