Eastleigh shows why the Tories will struggle to avoid defeat in 2015

If the Lib Dems benefit from an incumbency factor and UKIP splits the right-wing vote, the Tories will be the big losers.

Nigel Farage is crowing about the Conservatives "splitting the UKIP vote", while the Lib Dems brag, "if the Tories can't beat us now, when can they?" Last night was not a good one for David Cameron. One should always be wary of extrapolating from by-elections, which are a famously poor predictor of general elections, but with this proviso, there are two reasons why Eastleigh bodes ill for the Tories' prospects of victory.

The first is that it suggests the Lib Dems will benefit from an incumbency factor in 2015. In those seats where the party is well organised and where it can appeal for tactical votes from Labour supporters, it can still win. This is largely a problem for the Tories, who are in second place in 38 of the Lib Dems' 57 seats, and whose hopes of a majority rest on taking as many as 20 seats off Clegg's party. Eastleigh suggests it will be much harder to dislodge "the yellow bastards" (as the Tories affectionately refer to their coalition partners) than they hoped.

To add to the Tories' woes, the likely collapse in the Lib Dem vote elsewhere will work to Labour's advantage in Conservative-Labour marginals, as Corby demonstrated. If this patten is repeated at the general election, the Tories stand to lose dozens of seats - there are 37 Con-Lab marginals where the third place Lib Dem vote is more than twice the margin of victory.

The second reason why Eastleigh is so troubling for the Tories is that it shows the UKIP problem hasn't gone away. Those who predicted that Cameron's promise of an in/out EU referendum would do little to dilute the appeal of the "none of the above" party were right to do so. UKIP may yet fail to win a single seat at the next general election but it will almost certainly improve on the 3.1 per cent of the vote it attracted in 2010. Again, this is primarily a problem for the Tories, whose voters still account for a greater share of UKIP support than the Lib Dems' or Labour's. At the last election, there were 21 seats in which the UKIP vote exceeded the Labour majority. The prospect of a surge in this number is the main reason why some Conservatives are already urging Cameron to look again at the possibility of a Tory-UKIP pact, an option flatly dismissed by Michael Gove on the Today programme this morning.

Weary of the shackles of coalition, Tory MPs are desperate for evidence that they can achieve the majority that eluded them in 2010. But the resilience of the Lib Dems and the continuing division of the right means the Tories' chances of outright victory are looking slimmer than ever today.

David Cameron with the Conservative Eastleigh by-election candidate Maria Hutchings. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

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.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle