Was Adam Afriyie stitched up as a warning to other would-be Tory rebels?

Tory MPs are in no hurry to dismiss the possibility that Downing Street leaked the story to expose a small rebel cell early in its development.

There is no chance of Adam Afriyie, the Conservative MP for Windsor, leading his party this side of a general election. There wasn’t much chance of him ever leading it before yesterday’s papers reported a nascent plot to line him up as David Cameron’s successor/usurper. Now that the plot’s bolt is prematurely shot that chance has shrunk to somewhere in the region of zilch.

So what is going on? As I wrote in my column last week, there is no shortage of resentment against Cameron in the Tory party. The underlying causes of that seething unrest have not gone away despite a burst of loyal exuberance following the promise of a referendum on Britain’s European Union membership.

There is a small and noisy cohort of Conservative MPs – I call them The Implacables – who are effectively in opposition already. They seem to want to accelerate the party’s defeat in the next election in order to provoke a crisis that would engulf the whole Cameroon “modernising” enterprise. They might then seize control and steer the Tories towards what they see as a more authentic Conservative agenda. In this respect, The Tory Implacables are to the right what Bennite ultras once were to Labour and the left – chasing ideological purity over electability and hating moderates on their own side with more vigour and passion than they hate the party opposite. They seem to relish the purgative potential of a leadership meltdown.

Even so, it seems unlikely any subscriber to that tendency would be so inept as to brief a couple of Sunday newspapers about their plans to unseat the Prime Minister and replace him with an MP of whom no-one outside Westminster (or his own constituency) has heard. If there was any kind of movement behind Adam Afriyie, I very much doubt it wanted its manoeuvres splashed all over the Mail on Sunday; still less at the end of a week when the Tory party was trying to make a big show of loyalty and was revelling in the perceived triumph of Cameron’s Big Europe Speech ™.

The net effect of the publicity was to make the plotters look like a small, ridiculous fanatical sect and to invite opprobrium from the overwhelming majority of Tories, which was I suspect the purpose of placing those stories in the papers. The source was, in other words, not Afriyie’s "friends" but quite the opposite. It was a device to expose a small rebel cell early on in its development and at a time when the Prime Minister is strong in order to stifle it and flush out any sympathisers. Perhaps that sounds like an over-elaborate conspiracy theory. Cock-up and ineptitude are usually the safest explanation for any rash-looking action in politics. Still, Tories I have spoken to today are in no hurry to dismiss the possibility that Afriyie’s head has, metaphorically speaking, been stuck on a spike outside Downing Street as a warning to others.

Update: I notice Peter Oborne is picking up much the same vibe.

Adam Afriyie, the Conservative MP for Windsor, was reported to be plotting to succeed David Cameron if the Conservatives are defeated in 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.