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.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories