What's behind the Adam Afriyie "stalking horse" plot?

The MP for Windsor is being touted as a challenger to David Cameron. Why him - and why now?

Adam Afriyie, the 47-year-old Tory MP for Windsor, is not a household name.

But he's made two Sunday newspaper front pages today - the Sunday Times had "Black MP is hot tip to be the next Tory leader", while the Mail on Sunday splashed on "Stalking horse plot to oust PM".

As a potential Tory leadership candidate, Afriyie has a lot to recommend him. His personal story - born to a Ghanian father and a white English mother in Peckham, made a fortune in IT, became the Tories' first black MP in 2005, refuses to claim his second home allowance - is a compelling one for those who feel that David Cameron seems too "privileged" to connect with ordinary voters and that the whole political establishment is seen as too cosy and corrupt.

But what does this plot really amount to? The MoS is keen to note that Afriyie is being lined up "should a rumoured backbench revolt force the Prime Minister to resign". It adds:

Changes in Tory Party rules mean rebels cannot use the ‘stalking horse’ tactics used to topple Margaret Thatcher by getting a backbencher to strike the first blow and trigger a full contest. Under revised rules, 46 Tory MPs must demand a vote of no confidence in the leader. 

Given that David Cameron has just enjoyed a poll bounce - and a renewed surge of affection from his Eurosceptic backbenches - by promising an EU referendum if he wins the next election, that demand seems unlikely to come in the near-future.

Indeed, Isabel Hardman reports at the Spectator that "one backbencher suggested to me last week that the EU speech wouldn’t just keep Cameron safe until 2015, it would give local parties some security over other issues, too".

The political team at the Telegraph - which did not run the story - are also downplaying the idea of a leadership challenge. Deputy Editor Ben Brogan tweeted that "these plots will come to nothing". All in all, the weekend after Cameron has made his long-delayed, backbench-appeasing Europe speech seems just about the worst time to try to stir dissent.

So what's behind the supposed Afriyie challenge? It seems that either his quoted "friends" have mishandled the whole affair, or the Sunday papers have dramatically overstated a few grumblings in the tea room.

Either way, it's unlikely to cost David Cameron too much sleep. 

Update, 16.38 The BBC reports that Afriyie says there is "no truth to any of it" and he is "100% loyal" to David Cameron. He told Sky News he nearly "choked on his cereal" when he read the papers earlier today. 

Adam Afriyie. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.